My favorite "assignment" as a writer is the advice to read, read, read. Every one from T.H. White to Steven King says the most important thing you can do on a daily basis is to read. If this is what school had been like, I'd still be a student.
Unfortunately, the more I learn about good writing, the harder it is for me to enjoy reading. The more editing I do for other authors, the harder it is for me to turn off my professional brain and simply be a reader. Editing, grammar, weak dialogue, and plot holes which bothered me but could be overlooked, now absorb my attention more than the joy of reading. However, when I read a great story, I get lost in the characters and turn my writers brain off.
So I asked myself...Why am I able to do this with some stories, but not with others? Answering this question sent me on a research journey I'd like to share. Part I of this journey will begin with the point of view of writers who believe in formulaic story structure.
A Beat Sheet- One of the most popular and widely accepted formulas for structuring a story is Blake Snyder's beat sheet from his book. Save The Catwww.savethecat.com
This is actually written for screen writers but is also widely used by fiction writers as a guide for structuring their stories. The beat sheet points out 15 'beats' or scenes in which particular plot points must occur. It gives a brief description of what these plot points are and on what page of your manuscript this should occur. For example-Scene, set-up, and character are all introduced between pages 1 and 10. The theme or major point of the entire story needs to be stated by a secondary character, preferably in dialogue somewhere between pages 10 and 30 and then an inciting incident must happen between pages 15 and 30 as well. These would be the first 3 beats. Notice the page numbers are a little flexible but if you are going to break away from this formula go faster not slower.
I found this particular formula helpful but confusing as taken strictly from Snyder's book. I've listened to broadcasts and classes taught on the formula for more clarity, which has helped. MichaelHauge, an expert working with the movie industry teaches his own version of the beat sheet. Jessica Brody teaches classes and has a formulaic spreadsheet available on her website. jessicabroady.com which helps with the beats and the page numbers.
As I found structure problems with my debut novel "Killing Casanova", I used the beat sheet to help me structure my second novel "Burning Bridger" (available through Muse It Up Publishing Spring/Summer of 2015). the formulaic approach was a huge help with finding the spots in the novel where the story didn't seem to be flowing in the right direction.
Here's the thing though...I knew from reading the story, the flow was off. I needed the formula to point me in the right direction. The problem I've found with the beat sheet is that if you don't have a destination the story wants to go, then the beats just make your story predictable, weak and boring.
Cory Mandell, a screen writer and teacher at UCLA says its because the formula, while important, can often be the wrong 'glass.'
If the story is the 'wine' but you're drinking it out of a shot glass or a Dixie cup then you didn't enjoy the 'wine' because the glass ruined it for you. Mandell recommends breaking the glass all together and sculpting a wineglass specific for your story. We'll talk more about the 'wine glass' in next month's post.
For now checking out the formulaic approach with the beat sheet is worth looking into. There's so much you can learn about the correct way to spin a tale instead of tell a story. It's definitely worth the knowledge you'll gain about writing good stories.
So start by beating the sheet and in January will discuss breaking the glass. Mostly...keep writing.