Beats to Scenes – Or From Outline to Story

It’s been a while since we looked at the mechanics of writing a story, how you take the germ of an idea and get it into something usable. Now outlining isn’t the greatest part of everyone’s creative process but personally, I’m a big fan of the beat outline. A lot of people seem to think outlining steals a lot of the spontaneity from a story. Some people have wondered how you go from outline to story at all.

I want to look at both these issues at once by showing how I think you jump from your outline to the scene of a story. See, I like to think that my outline is spontaneous when I’m creating it and my scenes are spontaneous when I’m creating them. Sometimes you’ll need to adjust your outline when writing a scene – usually by adding to it – but most of the time unexpected events while writing a scene just give you more opportunities to add twists to your outline that will be fun and exciting.

Each beat should be a specific event in your story. So, when that event happens, do the following:

  • Look at the characters that were a part of that event. A man getting shot in his apartment at night sets a very different scene from a man getting shot on a crowded street.
  • Decided which characters you want to talk about in the aftermath of that event. If they weren’t all there for it, figure out how they’re going to know about it. If the man shot was an off-duty cop his partner is probably going to hear about it from their captain, while if he was on duty his partner is going to know much sooner.
  • Ask yourself how your characters will react to that event. Was it good for them or bad for them? When setting the beats of your outline you think of them as good or bad for the protagonist but what about the other characters? The partner of a cop who gets shot is going to react much differently than the mobster who ordered the hit.
  • Decide what everyone in the story will do in response the beat your outline calls for. Then chose which of those responses are important to your story as a whole. Not everyone in a given scene has to have a response that you show in a given scene, some responses might be better addressed in a later scene, and sometimes characters who don’t fit in a scene have a response that is important to the story and you have to find a way to bring it to the attention of those in the scene. If the death of a cop spurs a criminal to start robbing banks it makes more sense for fellow cops to hear about it over the crime radio than for the criminal to announce it in person.
  • Look at your next beat and decide if it fits in the scene you’re writing or if it needs to be the start of a new one. A cop yelling at his captain about how to react to his partner’s murder? Probably a natural extension of his finding out about his partner’s death. But that same cop instead going to tell his partner’s spouse? That is probably better as a new scene.

Once you hit the point where a new scene is called for, go back and try and streamline the elements you’ve laid out. Juggle discovery of, reaction to and response to an event to create a nice cadence to your scene. Don’t let any one element take over and try not to let it drag out too long. Bigger beats will call for more time spent on them but on the whole you probably don’t want more than a page or two before the next beat occurs or the story begins to drag.

If you wind up with more than that you probably needed to break the larger point into multiple smaller ones. Knowing exactly how much beat you need for a scene is more art than science but in time most authors get a good grip on it and, for all those times you don’t, even as an experienced author, there’s always the editing phase.

It’s the reaction and response part of stories I love writing the most. There is where (for me) the spontaneity of a story lies and, with a good handle on where your story is going thanks to your outline, you should be able to let your characters stretch themselves and surprise you without going too far afield in your narrative. Most of the time, at least. And for the rest, well, at least you’ll see it coming quickly and only have to do a little remodeling of your outline, not completely stall out when you realize you’ve go no idea where you’re going anymore.

So happy scenecrafting! Let me know if it works for you.

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