So I posted on twitter the other day about having completed my outline and beat sheet for the latest Temple story, and had a few questions pop up about what a beat sheet was and how to use it. A perfectly rational question, since I hadn’t used a beat sheet before last year, and really didn’t even know what it was called until early this year. I figured that this could be a good opportunity to talk a little about my writing process. It’ll be surface level at this point, and if people find it helpful / useful I may turn it into a series of posts.

Please note that this is just the process that I use and have found that it works well for me. It’s not reflective of what the pros do (no two writers follow the same process), although I’ve found that many of my professional writing friends sometimes use similar tools. This isn’t gospel – I just hope that it helps some people out.

STEP 1:
Come up with an idea or story. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you writers how to do this. ;)

I’ll come up with themes, characters and motivations. Basically, everything in the “pitch package.” I can go on for days on just this step alone, so perhaps in a later post….

STEP 2:
Typically after I have an idea for a story in my head or some scenes that I want to use, I create a “beat sheet” of the events of the story. I use it to help edit the order of events in my story, to help create the 3-act structure, etc. This is usually a very short document that consists of notes of events, maybe locations or some brief dialogue that I think is relevant. I’ve read a few online resources that have more detailed beat sheets, but they all seem to agree that it is a very short snap-shot of the events in a story. It helps me maintain the beats in the story, since I tend to write very rhythmically.

However, the “beat” in “beat sheet” refers to the beats within your acts. I’m sure I don’t have to go into three-act structure here (every story has three acts: beginning, middle, and end), so I won’t go into it. But the purpose of the beat sheet is just to get a snap-shot of your story, see where and how it flows, where it’s weak, and adjust accordingly. Unlike a script, this is a document for me, the writer. I can write it any way that I chose, and sometimes it’ll vary from story to story. It’s just a great quick reference for me to use – and it can be very fluid and evolve as I continue my writing process.

Here’s an example of a working beat sheet from the upcoming Temple prequel, Assassin.

STEP 3:
After the story is prepped in a beat sheet, I write down my cast of characters and make a few notes about their motivations in this story. What do they want? What are their goals and objectives? What drives them to push the narrative forward? Sometimes this step precedes the beat sheet, if I don’t know my characters very well or are introducing new characters into a story. But when it follows, I’ll typically go back to the beat sheet and make some tweaks and changes based on those motivations. This can go back and forth a few times until I feel very confident about the story.

Here’s an example of an outline for a short story that will be appearing soon in an anthology:

STEP 4:
At this point I take my beat sheet and make an outline, typically a page-by-page breakout of the events to overlay the story. The outline helps me further figure out pacing and how fast my story is going to evolve, and it can also help me figure out how many panels I’m going to be using per page, where some of the more dramatic moments are in the story, etc. This document tends to be a little longer and more detailed for me – an evolution from the beat sheet, if you will.

Sometimes I skip this step entirely, if I want a story to evolve more organically. But for a lot of the more complex plots that I’ve been using lately (like weaving together all of the events of Temple), I like to use this method.

STEP 5:
With the beat sheet and outline in hand, I’m able to start my script. Again, sometimes things change and evolve along the way and changes are made, but for the most part by the time I make it to the scripting stage I’m pretty comfortable with my characters, story, pacing, and plot elements.

I won’t go into details about how to write a script here, but if you’d be interested to learn more feel free to drop me a line and let me know. Maybe I’ll turn this into a series of blog entries.