Nano Prep #4: Beat Sheets

Welcome back to my Preparing for Nanowrimo series! We’re just a few weeks away now and shit’s about to get real. But no worries! If you’ve been prepping along with me you have your story idea plus a bit of structure, also known as your story arc. Perhaps you’ve jotted down some notes about your characters and chosen a point of view to write from. If so, you’re already well ahead of the game. For me, this stage in the writing process feels exciting but messy. Today we’ll add some specificity to our writing plan to help us hit the ground running on November 1st.

This week I recommend you create something called a beat sheet for your story. A beat sheet is a bullet point list of the major events in your story. I used to call this step outlining, but in all honesty I hate the concept of outlining because it feels too rigid. So I think of my beat sheet as pre-writing. I’m smoothing the path by laying down some ideas I can expand upon.

A story “beat” is a small piece of action that moves your story forward. Think of it like a note of music, leading to another note, and another.

Here’s a sample of two beats from a cruise ship mystery I just drafted: The Case of the Missing Finger


  • Ellie admires the cruise ship. The S/V Adventurous Spirit is far bigger than she’d imagined and she compares it against what she read in the brochure two years prior. It’s very white and has tropical birds painted on the hull. She wishes Ronnie were there with her, but reminds herself that he wouldn’t want her feeling sorry for herself.
  • Her daughter in law comes up beside her, making noise. She loves her DIL, but her concern-trolling is a bit much. Does Ellie have X, does she have Y? DIL hates the thought of Ellie being alone on the ship. It’s too bad she couldn’t wait for all of them to go. Ellie remarks that she won’t be alone, she has 1,XXX new friends. She says this, but inside she’s feeling nervous. Mostly she sees couples and families. Was taking this cruise alone a mistake? She hopes she won’t be lonely. But it can’t be worse than moping around at home. She’s tired of feeling sad.

Earlier, when we talked about structure , I mentioned that your character will likely start out in a zone of comfort (or a status quo) but they want something. My opening beats establish who Ellie is, what she wants, and what she’s leaving behind. Over the early chapters we learn that she’s widowed and that she loves her family, but she’s also craving more adventure in her life. From there I move into the plot of the murder mystery.

Your “beats” might be a single sentence, a paragraph, or something longer. It’s up to you! What we’re doing here is taking our prior prep work (structure, character, setting) and fluffing them out into a list of events.

Tip: I’ve never been able to define the final few beats of my story. I leave those blank, because I know I won’t know what the final scenes look like until I arrive there. So don’t worry if that happens to you too. This isn’t a school assignment and you aren’t being graded. Do it your own way.

Tips for Building Your Beat Sheet

Beat sheets are optional. You might prefer to sit down without one and just crank the words. But I find having a beat sheet helpful because I can take a beat and paste it into a document for the day, then expand it out to a full scene. This is far easier (for me) than generating every single scene on the fly.

Here are some things that might happen when you try to make a beat sheet:

  1. You write some beats, then you read them, then you think BOY THIS IS BORING. That’s helpful! It’s your signal to come up with some exciting events to spice up your story.

  2. You write five or ten beats, then you’re not sure what happens next. That’s fine! You might come back tomorrow with more ideas, or you might want to start with those initial ideas and take it from there. There’s no wrong way to do this.

  3. You make a beat-sheet for your full novel, but it seems a bit sparse in sections. No biggie! You’ll find yourself adding more depth and detail in the moment as you write. Some of us write “thin” beat sheets then thicken up the story considerably as we write.

  4. You make a beat sheet and use it, but then you find your story is diverting off the path you set. That’s cool! You can adjust your beat sheet as you go, because we don’t always see the story in full until we start writing it. That’s normal and pretty darn fun. A surprised writer can mean surprised readers too.

  5. You start making a beat sheet, but you get all jazzed and some of your “beats” are getting really long and detailed like scenes. Awesome! You might be doing some early writing before Nano starts, but I’m not going to rat you out.

For this week’s nano prep, my suggestion is that you try to write a beat sheet for your novel, or at least for the first part of your story. Can you make Nanowrimo easier by laying down some beats before you start writing? If so, go for it.

Future-you might be very glad you did. 🙂

More posts about Nano Prep 2019


Previous Nano Prep #3: Character, POV, and Setting