I recently discovered beat sheets, and they have been a complete revelation for me in terms of plotting. Here’s a bit about what they are, what they’re not , and what they can do for you.
What They Are
Beat sheets are a specific type of outline that lay out a sequence important moments in the plot structure—beats—as they appear in the three act structure. Some examples of beats would be the opening image, the inciting incident, the midpoint, climax, and resolution.
This is no so much a formula as it is a scaffold for building a successful plot arc. Each of the beats is fairly broad–the beat sheet doesn’t dictate what the climax must be, simply that it’s best placed at the end–and leaves plenty of room for you to develop your story in your own stile, while the sequence provides the structure for a smooth story arc that maintains its tension as it builds towards the climax. In fact, if you look closely you’ll notice that most tightly plotted stories hit all of the major beats. (Save the Cat has done this for quite a few popular works already.)
Beat sheets are great for making an outline (just fill in the beats!) and for regulating the pacing of your story. If 90% of the action happens before the midpoint, plugging your story into a beat sheet will let you know. They’re also good for making sure you’ve got a unified plot arc that runs throughout the story, rather than several disconnected arcs that don’t build on each other (for example, a climax that’s unrelated to the first half of the story) or a fragment of an arc that doesn’t resolve (aka the Setup Novel, which is so focused on setting up books two and three that it forgets to have its own plot arc).
“But I’m Not Using a Three Act Structure”
The three act structure is awesome, but it doesn’t suit every story. Even if you don’t think it’s for you though, I recommend reading over a beat sheet. Beat sheets are a tool not just for building a structure but also for looking at the underlying elements of that structure and understanding what makes it run. The three act structure is probably the most common set up in (modern, Western) storytelling. Knowing that structure means knowing what readers expect, which translates into a better understanding of how to successful play with and subvert those expectations. The better you understand the structure and why it exists the way that it does, the more effectively you can deviate from it.
Some Useful Links
This is the blog of Blake Snider who, to my knowledge, codified the set of beats used by most novelists. It is technically a screen writing blog, but you’re not going to see a lot about beat sheets that doesn’t refer back to him.
Blog of Gwen Hayes. It’s geared towards romance writers, but her free scrivener template (also available as a print out, for non-scrivener users) is incredibly useful.
This site provides a bunch of free templates for different types of beat sheets, as well as a few other outlining worksheets.