By Ruby Johnson
In Writing the Romantic Comedy, Billy Mernit breaks the romance storyline into “seven basic” pieces, or “beats.” Most of us have heard that we should structure novels like plays or movies: in three acts and in some cases additionally broken down into six stages(Michael Hauge). In a romance, Mernit states the three acts can be broken down by the plot points: the meet, the lose, and the get. He then takes movies and breaks them down even further into seven elements (beats) that are important to every story.
A beat is a unit of storytelling. It is a part of the story in which something happens. It could be dramatic or it could be action. Drama or action could be single scenes. A scene is a continuous action in a single place until you go to a new scene in a new setting. A beat can take place over several scenes. The point of writing a beat sheet is to allow you to get a clear sense of the way the story will flow. You’re not trying to sell a story with a beat sheet. The beat sheet won’t contain dialogue and should not be too detailed. Try to make sure each scene raises a question – whether an emotional or plot question, ( a hook) whether implicit or explicit that a later scene answers.
You should know, at the least, who’s in the scene and where it takes place. You should know what each character wants going into the scene, and what the conflict is. You should know what twists happen, and where the characters are going to end up.
In Billy Mernit’s book he describes the following as seven beats that are necessary for good story structure with an explanation of Notting Hill which starred Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
1. The Setup/Hook
A scene or sequence identifying the exterior and/or interior conflict (i.e., unfulfilled desire), the “what’s wrong with this picture” implied in the protagonist’s (and/or antagonist’s) current status quo. (Mernit, 110)
1. Setup (the chemical equation). Anna Scott is a famous actress and William Thacker is divorced, in a dead end job, with a peculiar flat mate. Anna appears to have everything William doesn’t. (118)
2. The Meet/Inciting Incident
The inciting incident brings man and woman together and into conflict; an inventive but credible contrivance, often amusing, which in some way sets the tone for the action to come. (111)
2. Catalyst (the cute meet). Anna wanders into William’s shop and buys a book. He doesn’t blow her cover of being a famous star. Moments later he bumps into her on the street and spills orange juice on them both and takes her to his place to clean up. She plants a big kiss on him and leaves. According to Mernit, the star has commanded the scene, and William is ripe for conquest.
3. The Turning Point
Traditionally occurring at the end of Act 1, a new development that raises story stakes and clearly defines the protagonist’s goal; most successful when it sets man and woman at cross-purposes and/or their inner emotions at odds with the goal. (112)
3. First turning point. (a sexy complication). William thinks it’s just one of those memorable moments in life, but then he discovers Anna has called him. He goes to her hotel and is mistaken for a journalist. Just as the gulf between them appears to widen, Anna asks him for a date.
4. The Midpoint/Raising the Stakes
A situation that irrevocably binds the protagonist with the antagonist (often while tweaking sexual tensions) and has further implications for the outcome of the relationship. (113)
4. Midpoint. (the hook). Anna asks William to spend the night with her, but when he goes to
her hotel, her movie star boyfriend shows up. William, posing as a waiter so he won’t
cause a problem for Anna, leaves. He is not only disappointed; he also realizes he is in
5. Swivel: Second Turning Point
Traditionally occurring at the end of Act 2, stakes reach their highest point as the romantic relationship’s importance jeopardizes the protagonist’s chance to succeed at his/her state goal—or vice versa—and his/her goal shifts. (115)
5. Second turning point (the swivel).William and Anna have spent the night together at his flat(apartment) and all is good until they open the front door and Britain’s media is snapping pictures of them. Anna panics and says to William: I’ll always regret this. Then choosing career over love leaves.
6. The Dark Moment/Crisis
Wherein the consequences of the swivel decision yield disaster; generally, the humiliating scene where private motivations are revealed, and either the relationship and/or the protagonist’s goal is seemingly lost forever. (115)
6.Climax (the dark moment). Later, Anna apologizes and asks for a second chance. But William is now afraid of committing to her because of all of the misunderstandings that have occurred and he turns her down. He is depressed and seeks out his friends who all think he was wrong.
7. Joyful Defeat/Resolution
A reconciliation that reaffirms the primal importance of the relationship; usually a happy ending that implies marriage or a serious commitment, often at the cost of some personal sacrifice to the protagonist. (116)
7. Resolution(joyful defeat). After a madcap chase to catch Anna before she leaves the country, he pushes himself into the middle of a press conference and begs her to have him and she agrees. The last shot of the movie shows William and Anna (who is very pregnant) sitting in a park in a state of domestic bliss.
In traditional romance novels, it is usually the male who is the aggressor, not the female like we see in Notting Hill.
If you’re writing for Harlequin there are certain elements the characters must have and you should check their guidelines for more information.
According to the late Blake Snyder, added to these familiar elements is the nature of the conflict a romantic H/H faces. This will form the foundation of the story concept itself, and it will almost always fall into one of six categories, Secrets &Lies; The Imposter; The Magic Spell; Peter Pan and Wendy; Slumming It; and The Long Haul.
1. Secrets & Lies are by far the most common kind of conflict, since almost all Hollywood romantic comedies are built on deception. The hero is lying to, or withholding information about, someone – usually the person she’s falling for. When the secret is finally revealed or the lie exposed, it will split the lovers apart.
2. The Impostor category is just a more refined version of Secrets & Lies. In these stories, the hero is actually pretending to be someone he’s not: a society woman in Maid in Manhattan; the President of the United States in Dave; the fiancée of a guy in a coma in While You Were Sleeping.
3.The Magic Spell applies to some fantastic wish, curse, power, after death experience or mythical creature changes the hero’s life, who then falls in love while combating its effects. The heroes of Stranger Than Fiction, What Women Want must overcome something supernatural in order to ultimately achieve their romantic destinies.
4. Peter Pan &Wendy involve men stuck in emotional adolescence who must learn to take responsibility in order to win the love of more mature women: The 40-Year-Old Virgin; About a Boy, The Wedding Crashers and Jerry Maguire also fall into this category.
5. Slumming It is a common category of romance, where the conflict frequently stems from class differences: Notting Hill; Bridget Jones’ Diary; and Pretty Woman mine the same territory.
6. The Long Haul applies to romance more grounded in reality. The conflict may come from some unusual situation, as in As Good As It Gets but they tend to cover longer spans of time, as the characters weather the ups and downs of more ongoing relationships.
Many romances combine two or more of these categories. Wedding Crashers and About a Boy are both Peter Pan and Imposter, as their immature heroes pretend to be rich businessmen in the former, and a single father in the latter. And most of the heroes of Magic Spell romances also keep their supernatural situations a secret.
Adding one or more of these conflicts for your characters (particularly the first five) can greatly improve your story. A beat sheet can be used for any genre of fiction- romance, mystery, adventure, or fantasy.