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Attribution to the British Library
Attribution to the British Library

In a recent conversation about writing, I mentioned that when I outline a book, I use the beat plot method but that first I Macro plot.  I was met with some blank stares (on the internet it looks like this – “???”). So I thought I’d write up how I beat a book until it’s ready to be written.

My training was in theatre.  Because of this, there are certain things I am locked into.  I love breaking rules, though, and often do, but when I start a new project, the structure of my education underpins my work.  So what is my outline process?  The very first thing I do, and you can laugh, is get a three ring binder, a few super sharp pencils and some lined paper.  I’ll type it all up eventually, but I really like having everything written out to flip through.  It also puts me in a more creative space.

First I start with general worksheets to help outline a book:

  • Descriptions of major known character (One Page Per Character)
    • personality traits, flaws, goals, weaknesses, physical appearance, background, family, species/race/ethnicity, biggest regret, source of pride, goals (short and long term), how does character respond to stress/conflict/disappointment. Character symbolism.  Religion, family, socio/economic situation.  Relationship to other characters. You can put anything here and much more than I’ve listed.
  • Major known setting descriptions with tone, representation, symbolism (One Page Per Setting)
  • Major conflict summary – 1 paragraph (One Page)

All of these things can be changed, added to, or expanded on as I continue forward.  But by doing this, I have a general sense of the players, the settings, and the plot trajectory.  I keep these at the front of my binder to refer to and add to.  Since I know my big picture, I can start thinking about the actual story I’m telling and begin to outline the book.

Then I create start by creating a “Macro” outline.  A friend recently asked me to explain this, and I think it again comes from my theatre training.  A Macro outline is about what each of the Five Acts accomplishes.  If a story is told in Five Acts, they generally follow a traditional dramatic structure:

  1. World Building
  2. Inciting Incident
  3. Escalation
  4. Climax
  5. Denouncement (winddown, consequences)

Not all Acts need to be the same length.  Note, some people put the Climax in Act 3 and “falling action” in Act 4,  This isn’t an academic 5 act structure paper, just how I use the concepts personally.  For me, I prefer an escalation Act and to combine the falling action and Denouncement Act so there’s not a lot of exposition at the end. you can see a good visual of the different 5 act structures here:

From http://stonoff.com/fiveact-structure_376.html
From http://stonoff.com/fiveact-structure_376.html

There are lots of examples of this online, mostly of Shakespeare Plays and Quentin Tarantino movies 🙂  Lots of people like to talk about the 3 Act Structure: Beginning, Middle, End.  But I feel like this doesn’t allow you the room to really plot out what your characters are doing.  In reality, Aristotle’s 3-act story arc isn’t much different from 5 Acts or 7 or 9.  You can find articles out there on all of them.  5 Acts works for me because it lets me create a clear summary, with enough detail to stay focused, but not so much to get lost in the minutia – yet.

An example of a 5 Act plot outline is from Iron Man:

  • ACT ONE– Introduction to Tony Stark and his internal conflict about selling weapons
  • ACT TWO– Tony is forced to directly face the issue of his actions.  He is kidnapped and held hostage by those he sold weapons to!  Builds prototype and sets up hero trope.
  • ACT THREE– Tony confronts his personal responsibility and makes a decision to change his life focus. (some call this the turning point).  He will no longer sell weapons and just be a figure head.  Obadiah revealed as being behind the kidnapping (betrayal!)
  • ACT FOUR– Tony steps up to the plate, makes a major decision about himself, and we see the action/consequence of that by him using his suit and genius in real war situations. Conflict with Obadiah comes to a head with big bam boom fight
  • ACT FIVE– All plot points have been brought together.  Good guy wins and Stark emerges as a changed (somewhat) man.

(You can read The Hulk’s take on this as well here: https://filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/hulk-presents-the-myth-of-3-act-structure/

Another example is Hamlet:

  • ACT ONE– Ghost appears, announces he was murdered, and requests Hamlet to avenge his death
  • ACT TWO– Plots a foot!  Everyone is trying to catch everyone else in a lie!
  • ACT THREE– Will Hamlet kill Claudius?  Possible incest theme with his mom and death of Polonius
  • ACT FOUR– Ophelia has gone mad, Claudius and Laertes plot the death of Hamlet
  • ACT FIVE– All of the characters die excluding Horatio and Fortinbras

Another great tool is to read over the quick plot oriented summaries written about movies and books here: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/story-structures/

Once I’ve got my 5 Acts outlined in a super loose general way, I list out the elements I want to accomplish in each Act.  This isn’t the same in every book but it helps to flesh out the quick Act descriptions.  Each act should have an internal and external conflict, an escalation clause, a twist, and a true colors moment.  Other things you can include are secrets revealed, out of character behavior (often in act 4), backstory, world building.

Now I start to write 1 line scene descriptions for each scene in the Act.  The acts don’t all need the same elements but I like to have 5-7 scenes per act minimum.  How do we do this?  At the top of a page I write the scene code (ACT I – Scene 1, etc.)  Below that I write out the following points:

  • Chapter Title
  • Description of Scene (1 sentence overview)
  • Character POV (mostly only for multi character POV stories)
  • Main plot line or subplot line.
  • Goal of scene (how does this scene move the plotline forward)
  • Important or Key elements of this chapter. (someone finds a phone – you need to remember next scene that they have it!)

Then I beat plot.  Personally, I do this usually in literal bullet points like I’m using in this post.

Each beat is like a breath, you need them to keep living, to continue forward.  If you miss one, you’ll be okay, a little winded but alright, but if you miss a few in a row, you’re suddenly holding your breath, soon desperate for air.  This moment is when your reader decides to stop reading.  They’re no longer invested, you haven’t feed them, you haven’t moved their hearts another beat toward the end of the story.  Beat plotting isn’t just about writing faster or easier, its about understanding the structure and emotion which keeps your reader invested.

Here’s an example from Sin Eater.  This is actually much less detailed then I usually do.  Each of these would normally have additional beats within them but this is where we’ve started so we can plot out the whole scene moment by moment, but you get the idea:

Plot Beats from Sin Eater Season Two.

  • Lodaii, Vai, Riley, Nik, and Zeph enter the Crypt of Relics.
  • Demons attack in pure form, not tied to possessions.
  • Lodaii handles his business – because he’s a badass
  • Vai is impressed, maybe even a little turned on. (Careful now)
  • Riley is pissed b/c the outsider (ganje) showed him up
  • Riley acts like a dick, trying to control the situation, but Lodaii puts him in his place and Riley knows better than to take on an angel.
  • Nik is entertained by Riley getting a little ruffled, but Zeph isn’t playing.  Trouble in Rivercity for the boys relationship peeks through.
  • They make it through the battle and out into the second gypsy camp as planned.

This could even been expanded on if the beat plot mood was flowing, but it’s enough to write out a scene.  You just write from point to point, you have the outline for your book all set so don’t think ahead, don’t worry, you already have it all planned and if you deviate from the plan, that’s awesome, it just means your in the zone.  Everything can be reworked.

While you’re beat plotting keep in mind some elements that make a good scene work.  You can’t use them all in one scene, but they are good questions to keep in mind as you plot so you make sure your scene is serving your story goals.

  • Is the Plot advanced in this scene?
  • Do we learn a character’s goal?
  • Is there action to increase the tension?
  • Is there character development?
  • Did you introduce a character conflict or insight?
  • Did you show an effect of character conflict?
  • Have the stakes been raised?
  • Have you reinforced movites already introduced?
  • Is there character backstory?
  • Is there World Building?
  • Does this seen help set the story’s tone or theme?
  • Is there foreshadowing?

What you’ve done here is go from biggest to smallest.

  • Macro concepts
  • 5 ACTS
  • 25-35 Scenes
  • Beats per scene
  • Words!

And done.

The way I came about thinking this way is kind of backward.  As a dramaturg, part of my training was to “beat” a script.  That meant going through a play and notating every moment where there was a personal change or plot development.  These could happen 10 to a page, or only 2 per scene.  It wasn’t science.  But by taking the time to identify each beat, you understood the story, the motivations, and the bigger whys of the play better, making you an informed reader who could always ask the question of directors and actors, “does this serve the story?”

Dramaturgs are first and foremost about the story.  They aren’t there to cater to playwrights or directors and rarely deal with actors at all.  My job was to be the voice of the story.  If you’re like me and believe in the idea that stories exist to be told, then you understand that sometimes, defending the story actually means going against the playwright, because the words may be theirs but the STORY is universal and an entity independent of it’s creators. That is the difficult role of the dramaturg, but that’s another post 🙂

I hope this has helped.  I use this system for short stories and 100k word novels.  It works for me.  What works for you?


**A lot of these ideas have come from Jamie Gold’s amazing list of resources, including her downloadable beat plotting worksheets: http://jamigold.com/for-writers


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