Radical Approaches to Writing Pt. 4

Ohmeohmy! What a crazy quartet of months it has been since I started this series on revising before you write!

First, I participated in a black belt test at my dojo. I was not the one being tested, but I did have to attack him and take whatever throw or pin came in response. I performed as a weapons partner for several intricate katas. The test was a success, and now I’m preparing for my own brown belt test.

That’s me, doing the throw. My Sensei looks on from the corner, “grading” the technique.

I also took on a basketful of new projects. One was an article for the New Mexico Mercury, an indie news hub for the state. I got to do a lot of hands-on research about worm-composting.

I critiqued many amazing manuscripts! Memoirs, picture books, zany novels with anthropomorphic magpie narrators! And one of the scholarship essays I helped critique and edit won the student a full-ride Ph.D. at Oxford!

Then, in the midst of it all, I got this shiny new website! A huge thanks to all who have signed on to follow me thus far. WordPress is a whole new adventure for me and this site is a continual work in progress.

So, all that said, let’s get back to revising before we write. It’s a premise I worked up and turned into my Master’s Thesis. I realize it is not the easier premise to wrap one’s head around. I went back and forth with my advisor, Coe Booth (a powerhouse writer with a warehouse of patience—which came in handy dealing with me for a semester), who said that I was really talking about pre-writing.

Me: Well, yes…but mostly no.

Coe: Then it’s pre-planning.

Me: Again, yes…but mostly no.

If you’ve read the previous posts in the this series (Part I, Part II, Part III), then you know that my entire premise centers on the neurological workings of our brains. I posit that the usual writing methods work counter to our inherent neural networks, and I have tried to devise a new methodology that minimizes writer’s block (the result of decision fatigue) and maximizes creativity (which requires achieving a continuous flow state between both sides of the brain). Revising before you write activates both the creative and analytical sides of the brain, allowing them to harmonize, or achieve aiki.

Outlines or Beat Sheets

"Flow" courtesy of me.
“Flow” courtesy of me.

So, continuing on the path of research writers and screenwriters, where are we? You’ve so far devised and revised a logline. You’ve come up with a quick pitch for the book (yes, the one you’ve not yet written). And you’ve hopefully spent some time gathering your sources. Now you’ll need to make an outline or a beat sheet.

For some people, outlines are wonderful tools. For others, they are torture devices. Whether you love the outline or loathe it, I suggest giving the beat sheet a try. The outline or beat sheet is a great tool to help you discover your story and to revise what you think you know before you write the whole thing.

The beat sheet boils down the fundamental parts of the hero’s journey arc plot, which according to anthropologist Joseph Campbell, is a plot that can be found in all stories, regardless of country, culture, or historical context. The hero is called to adventure, goes on that adventure, battles bad guys or has lots of conflicts, eventually wins before going home richer and wiser. The hero’s journey is not the only structure available to a writer; however, it is one that most audiences are most familiar with thanks to the ever-expanding influence of television and movies.

I don’t have time to fully address the hero’s journey arc plot in this lecture, however, for a truly rich discussion of it and other story structures, but a good place for the curious to start is with Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.

My beat sheet for novels comes from my own adaptation of Blake Snyder’s movie script beats, which you can delve into by reading Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.


What? A novelist read a craft book for screenwriters? Yes. Exploring all the facets of tunnels of storytelling can only make you a better writer.

So, what are beats? In some ways they are like musical beats, the rhythms of the story. In the movie biz, beats were handed down by Russian actor and director, Constantine Stanislovski, who broke plays (verbal/visual stories) down into “bits.” Being Russian, he called them “beats.”

Snyder lays out 15 beats: opening image (or chapter, if you’re doing a book), theme stated, set-up, catalyst, debate, break into 2, b-story, fun & games, midpoint, bad guys close in, all is lost, dark night of the soul, break into three, finale, and final image/chapter.

To demonstrate how each beat functions in the story, and how each one takes shape in a book, I made a schnazzy little slide show, but wordpress won’t let me download “plugins” so you’ll have to open this APPENDIX, and if you’re good at scrolling, then it will feel just like an automated slideshow!

Like a logline, each beat comprises no more than a sentence or two. You always fill the sheet out in PENCIL, and if you can’t fill it all out in one sitting, well, don’t beat yourself up. Even if you do nail all the beats, you will inevitably come back and revise them throughout the remaining revise-before-you-write steps.

And it’s not as rigid as you might think. Regardless of structure and genre, many stories use these beats. Some, like the movie Pulp Fiction or the middle grade novel One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia, shuffle the beats out of order.

Your brain's neurons!
Your brain’s neurons!

Riddling out your beats will require your creative brain to create (what pops up early in the story to be the catalyst for my hero???) and your analytical brain to analyze (how does the theme factor into the hero’s dark night of the soul???). The beat sheet also gives you a writer’s high. You’ve seen your story all the way to the end. You’ve journeyed through all the ups and downs with your characters. You know their happily ever afters (or tragic ends). Rarely do writers get to enjoy such desserts. Novels are daunting beasts ever-ready to buck you off. My goal with “revise-before-you write” is to saddle you securely to your novel’s bristling back.

Scene Cards

Once you’ve come down from the exhilaration of seeing “the end” of your novel, it’s time to dig in for some more revision. Your next step is coming up with scene cards. For researchers, the 3×5 index card, or source card, is what keeps track of the facts, quotes, and ideas pulled from different sources.

Graphic novelists turned this concept into thumbnails. Screenwriters adapted this idea and made scene cards, which they use for envisioning the entire screenplay. And we creative writers can use it, too!

We storytellers can fill out scene cards whenever a scene lights up in our imagination. If you’re playing around with a logline, and a scene comes to you, grab a scene card and fill it out. If you’re free-writing in your journal about a character, and you stumble into a crisp, clear scene, get it on a scene card! If you’re filling out the beat sheet and you can imagine the climax or the end, get a scene card before that image slips away.

When I started using scene cards, I got a lot more writing done a whole lot faster. You’ll be glad to know that several VCFA students, besides me, have already enjoyed the benefits of scene cards. On her blog, author Katherine Quimby Johnson detailed how scene cards bailed her out of stuck stories and a critical thesis in crisis. Author Joe McGee tweeted: “I have become an index card addict. Scene by scene, shuffle and move. Each card is like a literary lily pad in the pond of my story.”

The genius behind scene cards is that they are so approachable and so manageable. Snyder posits that they create a pressure-free zone! No more huge blank pages staring at you. All you have to do is fill up an itty-bitty index card. Think of them as itty-bitty first drafts of your scenes. And, just like a log line or a beat sheet, scene cards can undergo lots of revision in no time.

You can rewrite a scene card in a matter of minutes, compared to the hours or days it may take to revise a fully written and crafted scene. And should you later toss a card out, who cares? It’s not like you threw out a fully crafted scene with hard-earned words expressing the deep sebaceous and psychological layers of your characters. All you toss out is a card with four basic elements which I’ll cover now.

You can write anything you want on these cards, but they are primarily used to denote scenes. To denote a scene, first, you must indicate the location. Later, when you “translate” this card into a fully drafted scene, this location will become your imbued and nuanced setting. For now, just establish where you think the scene takes place. Start general and get specific as you go. Is it inside or outside? Abbreviate with either INT. for interior or EXT. for exterior. Then establish more specifically: GARY’S HOUSE or FOOTBALL FIELD. Finally, figure out when this scene happens. Is it morning or evening or 11:59 p.m.? So often, we forget the when of our scenes, that the sun sets twice or the stars come out during an afternoon lunch break. But a scene card can help you find your way in the where and when of story.

On the next line, you say what happens in the scene, but you must cap yourself at one sentence. What primarily happens. Not every action and dance step, just the juiciest bit. Other things will happen when you get in there and actually write, but what goes on the card is limited to the Big Kahuna. No need to bother with imagery, metaphor, dialogue—but if any of those elements come to mind, jot them on the backside and save them for later.

The next part of the card is to denote the conflict. Every scene must have conflict. Conflict is the engine of fiction, says the sage Margaret Bechard. Scene cards make sure you crank that engine to life. Here you address the main conflict. You figure out who is bucking against whom. Who’s got an agenda? And when you let your characters have agendas, you avoid turning them into plot-puppets, or what Printz-winning author Amanda Jenkins famously calls “plot bitches.” If thinking of “conflicts” doesn’t work for you (it keeps causing your perfectly nice characters to slit each other’s throats), then try doing what author Zach Hively recommends to his writing students: come up with a challenge for every scene. Maybe your character must scale a steep-ish cliff while hiking with his/her heart throb. Maybe your character must master a particularly difficult musical segment. Whatever it is, challenge your character(s).

Emotional arcs go on the last line. You’re not tracking every EKG blip. Instead, use the emotional arc to examine how the main character in a scene feels from start to finish. Things can start SQUEE (+) and wind up LAME (–) or vice versa. You can also take it from bad to worse (- to – -) or from good to stupendous (+ to +++++)! You can also use up or down arrows if plus and minus feel too mathy.

Tracking these arcs on the scene cards will help you track the overall emotional arc throughout the entire novel.

  • Location
  • Action
  • Conflict
  • Emotion

Those are the four main elements to put on every scene card. And when it’s done, it might look like this:

Location: INT. CABIN – DAY.

Action: Jane fends off relentless mosquitoes.

Conflict/Challenge: She can’t close the window to keep the bugs out because her mom’s too hot. Plus there’s no bug spray left, since her little brother used it all up.

Emotional arc: Jane hates camping even more now. (-)

As you can already see, the scene card helps you address and revise many of the craft issues that would otherwise pile up in the conventional modes of writing and revising. Scene cards also demand aiki harmony in your creator-brain and editor-brain. You invent and improvise the story as you go from card to card. As you fill them out, you are amorphously creating and discovering your story. But you are also executing logistics to figure out the conflicts and the ups and downs of emotions. You need your creator-brain to generate the foundations of each scene, but you also need your editor-brain to tie it all together.

Okay, so you’ve written (and rewritten) a killer logline and you’ve pitched your story. Friends and strangers agree: they’d pay money to read that! You’ve gathered your sources and you’ve revised your story a lot. You’ve also been good and filled out your beat sheet, some parts like a billion times. You know what’s going to happen…at least at the important parts, and now you have your scene cards! It’s time to start drafting, right?

Nope. Next stop is your storyboard. Where else will you put all those scene cards? Where else will you see what holes are in your beat sheet or outline?

Tune in next time for a lesson on storyboards, which will also reveal what writers like you and me have in common with Beethoven! (Hint: It is neither cravats, nor awesome hair.)

Image PD.

By jenmichellemason

Jenny is a story hunter. She has explored foreign countries, canyon mazes, and burial crypts to gather the facts that make good stories. Once, she sniffed a 200-year-old skull...for research purposes. Jenny received an M.Phil from Trinity College Dublin and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. She has authored nearly 20 STEM books for young readers. Her inquisitive and funny nonfiction articles have appeared in Mountain Flyer, Cobblestone, and Muse magazines. Jenny also works as a freelance copy writer for nonprofits and small businesses.


  1. What an exciting, new venture and you have so many craft jewels to share with us. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your new blog. Can’t wait to read what we writers have in common with Beethoven!

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