Writing may not be music, but most can definitely see a creative commonality between constructing an engaging story and constructing an intriguing, enjoyable song. Rhythm, rhyme, tone, pacing and technique are all key to how you forge your sentences and paragraphs, and how you build your story as a whole.
Whether you’re writing a novel, a short story or a screenplay, as you perform your great rendition, your instrument is your keyboard, pen, or microphone… and many authors also choose to take advantage of a tool that we call a beat sheet.
If you’ve never used a beat sheet to assist with your writing in the past, here’s our complete breakdown of what a beat sheet is, how using one can help you get a stronger handle on story and character, and what each of the story beat headings actually means in terms of the events your audience would expect to see or read in your book or movie.
What is a Beat Sheet?
Simply put, a beat sheet is a tool used by many creative writers – both screenwriters and novelists – to create a preliminary map of their story. We say preliminary because a beat sheet focuses only on short, bullet point-like summaries of each of the major plot events and character development moments (or “beats”) throughout the story.
Sporting a marked difference to a full treatment or synopsis, a beat sheet is much more constrained and truncated than most writers who enjoy planning their work in advance will be used to.
That doesn’t mean you can only make use of a beat sheet before you sit down to write, however!
Why Do Creative Writers Use Beat Sheets?
Whether you’re writing a screenplay or a novel, your beat sheet helps you more clearly pick out and place the most important story events in an order that matches the standards of classic story structure.
Each of these beats has a distinct purpose inside the structure of a complete story arc. For the writer, using a beat sheet can be of huge help in making sure that the right event, character moment, or devastating twist comes not only as part of the correct Act, but also at the most impactful moment within that Act.
Once all of those crucial elements are in place and in the right order, it is then easier for the writer to add in the rest of the story’s events. Think of those additional scenes as the connective tissue that drives the viewer or reader between beats – from one major plot point to the next, linking each box on your beat sheet in a logical manner.
A beat sheet can also make for an excellent reference or troubleshooting tool once your story is written. Does something feel off about your character development? Is the middle sagging badly, feeling as if the pace drops like a stone while you read? Does your final showdown lack punch? Thanks to filling out a beat sheet, you can gain a thousand-foot view of the story – enough to pinpoint whether your story, as it stands, is actually using the right events to deliver the beat, or whether previous beats being stronger would help bolster the effect of one that appears to be flagging.
It’s worth remembering that adhering to proven story structure isn’t lazy or formulaic. Your book or script shines because of the events that occur within it, and the unique characters that take part in and shape those events. Focus on making those elements as distinctive, surprising, and engaging as you can.
Here at AutoCrit we put our collective heads together to create a beat sheet that proves useful both for novels and screenplays. To get started, download your AutoCrit Beat Sheet template below, then scroll down for a full explanation of what each of the beats represents in a complete story!
Story Beats Explained
To help you gain a complete understanding of what each of the beat titles on the AutoCrit beat sheet represents, here is a comprehensive walkthrough of the expected content throughout your story arc.
We’ll explain each of the expected story beats throughout Act I, Act II, and Act III – including the epilogue, should you choose to write one.
Opening Image: Set the Mood
In this beat, you’re detailing your story’s opening scene. The purpose here is to set the mood of the tale. As much as you can, try to ensure that your opener sends a strong signal, or “promise,” to the reader about the genre of your story and the overall tone.
A Glimpse at Theme
This early beat, as we enter into the setup of the story, exists to help you work in an early indication of your story’s theme. What is it, hidden under the surface, that your story is actually about? Are you exploring the nature of grief and regret? Picking apart class struggles? Proposing the virtues of reconciliation over vengeance?
The range of themes that stories can tackle is almost endless, so there’s always something to say. You don’t want to be preachy or on-the-nose, but this early beat offers an opportunity to subconsciously hook your reader or viewer and hint at what your main character is going to learn and change about themselves as a result of their journey. This beat could be a visual, an action, an event, or even just a line of dialogue.
Setting the Status Quo
This beat covers the finer details of your initial setup. Here, you’re setting the status quo of your main character’s life. Standard story structure involves the upheaval of your protagonist’s world, and this is your chance to show us what life is like for this character right now.
As with much in writing and storytelling, the possibilities for your status quo are varied. Your main character doesn’t always have to be living the perfect life right now. They should be facing current struggles, current obstacles and things they want but don’t yet have.
Also, turning things upside down doesn’t always mean going from good to bad – it could actually be going from an awful situation into something uncharacteristically positive. Perhaps your character begins the story in brutal captivity, for example, and the world will come to change when they are released.
Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure
This beat is when things start to change. What is the event that shakes up your main character’s world? Here, something happens to challenge the status quo – something big enough that your protagonist is going to have to confront it. They can’t just ignore it.
In many cases, the inciting incident/call to adventure will be the first time your villain enters the sphere of your main character’s life – but not every story plays out that way.
Refusal of the Call
As the name may suggest, this beat exists to give your main character the opportunity to back out of the conflict. Of course, if they did back out fully and get away with that, there wouldn’t be much of a story, but refusal can be tackled in multiple ways.
Refusal helps to humanize your characters. After all, not many of us would instantly choose to allow the upheaval of all we know. We cling to comfort – and this is your chance to make it clear just who your main character is at this early point, since their personality should be challenged and changed by the events of the story.
Another benefit of introducing a refusal is that you get to make it clear why your hero cannot just back out of the situation. They may try to cling to their normality – to the status quo you’ve established – but circumstances (and pressure from the villain) will ensure that the cost of doing so is simply too much to bear.
Quest Into the New World
Marking the end of Act I and the transition into Act II, this story beat marks the moment your main character decides that yes, they will embark on this quest, and take the first step of their journey.
They will go for the goal. They will stand up to the villain – because this is a fight worth taking on. The fear of change no longer outweighs the cost of doing nothing. And so the character decides to cross the threshold, take center stage in the story proper, and pull us through to the Act II portion of our beat sheet.
As we can already see so far, while a story beat structure might seem rigid, the creative options available to you when it comes to filling those beats are vast. This could be a story of alien invasion, of a vicious serial killer, of family rivalry, or the desire to win a suitor’s heart – all of which are open to their own unique elements that you, the creative, bring to the table.
B Story Breathes
In this beat, you’ll bring to the fore a major subplot. Subplots are an ideal method of avoiding the dreaded “sagging middle,” where Act II drags on and ends up stuffed full of unnecessary filler in an attempt to reach the expected word count for a novel.
Subplots may or may not involve the main character of your story – in fact, they’re most useful for exploring the deeper aspects of your side characters. Subplots should, however, intertwine with your main plot in some way. If not, they can become filler in themselves – noticeably disconnected from what your story is actually supposed to be about. Remember when writing that subplots should have their own beginning, middle, and end. In themselves, they are their own mini story arcs.
Not every story requires subplots, so feel free to count this as optional if you are confident that there’s enough going on inside your primary plot so as not to require this additional variation.
In cases where we aren’t going with a full-on subplot, this particular beat would usually be the introduction of a major secondary character – someone who will help the protagonist navigate the new world and come around to fulfil the thematic elements of the story.
This particular beat can spread across multiple scenes, as the protagonist finds their journey beset by challenges and obstacles.
These obstacles may be a direct consequence of the villain, or other problems that stand in the way of resolution such as bureaucracy, a missing macguffin, technological failures, missing records etc. As the protagonist attempts to overcome these challenges, they will succeed at some and fail at others.
What’s important is that, along the way, we can see hints of growth in the protagonist as we come to understand more about them through their choices – good or bad.
Midpoint – Raise the Stakes
The midpoint beat is the classic rug pull, often a major twist that undermines a victorious streak for the protagonist and changes the game.
A result of this is that the stakes are raised. The threat your protagonist faces becomes greater; consequences of failure become more dire. The “ticking clock” aspect of the story accelerates, piling on more pressure.
It’s worth bearing in mind that this rug pull can come in a positive or negative form. Perhaps a side character reveals themselves to be a turncoat, betraying or abandoning the main character. Or perhaps it’s the point, in a romance story, where our hapless hero gets the kiss – or at least a very strong signal that their love interest is indeed into them.
Once this beat passes, we should know – whether the events were actually positive for your character or not – that the protagonist will need to change a core fault in their personality if they are to succeed in the end.
The Villain Adds Pressure
Depending on how your story has progressed so far, this beat can take a different form.
Should your protagonist be on a positive roll, this is the point where the villain starts to bear down heavily on the situation. They create more obstacles, more conflict, and their presence starts to feel like an immovable force. In short, the villain steps in and makes things worse for your main character.
If your protagonist has been relentlessly beaten down, at this point you may want to offer them a series of victories over the villain. The villain still steps in and tries to roll with the punches – acknowledging the threat your main character poses to them – but your protagonist overcomes these and there seems to be light ahead.
The choice is, of course, yours to make!
B Story Blowout
This beat brings us back around to ongoing subplots, ensuring they don’t get lost in the mix. This may likely be a multi-scene beat, depending on what you have woven into the story, but you’re aiming to resolve subplot arcs as much as possible.
Note that some subplots might actually resolve closer to the main story finish, so don’t feel like you’re stuck in a box with this one. All you want to do is make sure that you’re bringing those subplots back into the spotlight as their own narrative arc progresses.
A single-scene beat in which something devastating happens to your protagonist. Often, this will occur alongside a false climax: your main character(s) think they have the answer, and they instigate what they believe to be the final confrontation with the villain.
But they’re wrong. They lose – and they lose badly.
Despair and Rally
Following off the back of the disaster beat, your protagonist finds themselves at their lowest point. It seems all hope is lost, and they’re ready to give up on their quest. Perhaps they even do give up – returning (as much as they can) to their previous life, the journey abandoned.
But through force of will, the help of their friends, and the knowledge and personal insight they have gained throughout the story, the protagonist turns things around. They recognize the weaknesses that have been holding them back, engage directly with the thematic lessons of the story, and see the solution to everything with more clarity.
The Power of Resolve
Newly confident, your main character takes up the heroic mantle once more and makes an active gesture that demonstrates their newfound resolve to win.
And with this action taken, our beat sheet slips over the threshold into Act III.
Prepare for War
The protagonist gathers the people and tools they need, as they prepare for the final confrontation with the villain. In a heist story, for example, this would usually see the main character going from place to place to rebuild the team.
Don’t be afraid to have side characters back out, here – even if only temporarily. Going to the heist example, perhaps one or more key members refuse to come back after what happened at the disaster point… only to arrive in the nick of time later on to help save the day.
The Final Battle
This is it: the final plan is put into action and your main character faces off against the villain once and for all. Will they bring them down? Let’s find out!
One Last Surprise
The final battle isn’t all smooth sailing… because the villain has one last trick up their sleeve.
In this beat, a surprise element blindsides your hero, forcing them to dig deeper than they ever have before – to break through their limitations once and for all and prove themselves worthy of victory.
But does that actually happen? That’s up to you… and your main character, of course.
Making one final choice, your main character pushes through, takes their final action against the villain, and decides the ultimate outcome.
This beat is the culminating act that defines everything your protagonist has learned throughout the story – the ways in which they have changed. It is a definitive representation of the person they are now… and that may not always be good.
Most of the time, the hero wins. They have tackled their inner fears and flaws and grown in a positive manner, and thus they succeed. That may not be the case in your story, however. Perhaps the hero wins, but victory is bittersweet as they realize the person they have become is an uglier, more twisted version of themselves: they let their anger overcome them.
Or perhaps they lose – because they have not fully engaged with, and corrected, the thematic flaws within themselves that would allow them to win. An example of this could be characters that are consumed by their grief rather than reconciling with it, or are manipulated by the villain in the end due to failing to tackle a core flaw of being too trusting or headstrong.
The final image, showing the all-new state of the world for your protagonist – internally, externally, or both.
With this beat, we sign off with a true sense of change that once again ties into the thematic purpose of the story.
Need to include an additional detail after the arc of your main story is complete? Do it here.
This is entirely optional. Most stories will not need to include an epilogue.
Additional Tip: Using a Beat Sheet to Map Character
Given the restricted space available on a beat sheet, it can be tough to see both plot progression and character development clearly displayed in each beat. Thankfully, there’s a solution to that – simply complete one beat sheet that details your plot events, and another that details your character development relative to those plot events.
With these dedicated beat sheets now complete, you can easily lay your character beat sheet over the top of your plot beat sheet, and see how (and if!) each of those plot events is making your character grow and evolve. If something doesn’t line up between a story event and how it influences or changes your character, then those beats aren’t playing in tune with one another – and just like in music, it’ll throw your audience out of the story.
The key to a great story is a combination of unique concept, surprising events, and character journey – and smart use of a beat sheet will make you feel on top of the world when all of those things line up with perfect precision.
Ready to blast out some beats on the page? Grab your AutoCrit beat sheet now… then go forth and write that story!