Master of the Beat Sheet by Marilyn Brant
It's been over a year, but I still can't believe we lost the genius mind of Blake Snyder. It was far too soon... But even though he died so young, I personally owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude when it comes to novel-writing structure. I love reading about writing craft and have tons of reference books on the subject. But, until I came upon his Save the Cat! series (particularly Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies), I didn't have an outlining system for writing fiction that I trusted.
Blake's 15-point "Beat Sheet"? THAT I trust. And while I still have to do a lot of work in between each of those points (Friday Mornings at Nine took me a full 10 months of writing, even after I used the Beat Sheet...), I feel confident I won't go too far off track if I take time to address every step included on his sheet.
So, for those not familiar with it, you're asking how does it work, right? Well, Blake took a look at TONS of successful films and analyzed their structure. From that, he figured out the key stages of most movies/screenplays, named them (i.e., "Opening Image," "Theme Stated," etc.) and then showed the approximate page number where that stage would show up in a typical 110-page screenplay. An explanation of each of the 15 points is here in this Suite 101 interview with Blake, And on his website, there's a place for "tools" with excellent downloads, including a Beat Sheet you can use: http://www.blakesnyder.com/tools/.
What I decided to do, though, was to look up in one of Blake's books 2 movies that were as different as I could imagine and compare them structurally to show these stages in action. The films I chose were one of my all-time favorites in romantic comedy -- When Harry Met Sally -- and the popular Bruce Willis thriller -- Die Hard! In my opinion, both of these are excellent, well-structured stories. Even though they were written as screenplays instead of novels, I still learned a whole lot that was -- for me -- directly applicable to writing a book. At one point, I even went so far as to multiply the page numbers by 3 so I'd get a sense of where each stage would fall in a 330-page/100K-word novel ( i.e., If the "Catalyst" lands on page 12 of a screenplay, it should come in at approximately page 36 of my book).
Taking a look at just this first beat of the Beat Sheet -- the Opening Image -- it's page #1 of the script and the first scene of the film. In When Harry Met Sally, actors pretending to be "real" couples share with the camera how they met. Meanwhile, in Die Hard, a NYC cop is being advised by his seatmate on "how to survive traveling" as their airplane lands in LA. You can see how these well-known movies progress though every one of Blake's beats, right down to the "Final Image." Cool, huh?!
1. Opening Image (1): "Real" couples talking about how they met/A plane lands at LAX, and NYC gun-carrying cop Bruce Willis is being advised by a businessman onboard "how to survive traveling"
2. Theme Stated (5): Impossible for a man and woman to be friends/"Survival" is the theme and Bruce’s mission
3. Set-Up (1-10): We meet Harry and Sally--they’re totally different types--but they have to drive from Chicago to NYC together/The boss at Nakatomi Plaza wishes his employees a Merry Christmas, including Bonnie Bedelia’s character, who is on the verge of divorce from Bruce; Bruce explains to limo driver that his wife had a good job that turned into a great career, but now they’re unhappily bicoastal; Bruce and Bonnie get into a fight and a mystery truck arrives at the Plaza
4. Catalyst (12): They part in NYC saying "have a nice life"/A dozen robbers posing as terrorists lock down the building and crash the party
5. Debate (12-25): 5 years later, Harry sees Sally kissing boyfriend goodbye at airport and Harry is engaged to be married--they’re still REALLY different and decide they’re not at all right for each other/Alerted to the commotion, Bruce grabs his gun and begins to assess the situation--he is spotted by the bad guys
6. Break into Two (25): 5 years later, Harry is getting divorced and Sally has broken up with her boyfriend, they decide to try to become friends/Bruce is the "lone defender of the fort"--he tries to get the cops to help by pulling the fire alarm (they think it’s a hoax), but he soon realizes he’ll have to stop the bad guys alone
7. B Story (30): Harry and Sally’s 2 friends and their eventual love story--the friends talk about the film’s theme/An LAPD Sergeant arrives to check on fire alarm and gets involved--finally cops are on the way
8. Fun and Games (30-55): Harry and Sally hang out as friends--shopping, eating in the deli, talking, finding solace in each other’s company/Bruce is fighting bad guys, being chased, rolling down stairs, breaking necks, etc.
9. Midpoint (55): A New Year’s Eve party when they realize they’re falling for each other--they kiss as friends and try to set the other person up with their best buds/Using a bad guy’s walkie-talkie, Bruce contacts head baddie, who gets worried and asked his thieving crew how much longer it’ll take them to crack the safe
10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75): While out with Sally, Harry sees his ex-wife out with her new boyfriend, realizes his dating life is terrible and takes his anger out on Sally and their friends/Pressure builds with this new time clock; Bruce has an ally in the Sergeant, but Sergeant’s boss thinks Bruce is one of the bad guys; FBI arrives
11. All Is Lost (75): When Sally calls Harry because she finds out her ex is getting married, they make a mistake and fall into bed together--it’s the "death" of their friendship/Bad guy leader (pretending to be a civilian) and Bruce bump into each other, and bad guy learns Bruce is barefoot (a weakness)--tells baddies to shoot out the glass--bad guys get the detonators back
12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): Despite the joy of confessing their deed to their 2 friends (who are now a couple), Sally and Harry realize their error/Bruce laments he’s done all he can; Sergeant reveals via walkie-talkie that he made past mistakes too
13. Break into Three (85): They both decide to tell the other they made a mistake, hoping it’ll save their friendship/Bad guys open vault and get ready to escape, but when Bonnie is exposed as Bruce’s wife, she’s taken as a hostage; Bruce must save her
14. Finale (85-110): The A and B stories cross as Harry and Sally attend the wedding of their friends and they fight, but on this New Year’s Eve Harry races through NYC to tell Sally he loves her and they kiss/Bruce jumps into action to rescue hostages and rescue his wife, even without the help of the cops; he outsmarts and kills the bad guy then kisses his wife
15. Final Image (110): Harry and Sally finally tell the story of how they met/Bruce meets and hugs the Sergeant (who, in killing the final bad guy, is helped to get over his past mistake); Bruce takes his wife home
Hope some of you will find this helpful as you do your own novel plotting ;). Many thanks to Tina and the wonderful Seekers for inviting me visit today! Wishing you all a great week!
Marilyn Brant's debut novel, According to Jane, won the Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart® Award, a Single Titles' Reviewers' Choice Award and the Booksellers' Best Award for best single-title/mainstream novel. Her new novel, Friday Mornings at Nine, is a featured alternate selection in October 2010 for both the Doubleday Book Club and the Book-of-the-Month Club 2. She lives with her family in Chicago and is currently writing her third women's fiction book, due out in fall 2011, and trying to eat foods other than chocolate all day. Readers can visit her at www.marilynbrant.com.
Today Marilyn is giving away TWO ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) of Friday Mornings at Nine to two Seekerville visitors who post a comment. Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.