The Digital Outline: Creating a Beatline for Your Story
(Story Development For Writers, Part 6)
by John Robert Marlow
PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN (OR WOMAN) BEHIND THE CURTAIN
You’ve no doubt heard that art is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration. Actually, it’s not that simple. If coming up with the concept is inspiration, and the actual writing is perspiration—that still leaves everything we’re doing now: logline, structure, pitch sheet and (finally) beatline. This is the man-behind-the-curtain-work that makes the final product—the art—seem effortless. To the audience, that is; the artist knows better.
HAMMERING OUT THE DETAILS
Now that we have the logline, structure, and pitch sheet in place, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty details of just how, exactly, we get our characters from first page, through all seven story points, past the obstacle (which is usually, but not always, overcome) to the goal—and beyond.
This is the land of story development proper, an area many writers—and most beginners—ignore at their peril. Which sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Every good story is a new destination, never visited before. And unless you have a fondness for blundering through the forest in random directions (a fondness which your readers will not share), you’re going to need a map.
The structure set forth in SDFW Part 4 described the landmarks; now it’s time to zoom in and look at the actual path we—and our characters—must travel between them.
WHAT IS THE BEATLINE?
Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Beatline is. You have to see it for yourself.
Oh wait, that’s not entirely true. It’s best to do both. So let’s start with the telling. A beatline is…
A bullet-point version of your story, detailing (in story order) every significant physical and emotional event that takes place during the course of the story.
Most bullet points should be one to three lines long. Some may include more than one event, if those events are very closely related. No significant event is overlooked. Ideally, a complete stranger should be able to pick up your beatline and follow the story from beginning to end, without needing to read the story itself.
Sounds easy, right? It’s not—but it beats the heck out of any “conventional” outline you’ll ever see. Bad news and good news here. If you blow (or skip) the beatline (or more conventional outline), you’ll more than likely blow the story as well. Maybe partially, maybe completely; you won’t know until you’ve finished writing or—worse—when agents, publishers, or production companies start turning it down. That’s when the endless rewrites begin.
On the other hand, if you truly ace the beatline, your story and characters should be in excellent shape—before the writing begins. Then it’s a matter of making sure your writing does justice to the tale being told. If story revisions are needed, they’ll probably be minor.
This is where the specifics of your particular story come into play and, thus, where an article like this offers the least assistance. That’s because we’re no longer dealing with universals like story structure and pitching, which apply to everyone; it’s now down to you and the unique tale you have to tell.
When working with clients, I know the tale, and a great deal of my development work involves helping clients beatline their concepts (for expansion) or existing stories (for revision or adaptation). Because I don’t know your story, I’ll return to the previous installment’s example and beatline the first part of a story most readers already know.
BEATLINING THE MATRIX
This is what a beatline looks like…
- Traced phone call: Trinity tells Cypher that Morpheus believes Neo is The One; Cypher expresses doubt, says “We’re gonna kill him” (Neo)
- Four cops move down dark tattered hall with guns and flashlights, kick in door of Room 303; Trinity sits inside bare room, working laptop; she raises her hands
- Agents pull up outside, speak with Lt., who was told to wait for them; Agent Smith tells Lt. the four men he sent are already dead
- Cops move to cuff Trinity; she kills them all with freakish, inhuman abilities
- The Agents enter the building with more cops
- Trinity speaks to Morpheus on cell phone; earlier call traced, hardline cut, Agents coming; he tells her where to find another phone
- Trinity steps into hall as elevator opens, takes off; Agents and cops pursue, large Agent in the lead
- Trinity hits fire escape; Agent Smith on ground outside so she goes up
- Trinity hits the roof; Agent follows; she jumps to next roof, he follows; cops lagging, barely make jump
- Agent fires, misses; Trinity makes impossible jump over street to next building; Agent follows, cops stop
- Trinity bolts across roof, leaps off edge, crashes through small window in next building
- She tumbles down staircase, lands on back with two guns aimed at window; no one follows, she rises
- Trinity runs outside, spots phone booth; garbage truck skids into turn, stops with headlights on phone booth; phone rings
- Garbage truck burns rubber for phone booth; Trinity sprints toward booth
She steps inside, picks up phone, turns to face oncoming truck
- Truck smashes phone boooth through wall, backs up
- Agent Smith steps from truck, other Agents walk up; there is no body in the phone booth; “She got out;” Smith says their informant is real, and the name of their next target is Neo; a search is already running
- Neo sleeps in front of his computer; news headline about Morpheus eluding police on the monitor
- The newscroll disappears; words appear as Neo wakes: “Wake up Neo… The Matrix has you… Follow the white rabbit;” He tries to shut down but can’t; next message is “Knock knock, Neo”
- Someone knocks on the door; the monitor goes black
- Neo answers, small group in hall; he sells illegal disk to lead dude in hall; dude invites Neo to party; Neo passes, then spots white rabbit tattoo on gal’s shoulder, agrees to go
That’s a beatline. Every significant event is there. (In this case, they’re all physical.) The final level of microdetail—Trinity leaving a footprint in the concrete when she lands on the third rooftop, for instance, or spinning as she sails toward the window of the fourth building—isn’t needed until the actual writing begins. Though you can of course make notes as cool little microdetails come to mind.
As you can see, once you have the beatline in place, it’s hard to write too far astray. On average, I find a tightly written beatline comes out somewhere between 20 and 40 pages long. Novel beatlines run longer than script beatlines.
There’s no reason you can’t use this same process to beatline a work of nonfiction, substituting topics covered and examples for physical and emotional events. Conventional outlines are klutzy and often hard to rearrange; the beatline is more streamlined, and a cinch to alter.
BEATLINE NEW AND EXISTING STORIES
Simply put, it’s faster and more economical to work in beatline form. While it’s easy to see the advantages of this process for new works, let’s take a look at beatlining existing material.
Many writers know something. What they know they can’t explain, but they feel it. They’ve felt it for some time: There’s something wrong with their manuscript or screenplay. They don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in their mind—driving them mad. Or causing rejections. It is this feeling that brings many clients to me.
In short, they need need to revise their stories—and the beatline works here, for the same reason it works with something new. In this case, you can either plow through 120 or 300 pages (or more), over and over again, changing this and fixing that, and rereading yet again to see if you missed something.
Or you can clunk through a complicated formal outline of some type—in which case, go with God.
Or you can, instead, work with a 20-40 page beatline, where each bullet point becomes, in effect, digital or (if you prefer analog) modular. You can add, delete, move, or alter any beat without worrying about futzing up some multiply-indented, numbered-and-lettered-and-subnumbered monstrosity of an outline.
You can see immediately how your changes affect neighboring scenes. In a matter of minutes, you can see how it affects the story as a whole.
Using a beatline also allows you to keep the whole story in your head while you tinker, because it doesn’t take 2 or 3 or 6 hours to read it through (which also means you’re more likely to read it through in one sitting). In the time it would take to read your manuscript or screenplay, you can rip through the beatline 5, 10, 20 times or more.
You’ll actually get to know your story’s pitchable points better (and faster) this way than you will by reading the actual story. Ghosts, orphans and other oversights will “pop out” at you in a way that just doesn’t happen while slogging through the entire work, in part because you seldom read the entire thing in one sitting.
To break things up a bit and provide points of reference—so you can see, at a glance, where you are in the story—list the seven major story points (see SDFW Part 4) in their proper place in the beatline, like so:
- Neo gets FedEx delivery at work, finds phone inside
- Phone rings in his hand; it’s Morpheus, who says he’s been looking for Neo and wants to show him something, Neo may not be ready but they’ve run out of time because “they’re coming for you and I don’t know what they’re going to do;” tells him to look
- Neo looks over cubicle wall, sees Agents (including Smith); Morpheus guides him (as if he can see everything) to outer office and painter’s scaffold, says only ways out of building are walking skyscraper ledge to scaffold and taking that to roof, and leaving in Agents’ custody; Morpheus leaves choice to Neo and hangs up
- Neo goes onto ledge, damn near falls, drops phone, goes back
- Neo escorted from building by Agents, placed in car outside; Trinity watchersd from motorcycle, takes off when Agent Smith turns her way
You might even make the story points a different color.
Once the beatline is complete (or revised), you’ll know exactly where you’re going before your fingers ever touch the keyboard—avoiding the otherwise inevitable blind alleys and endless rewrites that could cost you weeks, months, even years.
Another thing the beatline will do for you is this: help kill your darlings—those choice bits you’ve labored over and become invested in and just can’t seem to part with, even though they don’t quite belong in the story.
Novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman goes so far as to say that this is in large part what distinguishes the professional from the amateur writer: the ability to kill one’s darlings. When those darlings exist as mere bullet-points in a beatline, it’s easier to show them the door.
The beatline is also appropriate for adaptations—where perfectly good stories must nevertheless undergo additions, deletions, and alterations to meed the demands of the new medium.
A few useful tips I use with clients…
Once you have a complete draft of your beatline, save two versions: an original and a numbered working draft: Brilliant Work beatline (original) and Brilliant Work beatline (working 01). Park the original and use the working draft.
When making changes to the working draft, use strikout for deletions and a new color for all other changes. If you move something, strike it out in the old spot and color it in the new. Choose an easy-on-the-eyes color for this, or you’ll go blind. (You can also track changes in Word, but I find this to be more trouble than it’s worth, through multiple versions and with two people working the beatline.)
Before “permanently” deleting strikeouts, save a new working version (“Brilliant Work (beatline working 02)”). If you change your mind on anything later, you can revert to (or pull beats from) earlier versions.
Note that after a while, it gets really annoying to read through, or even look at, a document with large blocks of strikeout text—so at some point, you’re going to want to dump those blocks and continue with a “fresh” document.
When you reach the end, and have gone through everything and made all of the changes you think best, save another draft as-is, then black all text (changing colored text to black), save as “Brilliant Work v2 (beatline working 0-whatever).”
Now repeat—because there will be things you missed, new “aha moments” as you go through the revised beatline, and new changes to be made. If you need help, or want to brainstorm, find a good editor or story development guy (Hello), and have at it.
Repeat again, as needed—until the story seems flawless.
Then go write it.
Alter your beatline to reflect the new full draft. Check it over for mistakes and possible improvements. Do a final pass on the work itself and—
Starting this month, the Self Editing Blog will be expanding its coverage with guest posts from agents and others, interviews with authors and screenwriters—and more. Stay tuned…
The articles in this series are:
Author John Robert Marlow is available for professional editing, development, and consultation services (including logline, structure, and story development options). If you’d like help taking your work to the next level, contact John here.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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