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Shaping Your Story with Beats

J. Greg Phelan, book inc director, describes how to shape your story with "beats."

By J. Greg Phelan

June 09, 2022

In our Incubators, we use story beats, a popular screenwriter’s tool, to help us draft our novels and memoirs. Beats are points of inflection that drive your hero’s journey, both inside and out—actions and reactions that propel your story forward. If you’re intentional about your beats, they can help you get to the heart of your story more effectively. Give your story a pleasing shape that makes your readers happy.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat (our preferred method) has 15 beats, along with recommendations on where and for how long the beats occur in your story. For example, the Catalyst, the inciting incident which kicks your story into gear, should happen about the 10% mark. If the Catalyst happens earlier, you’ve shortchanged The Setup, and risk your readers feeling disconnected from the characters. If it happens later, you risk boring your reader who’s itching for action. Writers for eons have found this 10% sweet spot through trial and error. Focusing on the beats helps you get there faster.

When you’re in “beat mode,” you ask structural questions, analyzing your story to make it more effective and dynamic. Then, equipped with new ideas, you return to drafting again, where 99% of the work happens. Beats are useful to revisit every so often during the drafting process. Don’t get too hung up on them. They’re useful scaffolding that helps you hone your story. You can put them aside once you’re happy with your structure, and get deeper into revision.

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.