How the Beats Helped a Writer Self-Publish an Amazon Hit
That’s not to say it’s easy, of course. Writing a story that other people want to pay money for is hard. Getting the word out that your story exists is also tough. But it’s all doable, and from a laptop in a coffee shop. Neat.
To take advantage of all this awesomeness though, you need three things: 1) A way to create compelling stories, 2) A way to distribute stories, 3) A way to market your stories.
Amazon and the Internet in general have #2 and #3 covered pretty well. But where to go for a practical framework for story telling? Save the Cat!, obviously!
It’s a cliche that many people want to write, yet don’t know how to begin. That was definitely my situation a few years ago. After 20 years of software development, I felt burned out and ready for something different. Slowly, I taught myself film directing and from there, got interested in screenwriting. Blake’s book was only one of about fifty I read, but it rose to the top of the bunch because of its usefulness.
Wrestling with a new structure was hard at first, but I was also energized by a strong sense of possibility. I intuitively knew that if I really worked this system, I could end up with something to be proud of.
I began with some half-baked ideas about a sci-fi/alternate history story set in 1910 and starring Nikola Tesla, the brilliant, unsung inventor who created many of the technologies we use today. I wanted to include other famous figures like Thomas Edison and Einstein. A looming war between the US and Britain would serve as the backdrop. And don’t forget a battle tank imbued with a human consciousness.
Without a solid writing plan, it would be easy to get started and then get lost in the forest, unsure of how to keep the story purposefully moving forward. This is where the 15 beats come to the rescue. In some ways, laying out the beats is the hardest part of the process for me. I spent a good three weeks on just that, but it’s so worth the effort to make sure everything clicks. This is the skeleton of the whole story, after all.
Here’s what I ended up with:
Opening Image: Tesla is alone, working late at night.
Theme Stated: Sometimes, fighting is the right option.
Set-Up: Tesla is brilliant, but deep in debt with creditors. War with England is imminent and the Army is having trouble with their new superweapon. Thomas Edison is successful, but takes credit for others’ work. He stiffs Tesla on a promised job, and Tesla finds himself digging ditches to pay rent.
Catalyst: The Army approaches Tesla and asks for his help in putting the terminal Colonel Browning’s consciousness into their Beowulf tank.
Debate: Should he do it? It’s a chance to sidestep the duel with Edison. How does he feel about the Colonel giving up his life for it? Should one man have that much power? A creditor comes over and things get violent.
Break into Two: Tesla moves into the Army lab and begins work on Beowulf. The Colonel dies and Tesla rushes to transfer his consciousness into the machine. President Roosevelt issues an assassination order for Albert Einstein, whose new atomic bombs pose a clear and present danger to the US.
B Story: Tesla meets the Colonel’s daughter Savannah, the lab’s civilian liaison for the war effort. Her daughter Madelaine was fathered by a British officer, but they escaped his cruelty.
Fun & Games: The British land an expeditionary force. Beowulf is sent to intercept them and performs flawlessly. Celebration. Edison is brought into the lab, and he and Tesla fight. The English send zeppelins with radiological bombs which destroy the lab and leave 12-year-old Madelaine near death. Tesla makes a snap decision and transfers her consciousness into Beowulf, killing the Colonel. Adjusting to her new life, Madelaine means well but fights recklessly. She accidentally kills American forces. In England, the assassination team fails to kill Einstein and instead kills the British king.
Midpoint: Tesla’s star rises. Edison is furious. They escape the ruined lab and settle at an Air Force base nearer Boston, where the British are attempting a major assault.
Bad Guys Close In: Edison positions himself as the lab’s new director. Wants to shut down Beowulf as a dangerous abomination and uses Madelaine’s friendly fire incident as justification. British forces tear across the Eastern Seaboard, heading to secure the deep water port at Boston for more reinforcements.
All Is Lost: Edison has Beowulf declared a menace. The new lab is shut down, Tesla and Savannah locked out. Madeline is tricked and put into cold shutdown, unable to defend herself.
Dark Night of the Soul: Tesla drinks alone. Savannah finds him and chastises him, explaining why she found him digging ditches.
Break into Three: Tesla realizes he needs Savannah. He can’t continue to roll over and move on to the next invention. Time for a stand. They decide to break in to the base and set Madeline free.
Gather Team – Tesla and his allies infiltrate the base and reactivate Madelaine.
Plan Begins – Together, they go after the British forces in Boston.
High Tower Surprise – Before they reach Boston, Edison broadcasts a warning that Madelaine is rogue and should be considered a British asset.
Dig Deep – The Americans are losing in Boston. Madelaine takes American fire and is heavily damaged. She continues to Boston and from atop Bunker Hill, shells the English reinforcements in the port. The tide of battle turns and the British commander orders a suicide nuclear strike on Boston, which will kill everyone for miles. Madelaine hears the radio transmission, but the Americans wouldn’t believe her, since they still think she’s been firing on American targets. Her treads have been blasted away and her armor is in shreds, exposing her powerplant.
New Plan – The zeppelin descends through the clouds, readying the radiological bomb. Boston is doomed, but the American’s don’t know it. If she moves, American cannons will finish her off. She chooses self-sacrifice and fires on the zeppelin. Only a quick Sergeant’s order saves her from being destroyed.
Final Image: Months later, Madelaine has been rebuilt, bigger and better. She’s loaded onto a ship bound for England to take the fight to the enemy. Tesla and Savannah have created their own lab and walk away from the docks to continue their work together.
With this plan in mind, I felt so much more confident in getting started. There was still a lot to figure out, but I had guideposts now. Like a slalom skier working his way down the mountain, I had regular milestones to hit. One of my recent reviews on Amazon mentioned that the book was well plotted, which is always nice to hear. That doesn’t happen by accident!
I’m halfway into my second book now and I wouldn’t think of starting a novel without banging out my beats first. If you’ve been on the fence about getting started on a story, the beats are your best friend. Let them help you!
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