June 27, 2014
For two years now, we’ve been writing about crafting your first novel and I have insisted that you don’t need to know your whole story in order to begin. This has worked for me through the process of writing a dozen novels, but recently I heard Colm Tóibín (Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary, The Master) say that while he’s not good at plotting, he “needs to have everything” before he writes his story. If you’ve had troubles pushing your novel to the finish line, you might want to try this way of working.
Tóibín, twice short-listed for the Man Booker prize, described a way of writing that lawyers, used to constructing legal arguments point by point, might find more comfortable that stepping off the cliff of story-discovery-as-you-go. In a literary interview conducted in April by Northwestern writing professor Fred Shafer, Tóibín said that he might write a first paragraph or first chapter and then spend a year thinking about the character and visualizing every moment of the story, even if he didn’t put it in the final version. He doesn’t take notes. “Notes are for things you might forget,” he said. Believing in the story is believing it to be “real,” and thus unforgettable. (His are character-driven novels with simple plot lines and cover deep interior territory rather than complex exterior twists and turns.)
Tóibín’s approach was echoed by my new weekly workshop leader, lawyer and television writer Elaine Loeser. At an organizational meeting in May, she asked everyone in the group to describe their story by its beginning, middle and end. The confession, “I don’t know how it ends,” didn’t satisfy her. She, too, thinks it’s important to know the whole story before you begin. She says, “Not only is it more efficient, but also less daunting and, frankly, easier to think about. You know what is necessary and relevant to include in the story. Besides, you can always change the end if it becomes absolutely necessary.” Lawyers who depose all the witnesses before constructing the narrative of a case may well find this way of working more comfortable.
Writing a “beat sheet” is a necessary step in writing for television. The
beat sheet” blocks out the story element by element—in essence, the writer visualizes the story before sitting down to write it.
Much is written about how to do a beat sheet. Some are as simple as writing the basic skeleton the story: 1) the Inciting Incident; 2) the First Act Turning Point; 3) the Center, where the stakes are raised; 4) the Second Turning Point (the opposite of the Climax—in a happy ending, this point is the point at which all is lost), and 5) the Climax. From that basic skeleton, you might put flesh on the bones, connecting the structural elements by adding more beats. Loeser suggests that the beat sheet set forth who is in the scene, what they have to do with the story and their attitudes, thoughts and feelings, and the tensions among them; how the scene advances the story; the location of the scene and the amount of time that passes. It might also include bits of dialogue, objects or symbols.
I recently came across a website, www.savethecat.com, which offers beat sheets for recent movies. (Story writing software by that name is also available.)
The “cat” screenwriting beat sheet is to my mind more formulaic, but if you are interested, it goes like this:
Catalyst – The main character’s life changes.
Debate (about the change).
Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two) – The main character makes a choice. B Story (sometimes the “love story.”)
The Promise of the Premise – The main character acts on his/her choices.
Midpoint – The moment when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”.
Bad Guys Close In.
All is Lost – The opposite moment from the Midpoint. What has been gained is lost, or what is gained proves meaningless.
Dark Night of the Soul – The main character hits bottom.
Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three) – Thanks to a fresh idea or new inspiration, often from the B Story, the main character chooses to try again.
Finale – The main character has gleaned a truth and acts on it to further his/her push towards their goal.
Final Image – opposite of Opening Image, showing that a change has occurred within the character.
I once heard Loyola writing professor and author David Michael Kaplan tell a writing class that the most common mistake new writers make is not knowing enough about their story before they start to write. Certainly, once you’ve written a full beat sheet, you will know your story, which might help you follow in the literary footsteps of giant like Colm Tóibín.