One of the most commonly asked questions I get in my creative writing classes at school is how to get through middles. People get beginnings and endings intuitively, but the Middle Doldrums is where a lot of new (and not-so-new) writers have trouble. I struggled with middles for years and years, though many novels and short stories; I knew where I wanted to get, but not how to get there. How did authors come up with all the ‘stuff’ to happen in the middle? Where did they get these ideas from?
The cycle of creating a problem, complicating it, and resolving it so as to create a new problem helped somewhat when I learned about that. But it could only take me so far, and often still left me with drafts that had drifted off into tangents in the middle, that lost their way, that wandered and looped and circled but never seemed to progress. I longed for structure, for clarity, but didn’t know where to find it, and good old three-act structure didn’t provide enough support. Sure, there was the hero’s journey, but even that provided only limited assistance.
Enter beat sheets. If you’ve never heard of beat sheets and are someone who struggles to get through the middle of a story, prepare to rejoice. These beat sheets in particular, crafted by Jami Gold, are the becalmed writer’s salvation: enter your intended project word count at the top, and the spreadsheet will calculate for you the word count at which each of the major ‘beats’, or structural points, should occur. I use a combination of plot-oriented and character-oriented beats, pilfered mostly from the romance sheet and the master beat sheet, and this means I have a specific goal that I have to hit almost every other scene. It’s a life-saver, and I’m loving it.
I know that not everyone is into outlining. Some writers prefer to write exploratively, figuring out who their characters are and what their story is as they go. I used to write like this, especially for short stories, but to be honest, I’ve found that I have to revise a WHOLE lot less when I use a beat-style outline, and my short stories are punchier and pithier because they built cogently to a point from the outset. If I wander around trying to figure out what my point is as I go, I end up with a story with multiple ‘points’, and that’s just confusing to try to edit because you have to pick one and try to erase all hints of the others and it’s just a tracking nightmare. So yeah. Beat sheets. I’m a fan, so I thought I’d share in case you found them useful too 🙂