Ask the Editor: Beat Sheet FTW!

by Elisabeth Kauffman
published in Writing

Dear Editor,

There’s something missing in my manuscript, and I can’t quite figure out what it is. But I know it’s missing. My beta-readers know it, too. I keep getting feedback that the pacing is off. I have tried outlining my story so that I know what’s there, but that’s not helping.

What do I do next?


Dear Mystified,

Don’t despair! Pacing, it turns out, can be relatively easy to fix if you know what tools to use. First, let’s talk about what it is, and then we’ll talk about how you nail it in your next revision using a beat sheet.

What is pacing?

Pacing in your novel is the speed at which events unfold in the plot. It’s the rhythm that naturally pulls the reader through the plot. It differs from story to story, usually based on type. A thriller, for example, will have a much faster pace than an epic fantasy.

It’s important to recognize that reader expectations and genre conventions also help determine the pace of your story. A reader expects a thriller to be fast-paced and an epic fantasy to be more leisurely. Sometimes you can set your readers up to have their expectations subverted, but usually, a successful story hits certain highs and lows in relatively the same place as the others in its genre. This is where beat sheets come in handy.

What’s a beat sheet?

First let’s ask, what’s a “beat”? A beat is a specific point in a story such as the “opening” or the “first plot point” or the “climax.” These beats are common to all stories, and making sure they fall in the right places will greatly increase the emotional payoff your reader receives at the end of the story.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is the best place to start if you want to find a universal beat sheet. Snyder outlines very clearly the three-act structure that most stories fall into, and gives detailed explanations of each “beat” in that structure.

If you take your story and line it up with Snyder’s beat sheet, you’ll likely find your pacing problem really quickly. Maybe you waited to long to introduce the main conflict. Maybe your main character overcame their challenges too quickly. Maybe the ending didn’t allow enough space for the character (never mind the reader) to process what happened. Overlaying a beat sheet on your action will help you figure it out.

Is there a downside to using a beat sheet?

There’s a school of writing that resists the kind of structure that a beat sheet symbolizes. Other tools for understanding the arc of a story (like the Hero’s Journey) do similar work of telling you where the expected and universal parts of the story exist. While you want to make sure your story doesn’t come across as “formulaic,” if your readers are struggling with staying engaged, or finding themselves overwhelmed, it’s likely because somewhere one of the universal elements of the story has gone missing, or is working overtime. A beat sheet can help you figure out what’s off track, without completely wrecking your story’s natural structure.

How to “Ask the Editor”

Send your questions to Limit yourself to a few paragraphs to introduce yourself and the problem at hand. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” after all. And keep an eye out for opportunities to send in longer submissions for critique.

Elisabeth Kauffman is a freelance editor in California. Her favorite genres are YA fantasy, sci-fi, and romance. She regularly obsesses over board games, Doctor Who, and Harry Potter. Come share your ideas with her on Facebook and Twitter and on the web at Also, check out her author website and her author page on Facebook.

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