Hammering Out Your Plot: The Beat Outline

So I’ve talked about outlining once already, but I said that I would do another post on exactly what kind of outline I prefer. And here it is. I’m not going to take the time to rehash why you might want to do an outline, that’s all spelled out in the last post. If you’re curious, you can read that but I’m going to assume you’re already onboard with the whole outlining idea already.

I usually use an outlining structure I first encountered in college, when I took a class on script writing, as in, writing scripts for movies. While novels and movies are very different storytelling formats, modern novel writing needs to maintain many of the same things movies rely on – dramatic tension, narrative drive, and so forth. To help us get a grip on exactly what that entailed our prof had us work with the “beat” outline.

Any of you who are familiar with music already know what a beat is – it’s the pulse of the song, the most basic measurement of time which all the rest of your music is measured by. It’s similar for story writing, but not exactly the same. A story beat measures each point where the audience should respond. In other words, every point where you want the audience to feel something is a beat. I’ve said before that the basic purpose of writing is to provoke a reaction from the reader, and the payoff of a story needs to be in proportion to it’s length.

A longer story needs to be looking for a bigger finish. But you can’t get there all at once. You build to it little by little, or poco a poco for you musicians. The hero can’t go from loosing badly for the first sixty beats of the story to winning triumphantly for the last ten. Over time, the hero collects little things that will help him win. His enemy’s weakness, a new set of skills or allies will all give him a leg up in the final confrontation.

At the same time, you need your story to have dramatic tension. The audience needs to wonder where things are going or, at the very least, how the story is going to get to the resolution. (After all, sometimes they just know the good guys are going to win. What’s the point of a detective story if you can’t check your work?) In order to maintain that tension, it’s important to make sure your protagonists aren’t always winning, or always loosing.

As a result, the beat outline consists of two different kinds of points along the line – upbeats and downbeats. An upbeat is any point along the outline where things look good for your protagonist. This can be anything as minor as getting a cup of coffee for a pick me up or as major as important as finding Excalibur. They can also be events that show weaknesses in the antagonist, things that reveal critical flaws or just show him loosing track of something important. Downbeats are the opposite, they’re events that set back the protagonist in some way or show the antagonist as formidable or actively working against the protagonist’s goals.

Of course, by the end of the story the upbeats should slightly outweigh the downbeats, resulting in a hard earned success for the protagonist – unless you’re writing a tragedy, in which case the downbeats should win. But again, only by a very thin margin.

One of the best things about beat outlining is that it is very general. All you really need to do is come up with a list of upbeats and downbeats and put them in order. The details of a scene, who’s present and exactly how the beats play out are things you’re free to work out as they come up, and it’s very easy to rearrange things, or add and subtract scenes, if you want.

Incidentally, one of the interesting things about writing the Sumter novels is the dual nature of the protagonists – each one is the other’s antagonist. Heat Wave’s beat outline was measured as positives for each protagonist, and it was difficult to balance the beats and have the right winner come out on top. Water Fall has three narrators, and for a time I was tempted to make the beat outline a three way tug-of-war. But in the end, it was simpler to keep it a two way battle between the Project and Circuit, which will hopefully make it easier to follow the action. All in all, I’m not sure I’ve hit the right balance so far, but I know it would be a lot harder without an outline!

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Okay, announcement time! Next week I will be moving. It’s not a major shift, just from one place in the city to another, but it is going to eat up a lot of my time. I don’t want to leave the story dangling, so I’m going to update on Monday. But that will be the only update for the week – I’m taking Wednesday and Friday off. It’s also possible that there will be no update Monday, October 7th. We’ll just have to see how things go. I will certainly be back by Wednesday the 9th, but if you want to be absolutely sure you don’t miss a post you can always hit the subscribe or RSS links off to your and get everything published here delivered straight to you. See you around!

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