Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Wednesday Writing Workout: LET'S BEAT IT OUT!

A brand-new TeachingAuthor in her own right/write brings us today’s beat-a-ful
Wednesday Writing Workout: debut picture book author and Colorado high school English teacher Heather Preusser.
Lucky me to have worked with Heather this past July at my Manuscript Workshop in Vermont on her next work, a YA novel.
And now lucky you to learn from her storytelling smarts.

Gorgeously illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen, Heather’s picture book, A Symphony of Cowbells (Sleeping Bear Press, 2017), tells the tale of Petra and her Swiss cow, Elfi, who loses her bell and disrupts the harmony of the herd.

Heather believes Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet- affectionately known as The BS2 - helped Petra and Elfi save the day - and - Heather save her picture book’s plot.

FYI: The Beat Sheet is a plot structure template; it reduces the three-act structure into small, manageable sections, each offering a specific goal for the story as a whole.

Thank you, Heather, for creating today’s WWW, teaching us how to plot our stories one beat at a time.

Happy Writing!

Esther Hershenhorn


              LET’S BEAT IT OUT!

     Whenever I’m stuck on a manuscript – whether I’m brainstorming a young adult novel or revising a picture book – I turn to the official “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” (a.k.a. the BS2) from Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Seeing the fifteen different beats on one sheet is eye-opening; I can identify where certain beats are too long and where others are missing entirely.


To demonstrate, I put my debut picture book, A SYMPHONY OF COWBELLS, through the “BS2” test: 

Opening Image: In the end pages, the effusive midday sun rises behind the mountains, and figurines put on a musical performance, alluding to the titular symphony. A bell-less Elfi and Petra watch from above while two large Alpine crows fly about, adding to the activity we can both see and hear and hinting at the hustle and bustle to come. The clock motif that the illustrator, Eileen Ryan Ewen, weaves throughout the story not only connects to the Swiss setting but also hints at a ticking clock – literally – and increases the overall tension.

Theme Stated: The cover image features Petra offering a bouquet of sweet, tasty flowers to Elfi and establishes the theme of friendship. Efli wears her big booming brass bell proudly; however, it’s missing by the time we open the book. “What lengths should one go to help a friend?” becomes the central argument.

Set-Up: In the first few pages we’re introduced to the persistent protagonist, Petra, as well as her favorite caramel-colored cow, Elfi, who is both prideful and stubborn.

Catalyst: When Petra joins the herd in the lower meadows, she notices Elfi’s familiar melody is missing; her big, booming brass bell is gone.

Debate: Can Elfi make do without a bell? Petra’s father suggests this solution; however, Efli stamps her hoof.

Break into Two: Elf refuses to move, so Petra must march into Act Two. She helps her friend, literally taking hold of the reins and pulling the cow while her father pushes. Because Petra pulls toward the right, it encourages the reader to turn the page and keep reading.

B Story: In this manuscript, the A and B story run concurrently, and in the B story we’re introduced to two large Alpine crows. Although this isn’t a traditional love story, it is a love story: These crows adore shiny objects and, as flighty, thieving birds, they act as the “upside down versions” of the durable, dependable cows in Act One. 

Fun and Games: Petra proposes a different bell, a tiny tin bell that makes an embarrassing tinkling sound. Elfi scoffs at the suggestion. With its butt in the air, even the farm cat has fun inspecting the contents of a nearby bucket (another hint we’re in the upside down version of Act One).

Midpoint: Things are worse off than they were at the story’s start because now the entire herd is out of tune and refuses to move. If the cows don’t head to the high pasture, there will be no grazing, no milk, and no cheese! This is a false defeat. Even the curious cat has toppled over the bucket, symbolizing the toppling effect Elfi’s missing bell has on the entire farm.

Bad Guys Close In: While Petra begs Elfi to move, we see the consequences of Mr. Schmidt’s stolen pocket watch in the Jan-Brett-esque panel at the bottom of the page: The cheese shop owner has overslept (as has the mouse!), and a closed sign hangs on the door. Now everyone in Gimmelwald will be without scrumptious cheese.

All Is Lost: All is literally lost as Petra searches for Elfi’s bell. Although Petra finds nothing, the illustrations hint at a false victory: The cat in the background appears to have his eye on a few mice in the open cupboard, and the crows have gathered even more loot from mother’s jewelry box. The three Swiss cuckoo clocks hanging on the wall remind us that time is running out while the mice’s eminent death symbolizes a “whiff of death” moment.

Dark Night of the Soul: Petra looks out her window onto the pasture. Her posture – as well as the cat’s – suggests she’s been beaten and she knows it. That it’s dusk helps set a somber mood. At this point, there appears to be no solution, although the curtains blowing in the breeze hint that change is coming.

Break into Three: The next morning, while picking flowers for Elfi, Petra discovers a solution: She sees a crow carrying something shiny and decides to follow it. (The reader only sees the crow’s shadow, keeping the solution a secret for a few more pages.)

Finale: Petra follows the bird to a large nest. With the help of the neighbors and her parents, she reaches into the nest and discovers the missing items. She removes them in the reverse order, saving Elfi’s big booming bell for last. After Petra reunites bell and bovine, the other cows mosey up the mountainside; it’s a loud symphony! The panels at the bottom of each page show the other lost objects being returned to the rightful owners. The side panels echo the celebratory tone as well: The figurines play music while others hang colorful banners in preparation for the Alpine Cheese Festival on the last spread.

Final Image: Now the clock in the end pages suggests it’s evening with the moon rising behind the clouds. Everyone is tired from the adventure. Petra yawns, suggesting she’ll be asleep soon. The cool colors – blues and violets – create a calm mood, encouraging the young reader to drift off to sleep as well.

Now it’s your turn: take your current work-in-progress – or one of your favorite model texts – and “beat it out”!


Mina Witteman said...

The Beat Sheet! One of the best methods to help you revise your writing. Not only do I use it when I start revising my novels, but it is also an integral part of the plot workshop I teach to novelists and picture book writers (The Lost Plot). It never fails to identify the holes in my own work and my students love it.
Thank you for sharing, Esther and Heather!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks, Mina, for stopping by and sharing your enthusiasm for Heather's WWW.
I do recall how much you love The Beat Sheet! :)
Heather swears by it, too.