Weekend Workout: Prepping fo NaNo (or not)

I still haven’t decided whether I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year, which begins, according to the ticking clock on their website, in 19 days, 12 hours, and 42 minutes, and 30 seconds (29… 28… 27…)

Regardless of whether you are going for NaNo 2012, starting a new project, or editing an old, I cannot stress enough the fabulousness of the Sequence and Beat Sheet. It is both inspirational and practical. I used to be much more of a “pantser” when it came to writing, but being organized beforehand has done wonders for my writing process AND saved heartache while editing.

I posted about this last year before NaNo and wanted to do so again for those about to begin. So, pardon the repeat post, although it has been edited and updated.

THE SEQUENCE AND BEAT SHEET

Basically, this is a form of outline for a story. Because of my screenwriting background, I tend to think of stories in sequences, beats, scenes, etc. Studying screenwriting is extremely helpful when learning about story structure.

After I’ve done copious amounts of prewriting (i.e. I basically know what the story is about and where I want to go), I write my first Sequence and Beat Sheet.

SEQUENCES are series of scenes that act as mini-movies. They have a set up and pay off and end in a change in status quo. Large “reversals” and “reveals” can happen at the end of a sequence to make the story go in a new direction (extremely important if you want readers to keep reading).

Writing out the sequences breaks a story down into manageable “chunks.”  In novels, those chunks usually turn into chapters, although you don’t really have to worry about that just yet.

Beats are the smaller steps inside each sequence that get you from the beginning to the end. For example, in one sequence these might be your beats:

-Anna gets a horse for her birthday.
-She starts riding lessons and has natural talent.
-Anna’s father loses his job.
-Parents can’t afford to keep the horse, or the lessons, Anna devastated.

See the change in status quo? Anna started happy and optimistic, praised for her natural talent, the world is her oyster. Then, boom, no more horse, no more lessons, no more rosy future, and new tensions in the home.

The next sequence might be like this:

-Anna convinces parents to wait one more week before selling the horse.
-Anna gets a job at the stables to support her horse-riding.
-Anna falls from a loft and breaks her leg.
-She learns her leg will never heal properly without surgery, which they can’t afford. Good-bye horse-riding.

In this sequence, Anna goes from a new optimistic and rosy-future, only to crash even farther than the first time (also important for storytelling, intensify the complications as the story enfolds). These changes from the character getting closer to her goal, and then the goal being yanked from sight, are called “reversals.” This is how we empathize with characters – we want them to get their goal, and something gets in their way.

Sometimes I know exactly what’s going to happen in a sequence and my beats are more detailed. Other times I get to the middle of a sequence and I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I know something must happen, so I write something vague and add in some questions:

Anna makes an ally at the hospital (male/female? a love interest?)

For an even more detailed post about the Sequence Approach, CLICK HERE

art by Jose Manuel Merello, click for source

APPROACHING THE SEQUENCES AND BEAT SHEET

When writing out my sequences and beats, the first thing I think about is how the “status quo” is going to change at the end of the sequence, then I write out the beats it will take to get there. I also name my sequences (what is the mini story I am telling here?)

I use this Sequence and Beat sheet as an outline when writing the story, AND I rewrite it before I do my first big edit.

Here’s the second sequence of Intergalactic (the YA Sci Fi story I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year). This is the rewritten version, not my original.

SEQUENCE 2The Rethulan Gig
For this sequence, I wanted IdoLL to start nervous and impressed with the palatial quality of this venue, only for something major to go wrong so that the gig is a bust.

I came up with main beats for this sequence:

*IdoLL and the Intergalactics land on Rethula and meet the intimidating queen, who immediately dislikes IdoLL.
*IdoLL learns that she playing a private birthday party for the princess, and she’s not the main act.
*When they arrive at the venue, it is filled with children.
*An obnoxious mini-com call interrupts her tribute to Rethula.
*IdoLL storms out of the concert.

If I need more information, I sometimes go back and fill in a few details (bitty beats), to make sure that each scene has TENSION (as well as set up and foreshadowing). For instance, in the scene where she meets the queen – I added the following smaller beats:

*IdoLL meets the Rethulan Queen:
-IdoLL is uber-impressed with the palace and all the pomp and circumstance
-The Queen appears and has a creepy way of gliding on one foot.
-She mauls IdoLL’s face with her finger nodes to make sure IdoLL is “non infectious.”
-She throws IdoLL and her bandmates into a cell-slash-greenroom and won’t let them leave due to security reasons.

The character of IdoLL is a bit of a brat, so I wanted to create a sequence where we would sympathize with her, where she is devastated and we are devastated with her. There are bits of unexpected foreshadowing with the way the queen moves and her mauling IdoLL’s face with her finger nodes, which come to fruition later in the story when the princess stows away on IdoLL’s ship. Everything here is intentional and serves a purpose in the larger story.

handwritten Sequence and Beat Sheet

Does this sound like a lot of work? It can be. But when I’m writing the story,  I’m always SO glad I have my beat sheet to follow. Even if there are some blank spaces and vague ideas. I can always fill them in when I get to that sequence.

Let me know if you have any questions about any of this! And let me know if you try your own beat sheet and, if so, how it goes.

4 Comments

  1. Tamaradwalsh
    Oct 12, 2012

    This is a really cool idea. I used to be a complete panster, but, the longer I write, the more I come around to the idea of having an outline like this. i signed up for NanoWrimo for the first time this year, but–before I begin–I definitely want to make sure I’ve got the whole story plotted out. I figure I’ll be under the gun enough without wandering off on any tangents. thanks for the great ideas!

  2. Danika Dinsmore
    Oct 13, 2012

    Enjoy your NaNo! I’m still undecided, but I had a great time last year. I really think if you plan in advance, you’ll be much happier with what you produce and the rewrites won’t be so painful. I do recommend staying flexible, since characters sometimes want to go in a different direction.

  3. 4amWriter
    Oct 17, 2012

    This is wonderful information. I am planning on participating in NaNo, but I had hoped to have my story outlined by now. Typically I am a pantser, and I really wanted to break the mold with this event. But gosh, I have been bogged down by Life like never before!

    I’m definitely going to use this if (when) I get my arse in gear and outline my story. I’ll keep you posted. :)

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Oct 17, 2012

      I’m working off of one right now for White Forest Book Three and it’s so useful because I wrote the sequence/beat sheet a while back. I would have completely forgotten all this information if I hadn’t gotten it down in a succinct and organized mannter. And writing in sequence “chunks” is so manageable.

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