Guest Post: David McCaffrey on Beat Sheets


I’ve already started arranging the next Noir at the Bar NE. It may not be until February but we have more than half of the performers booked. One of those readers is David McCaffrey who has been very complimentary about Noir at the Bar.

David has very kindly taken time out of his busy schedule to chat to us about beat sheets. My thanks go to David for sharing his wisdom – see you in February. 

Vic x

Guest Post: David McCaffrey on Beat Sheets

Christopher Vogler wrote a book called ‘The Writers Journey‘, a writing textbook that focuses on the theory that most stories can be boiled down to a series of narrative structures and character archetypes. Basically he says that every story told has been told before and that every fictional story consists of the same components.

I explored this once in my blog where I discussed the writing process, but the gist of it is this –

1.) The hero is introduced in his/her ORDINARY WORLD
2.) The CALL TO ADVENTURE.
3.) The hero is reluctant at first. (REFUSAL OF THE CALL.)
4.) The hero is encouraged by the Wise Old Man or Woman. (MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.)
5.) The hero passes the first threshold.  (CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.)
6.) The hero encounters tests and helpers. (TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES.)
7.)  The hero reaches the innermost cave.  (APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE.)
8.) The hero endures the supreme ORDEAL.
9.) The hero seizes the sword. (SEIZING THE SWORD, REWARD)
10.)  THE ROAD BACK.
11.) RESURRECTION.
12.)  RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR

Every story can be structured around the above, not always in the same order, not always every element, but they are there in one form or another.

In line with these components, it is important that you plug variables into your story before you start writing for one simple reason: so you don’t back yourself into a corner.

It’s really easy to begin writing a story off the top of your head or with the most basic of narratives and think that you can just string all the various plot points together.  And some authors can do this (the talented John Nicholson being one of them), but many need a structure, an outline of the aforementioned variables in order to understand where their story starts, begins and ends. This outline can prevent you ending up somewhere inescapable.

For me, writers block is not having the research in which to frame and support your story. I learnt right at the beginning that research is key, especially for the kinds of novels I write as they are mostly psychological thrillers that require an element of philosophy and detail to make them believable.

In line with this, you need something that is high concept, meaning it can be described in one or two words.

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” This tells you exactly what ‘Jaws 2 is about in one sentence.

“His crimes – unspeakable. His death – inevitable. His suffering – just beginning.”

My debut novel ‘Hellbound had the above tagline and in only a few words gives you an idea of what the book is about.

Once you have your idea and concept, it needs to be backed up by that most important of elements – research. You need to be steeped in your subject matter in order to sell your concept realistically. If your story outline is a skeleton, your research adds flesh to its bones. It fleshes out the whole idea so you begin to see what it will truly look like once complete.

Then we get to what I was taught is the most important element of writing, at least for me – having a beat sheet.

Once I have the above in place, I write a beat sheet that consists of bullet points with key elements of each chapter in a very simplified form acting as my map. Bestselling author Steve Alten once said that a beat sheet was like lining up dominoes, so that if you push over the first one it will travel right to the end meaning that if the beat sheet is tight then your story will have every element in place before you start putting one word on paper.

It’s better to get your beat sheet right before you start then begin writing and realise that you have a character who disappeared inexplicably halfway through the story or a massive plot hole you hadn’t considered.

Not having those dominoes lined up can result in you becoming frustrated and potentially lost in your own writing process.

Granted, a beat sheet can also be classed as an outline and many authors hate writing outlines because it requires all the underlying planning to have been done to answer all the difficult questions about your story. But with your research you would have the answers to those questions and the rest is a piece of cake.

Your beat sheet doesn’t have to be detailed. It can be one or two words – sex, Joseph dies, Maggie drives to work… as long as you know what it means, that’s enough.

The beat sheet stops you having to confront the most horrific of questions – what shall I write next?

Your research and a tight beat sheet can prevent this most awful of writing circumstances. With it, you will always know where you are in your story, what happens next, what will further the dramatic tension etc.

And because they are just bullet points, if something is moving too slow or there is too much action in a particular scene, you can simply move the bullet points around until you are happy and the beat sheet is tight again.

The beat sheet not only tells you what the scene is, it tells you why it’s there in the first place. And for me, the best thing of all is with a beat sheet you are simply going into those bullet points and just fleshing them out, adding narrative around them because the framework is already there.

You might veer off as you go as different story beats come to mind or naturally develop with the story. This is the beauty of using a beat sheet: they leave you free to explore and flesh out the narrative that drives the story forward. As long as you end you where you intended at the very beginning, it isn’t as important how you get there – the story will take care of itself.

Make the beat sheet clear and simple. Remember, this is your document. You’re not trying to sell the story to anyone else, you’re just trying to get your head around the story as a whole.

Besides, it’s always nice after you’ve written a three hundred page novel to look back and see that it just started out as a forty bullet point piece of A4. You would probably struggle in reverse if asked to summarise your story in forty bullet points, but it goes to show that as Christopher Vogler believed, every story can be boiled down to key elements.

And we thought we all had original ideas!!!

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