The Eight-Beat Plotting Method

Free Eight-Beat Story Structure Worksheets

Eight-Beat Story Structure 

I am a self-identified pantster, AKA, I like to write by the seat of my pants. Meaning I don’t like to plot first. Usually.

For years, I dreaded plotting. I would try it with a story here and there, but ultimately either end up getting so deep into my plot outline that it turned into a novel in itself, or I’d get bored and never write the actual story. The latter is something that tends to happen with me when I feel like all the details are already decided and there’s nothing left to surprise me later. I like to feel like I’m reading my novel as I write it.

That’s why I love the eight-beat plotting method. It’s a system adapted from the film industry that breaks the overall story into manageable sections. Each beat works like a peg that you hang the rest of your story off of. This system provides a basic framework around which you can develop the supporting scenes and details for your novel. The best part is that the entire outline can take less than a page, leaving plenty of room for adding detail as you go.

I’ve provided a free, eight-beat story structure worksheet. Below, I’ve divided it into sections and described each one.

Beat One: Status Quo and Inciting Incident
  • This is the start of your story
  • Here, you can hint at what dangers and problems are lurking ahead
  • The inciting incident is what throws out the balance and sets the plot in motion
  • The inciting incident usually comes at the end of beat sequence one
Beat Two: Predicament and Lock-In
  • Sets up the problem that will be central to the entire story
  • First hints at possible obstacles
  • At the end of this sequence, tension is established when the main character is locked-into the problem and propelled in a new direction to obtain their goal
Beat Three: First Obstacle and Stakes are Raised
  • The first major obstacle is introduced
  • Ways to solve the problem are starting to be eliminated
  • The goal is starting to seem less attainable
Beat Four: First Shift and Midpoint
  • A bigger obstacle is presented (rising action)
  • There is a shift that changes the entire direction of the story
  • This leads to the first culmination, which parallels the end outcome:
    • In some way, this is the main character’s first victory
    • For the first time, success seems like a possibility
Beat Five: It Hits the Fan
  • Internal and external forces mount to defeat the main character in their goal
    • Internal: Insecurities such as doubt, jealousy, and fear
    • External: Antagonists regroup for attack
  • Main character demonstrates their reaffirmed commitment to the goal
Beat Six: Black Moment
  • This is inverse of the end outcome
  •  The last idea to solve the problem is tried—and fails
  •  This is the Black Moment, the lowest point, all is lost
  •  The main character cannot see a way out
  •  The reader should not be able to see a way out of this situation either
  •  The immense consequences and stakes that have been building over the entire novel are not enough to force the main character to continue–they lose hope and give up
  •  Things somehow keep getting worse—right on into the first half of beat seven
Beat Seven: Second Shift and Climax
  • This is the second shift—something major happens that, again, changes the entire direction of the story
  • Tension is ramping up for the final showdown
  • The main character has gathered all their mental and physical resources to achieve their goal
  • At the climax, everything learned so far is used
  • If the character has fatal flaws, this is the time to show how they can triumph over their shortcomings
Beat Eight: The Resolution
  • At long last, balance is regained
  • However, this balance has been changed and developed by the cumulative events of the story
  • Whether or not there is a happy ending, the main character is, at least in some way, in a better place than when they began
Don’t forget: Download your free, eight-beat story structure worksheet. I’ve also included inside a bonus eight-beat storyboard template that you can use alongside.

 


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Storyboard Your Novel

Free Storyboard Templates from The Novel Plan

Why You Should Storyboard Your Novel

Storyboards are sequences of images that illustrate key actions within a narrative. From filmmakers to advertisers, creatives use storyboards to plan projects. Storyboarding allows teams to pitch and share ideas, sketching sequences that can be easily revised rather than costing thousands of dollars to make changes during post-production. As a writer, storyboards will help you save hours of editing time. When you sketch a scene, you are forced to think visually and spatially. This enables you to better understand each character’s perspective and will help you find alternative possibilities and direction you may have missed. Ultimately, a good storyboard will serve as a visual outline from which you can write your narrative.
But what if you can’t draw? Keep reading, and I’ll tell you why this isn’t as much of a problem as you may think.

How to Storyboard Your Novel

Think of your storyboard as a visual interpretation of your plot outline. Each panel can be altered or even completely removed from the final narrative. At this point, the plot is still likely to change as it grows. That’s why it’s crucial to sketch quickly—to avoid spending too much time on sequences that will be cut. A successful storyboard has just enough visual clues to convey physical space and emotion. You can even use stick figures if you’d like. This is a good option if you don’t have advanced drawing ability. Stick figures allow you to sketch scale and location quickly so that you can keep moving through the panels. The important thing is not the quality of your drawings, but that you are later able to interpret what you’ve drawn and translate that into words. Your storyboard is the guideline for your final project. It’s a tool that will help you establish plot points and decide what details and elements to focus on. If you’re able to look at your storyboard days later and still know what you meant, then it’s working.

 

Things to think about as you create your storyboard panels:

  1. What is the purpose of each scene? What key action is happening? For example, if your protagonist is driving and adjusts their rear-view mirror before seeing something strange in the backseat, show that action. Draw the mirror and what they see inside. If you focus on the important details in your storyboard, you’ll know exactly what to include when you write.
  2. What is the current emotional interaction between characters in each frame? If you don’t feel your sketches are doing this justice, you can always include notes in a description beneath each panel.
  3. If this were a movie, what would make you want to watch it? Even though you will be translating your storyboards into text, if nothing interesting happens in a scene, it’s going to be just as boring to read about as it is to look at–if not more so.
  4. Break it down to the beats. A plot beat is a screenwriting term for the points of action that drive the story. [Because X happened, Y happens.] You don’t have to draw every sequence in your entire novel. When still roughing-out the plot, it’s best to start broad and work your way in. Begin by creating an overall storyboard showing the relationship of the most important beats, the pivotal moments within your narrative. You can go back later and detail each scene.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to download your free storyboard templates.

 


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Writing Flashbacks

Title Graphic: The Abuse of Time: Writing Flashbacks
Writing Flashbacks: The Abuse of Time

Writing Flashbacks

Everyone loves a good story. No one likes to be ripped out of it when they’re enjoying it most. There are already plenty of distractions in everyday life—ringing phones, car alarms—you get the idea. The last thing a reader needs is for the story itself to be the distraction.

The big problem with flashbacks is that they disrupt the flow of time in narrative. They take the reader out of what is happening currently and throw them into the experience of something that happened in the past, a fate that’s already been decided. Unless the entire narrative occurs in one long flashback like in Titanic, the events happening inside the flashback are old news. The real story is in the present.

Not only is it jarring to switch back-and-forth to the past, but there can be little suspense in visiting flashbacks. Did you just see the main character’s dad baking cookies in the kitchen before the flashback? He obviously didn’t die in the car crash four years ago. There has to be some greater point you’re making inside the flashback—something that cannot be accomplished better in any other way.

Writing a flashback is like asking your readers to travel back in time with you. It’s quite the journey, so you’d better make it worthwhile. If you must use a flashback, make it interesting enough that it’s enjoyable to read, but make sure your present story is one readers will want to return to. There has to be continuity in the overall timeline of your story. It’s also important that both your present story and your flashback are crucial and captivating parts of the narrative. Otherwise, you have no business telling either of them. If the past ends up being more interesting than the present story, you need to look at where your focus is. Are you really telling the story that needs to be told? It’s possible that the real story—or an entire separate one—is waiting where you thought a simple flashback was.

Don’t be lazy with flashbacks. That is, don’t use them to reveal large chunks of a character’s backstory and motivation. If you decide to use flashbacks in your work, use the right details to transition smoothly from present to past. Flashbacks are memories. Think about what makes you remember something—a certain smell, a sound, an old artifact from your childhood. Use realistic triggers to soften the transition into the world of your character’s mind.

Only write flashbacks when they are the best way to show an important part of your story. Overusing flashbacks can confuse the overall sense of time and dislodge the reader from the narrative. If you choose to use multiple flashbacks, make sure you do it for a purpose. The well-known television show, Psych, used comedic flashbacks to the main character’s childhood at the start of each episode. This pattern established an expectation from the audience and made the flashback normal. Because this was the defined format for the show, the flashbacks did not seem jarring from the main narrative. They also tied directly into the events that would unfold later in the episode. This is an example of stylistically used flashbacks with purpose. Although this worked for the serialized television format, you will need to consider what is best for the flow of your novel.

One thing not to do is employ flashbacks as a means to help the reader remember something they have already seen. Not only does that repetition add nothing to the story, it shows disrespect for the audience’s memory. Readers who are truly interested in the story will pay attention. Don’t cater to an audience that doesn’t care. If you do, and you employ frequent flashbacks to previously shown events, you’ll risk boring your true audience. 

The main rule of flashbacks is this: If you can do it well and for a purpose, then do it. Otherwise, consider your other options.

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How to Create Authentic Characters

Motivation in Character Design
Motivation in Character Design

 

Last week, we talked about using the right details to convey meaning. I mentioned starting your novel with characters and weaving the plot between them. But how do you build those characters?

Character design can be one of the most creative, exciting parts of writing. It can also be the most challenging, or the most frustrating—especially if you would rather jump right into the story. It helps to structure your character definition process. Worksheets can be useful, but only the right worksheets. If you’ve spent any time looking for writing resources on the internet, you’ve probably come across a lot of free documents that promise to help you structure character. They ask you to define how the character looks, what their favorite foods are, stuff like that. Superficial stuff. Those kinds of details can be fun, and it doesn’t hurt to include them, but what you really need to keep track of is motivation.

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”—Kurt Vonnegut

Think about yourself. Why are you reading this? Maybe you’re here because you want to learn something more about writing. Maybe you’re motivated by a long-term goal you want to achieve. Or maybe not. Either way, there’s a reason you’re reading this, as there is for every action you take. It’s true in stories as in real life. Characters do everything for a reason. That’s what makes them real.

So where do you start?

One | History lesson: It’s good to have a general idea of the character’s entire past. This is information that probably won’t be put into the actual story, but it help to have as a reference along the way. Where was the character born? What language do they speak? What was their family like life? Knowing everything you can about your characters and their pasts can help you understand their motivations. That enables you to define their actions. If you figure all this out beforehand, it’ll be easier to keep continuity later on in the writing process. That means less changes you’ll have to make during the revision process.

Two | Desires: Now that you’ve defined each character’s past, you can figure out what they want. Think about how their life experiences have affected them. What motivates them more than anything else in the world? Sometimes what it first appears to be on the surface can be different than how the character actually feels. And sometimes one goal is a gateway to a greater one. For example, your protagonist might be an ambitious businessperson who seems only to be obsessed with the next promotion. That might be the face he or she wears externally. But their secret, internal motivation might be to make enough money to retire early and become a full-time artist. Those are the kinds of secrets that you, the writer, need to know. That’s the real motivation.

Once you have a character’s history and defining motivations figured out, you have a basic outline for their personality. This it what informs their actions. Multiple characters will act and react based off each other, in ways specific to and determined by their personalities. This interaction is what creates the plot.

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Detail and Narrative Focus

Detail and Narrative Focus — The Novel Plan
Detail and Narrative Focus — The Novel Plan
The Experience of Time in Narrative

 

The author’s responsibility

When we write stories, we ask readers to invest their time into our world. This is a significant gift and must be respected. We must write only what is important, interesting, and meaningful to the narrative. The rest can be cut out. So—since you can’t show every single event and action that happens through a character’s life—how can you invoke the feeling of time passing meaningfully?

We’ll start with how you build your story. Don’t start with plot. The plot is simply a series of events that happen because of characters interacting with each other, driven by their motivations. Start with character, and you’ll have a reason to create these events. Discover what each character’s desires and motivations are. Sometimes these desires work in harmony with the goals of others, sometimes against. It is these actions and interactions between characters that create the plot; the struggle between characters and achieving what they want.

This struggle takes time within your narrative. A writer shapes how the reader perceives time by selecting and showing the right details. Some writers may choose not use the same number of pages to cover six months as they would use to cover six minutes. But it is possible to cover vastly different amounts of time in the same page count, because time is not always limited by words and sentences. Sometimes, using the right words in a passage—meaning, details relative to the characters—shapes an experience of time that is different from passages of identical length that focus on irrelevant details.

Say you are writing a story about the six minutes the passengers of a jetliner collectively experienced right before crashing, and then the six months one passenger spent after. You might have a lot of important details to get through during those six minutes leading up to the crash. You could probably write a whole novel within the span of those six minutes. Depending on what you are trying to show, you might spend the same amount of page-time for the next six months. Sure, you might use more, but maybe you’d even use less. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve and say. The point is, you have to consciously construct your sentences and paragraphs in such a way as to accurately match the time being passed—as well as the significance of the events within.

When you write, you are filming a movie with words. Ask yourself this: “What’s my focus on? Where should it be?” By writing a detail, a sound, a line of dialogue, you are saying that it is important. It deserves the reader’s time. You are focusing on it.

Focus on what matters.

If you were a movie director, you wouldn’t put in a detail shot of a character zipping up his fly in the restroom, of how many tiny, little, brass teeth their are, of how they are all connected together… when all the character is really thinking about is the big board meeting in ten minutes or maybe the next football game. You can justify that shot if that’s the kind of thing the character would think about, if he’s like the protagonist in Stranger than Fiction who counts the strokes of his toothbrush, but otherwise you’d be pointing your lens at something irrelevant to the story. Unless you’re making some sort of statement about the ignored details in life, you wouldn’t include that scene for a character who doesn’t think about these sorts of things. If you did, you’d be focusing on something that doesn’t matter. It’s like lying to the reader—your audience. By including that detail, you’re saying, “Look at this, this is important!” When really, it’s not.

By only showing what is significant to your story and crucial to its flow, you respect the reader’s time. Remember: by including a detail—even just a word—in your story, you are saying that it is important. Without it, your story would be somehow less whole. Otherwise it should be cut out. In this way, only significant events are focused on, and events with greater significance can be given more page-time. But only if there’s actually something interesting to write about it. Remember to focus on the right things. The fact that a character got a ‘D’ on her exam might be significant to the narrative, but don’t try to show this with a five-page expository on what that piece of paper looks like and how smooth it feels and the comments her teacher wrote, word-for-word. Showing a scene in greater detail makes it physically longer. A scene with many details will take a reader longer to get through. Not only does it take up more page-time, it takes up more of the reader’s time. Be aware of that. Only tell the reader what they need to know.

[It’s up to you to define what details are important. See the exercise at the end for more on this.]

The lesson here is that scenes and events should only take up as much page-time as necessary to showcase all the important details, actions, and interactions within. No more, no less. But since the physical space given to a scene does not necessarily correlate with the length of time over which it took place, then how can we show the sequence of time in narrative?

Easy. Again, we’re talking about details. The right details. If your narrative spans the months of April to November, what changes during that time? The seasons, for one. Your characters are aging (probably, if they are human). Although changes due to age might not be as perceptible in such a short time period, they are certainly noticeable in narratives that span years and decades. I recently read A Little in Love by Susan E. Fletcher and her main character ages from a toddler into a young woman. This is apparent in her physicality, but perhaps even more so in her personality. Even over shorter periods of time, a character’s personality can—and probably should—develop. Again, it’s all in the details you show. Choosing the right details allows you to demonstrate the passing of time.

Let’s recap

– Include the right details to convey the passing of time within your narrative
– Important, interesting events and details get more page-time
– Focus your lens on what matters
– Respect the reader’s time

Exercise: How to choose the right details

Go through a page of your writing and highlight details you’ve included. Ask yourself why they are important. Do they tell something about the way a character thinks or the way they perceive the world? Maybe a certain detail provides the means for a later action or tells something about the setting that helps indicate a reason behind the character’s personality. There are many ways a certain detail can be important to your story. It’s up to you to decide what to put in and why.

 

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