A Beginner’s Guide to Story Beats

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February 25, 2018
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March 11, 2018

A Beginner’s Guide to Story Beats

story beats

No matter whether you’re a pantser or an outliner, getting to know the rhythm of storytelling is crucial to providing your audience with a read they can’t put down. Story beats are a series of individual action points upon which you hang the structure of your story. The more familiar you are with the way a typical story “plays out” the more coherent and fluid your final product will be.

What’s a Typical Story Beat Outline?

One size does not fit all for most things in life, including writing. Story beats will differ based on genre, tone, and audience, but there are a few things that will (mostly) stay the same. They are:

Stories Have Three Acts

The three act structure is the mainstay of novel writing. It breaks your story down in the most general way possible. Act One is the set-up where, at the very least, we meet the protagonist and are treated to an inciting incident — an event that propels us into the action.

In Act Two, also called rising action, we become familiar with the protagonist and possibly other characters. He or she tries to solve whatever problem is created by the inciting incident, but at this point doesn’t have the skills to pull it off. Most character development occurs at this stage of writing.

Act Three is the resolution, which includes the high point of the novel: the climax. This Act features the protagonist and perhaps other characters solving their critical issue and coming away from it with a new sense of self.

Each Act Has Sub-Acts

There are subsections within the Acts that will help you pace your story. The ones I used are as follows:

ACT ONE:

  • 1. Introduce Hero
  • 2. Hero’s Problems
  • 3. Change of Direction

ACT TWO:

  • 4. Hero Explores New World
  • 5. There’s A Crisis in the New World
  • 6. Solution

ACT THREE:

  • 7. Impossible Victory
  • 8. Hero Finds Power
  • 9. Hero Fights and Wins

Remember: one size does NOT fit all, but it does fit MOST. You can modify subsections to fit your genre, but these are a fantastic starting point.

Story Beats: Down to the Nitty Gritty

Finally, the meat of your novel. Within the Acts and the Subsections are the Beats — literally, the beating heart of your story. I’m going to give you a quick outline of the beats I used and then provide links to several sites where you can browse and download a variety of templates to help you plan your own story.

Here were my story beats:

ACT ONE: 

  • 1. Introduce Hero
    • Introduction
    • Inciting Incident
    • Protagonist Reaction
  • 2. Hero’s Problems
    • Set up/Reaction
    • Conflict
    • Consequence
  • 3. Change of Direction
    • Set Up
    • Conflict (Plot Twist)
    • Resolution

ACT TWO:

  • 4. Hero Explores New World
    • Set Up – What’s Changed in Hero’s World?
    • Event/Conflict — The Hero Learns New Powers/Skills
    • Resolution – Should Include a Contrast with His Old World
  • 5. There’s A Crisis in the New World
    • Building Action (Set Up)
    • Conflict
    • Resolution (Usually a Reversal)
  • 6. Solution
    • Reaction (Set Up)
    • Action (Conflict)
    • Dedication (Resolution)

ACT THREE:

  • 7. Seemingly Impossible Victory
    • New Trials for Hero (Set Up)
    • Pinch (Event/Conflict that Makes Everything Worse)
    • Darkest Moment (Resolution)
  • 8. Hero Finds Power
    • Power Within (Set Up)
    • Action (Conflict)
    • Convergence of Characters (Resolution)
  • 9. Hero Fights and Wins
    • Battle (Set Up)
    • Climax (Conflict)
    • Finale (Resolution)

Sources for Story Beats Templates:

Save the Cat

A great template plus lots of books and movies’ beats broken down for you.

Good Summary of Save the Cat

This is a well-written, easy-to-understand breakdown of story parts

Jami Gold’s Basic Beat Sheet

Fantastic template you can copy or change.

Beat Sheet Calculator

Look at the sidebar for the calculator. Will help you estimate length of each beat.

Final Words

This should be enough to put you on the path to outlining (or at least thinking through) the rhythm of your novel. Remember, even pantsers should have an innate flow to their storytelling, so study these beats before you put fingers to keyboard!

Homework: Study the idea of story structure and beats. If you’re feeling up to it, begin your outline. 

Next Week: Writing a Scene!

 

See you on the next page!

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. William D. says:

    Great advice! “Pen the Sword: the universal plot skeleton of every story ever told” by Adron J. Smitley is also a fantastic book on how to plot your novel. Works for both Plotter and Pantser. Got it free with kindle unlimited. Blew my mind how easy it makes writing my novels. I highly recommend 🙂

    • Nikki Williams says:

      Thanks for that recommendation — you can never have enough good reference books in your writing library!

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