Our gratitude to author Marilyn Brant for this wonderful guest blog. Marilyn is the women’s fiction author of According to Jane (October 2009; winner of the Romance Writers of America’s prestigious Golden Heart® Award), Friday Mornings at Nine (October 2010; a featured alternate selection for both the Doubleday Book Club and the Book-of-the-Month Club) and her upcoming novel, The Grand European (working title, October 2011) — all from Kensington Books. Thank you, Marilyn!
I’ve been a novelist for 10 years and wrote four complete manuscripts before my fifth, According to Jane (the first one I used Blake’s beat sheet on, by the way), sold a few years ago. It was about a woman who had the ghost of Jane Austen in her head, giving her dating advice, and it debuted in trade paperback from Kensington Books last fall, was on Amazon Kindle’s Top 100 Bestseller List for 7-8 weeks, and won a bunch of really nice awards. For me, though, it also solidified the power of the BS2 in helping me focus my ideas with a logical, sensical structural tool, and I vowed when that story sold that I wouldn’t write another novel without using the beat sheet as a guideline.
Well, just this month, my second novel, Friday Mornings at Nine, hit the shelves and I was thrilled when it was chosen as a featured alternate selection for October in both the Doubleday Book Club and the Book-of-the-Month Club. It’s the story of three women who get together weekly to talk about their husbands, jobs, and families when — one morning in early fall — one of the women admits she’s been getting emails from her college ex-boyfriend. This sets all three friends on a course of second-guessing their lives, wondering if they married the right man, and contemplating the alternatives…
I can tell you, this wouldn’t have been a project I would have felt comfortable delving into without the BS2 beside me. It was a complicated story to write — trickier in some ways than my debut book. Since there were three protagonists, each with a marital tale to tell, all of them needed a full character arc plotted out and a number of chapters written in their individual points of view. But there was also an added challenge because, every few chapters, the three women got together and the viewpoint shifted to omniscient narration. Their trio was, actually, like a fourth character. So, structurally, I was facing a big and frightening dance of characters, moving around the novel in a way I had to carefully choreograph in advance — at least if I had any hope of getting them to the end of the book with all the turning points in place.
So, I realized that I needed to take my trusted beat sheet… and multiply it by four! I used an Excel spreadsheet to lay out what became my BS2 x 4 grid. Across the top, I typed each of the original 15 beats (opening image, theme stated, set-up, etc.). Then, along the left side going down, I typed the name of each of the three women (Bridget, Jennifer, and Tamara), plus the word “Trio” for those times when all three friends were together. Finally, I beat out the story four times — once from the point of view of the group, and once from the perspective of each woman. Below are many of the major points that I used in that sheet. It’s not overly detailed (and I held back some of the revelations in the later beats so as not to have too many spoilers!), but it was exactly what I needed to be able to visualize this story fully, and to see where the women’s individual threads intersected, before settling down to write the book:
Opening Image: (Trio) The friends are at the coffee shop at the start of a new school year; Jennifer gets a new email from her ex-boyfriend and poses this question to Tamara and Bridget: “What if we’re not with the right man or living the right lives?”
Theme Stated: (Trio) “Do we have the courage to test our marriages against other possible relationships and deal maturely with what we find?” All three women think about their husbands and kids, as well as the one man outside their marriage that they’re most tempted by. (Bridget) Dr. Luke, the dentist at her new job. (Jennifer) David, her ex-boyfriend from college. (Tamara) Aaron, the sexy, divorced neighbor down the block.
Set-Up: (Bridget) Introduce readers to her husband, her three kids, the dental office where she works, and Dr. Luke; we learn she wants to go back to cooking school and craves a new twist in her life, her husband is in a rut, hasn’t seen her freshly in years, she wants to embrace life, love, pleasure again and accept her changing perimenopausal body. (Jennifer) Introduce readers to her husband, two daughters, and her email/texting relationship with old flame David; we learn she wants a sense of closure to her relationship choices in life, that she married her husband on the rebound after David broke her heart, that she wants to set a good example for her girls and that, with her daughters in adolescence, it’s time she faced the trials of her own youth. (Tamara) Introduce readers to her husband, college freshman son/their only child, her favorite aunt, and her neighbor Aaron, who works from home; we learn she wants deeper intimacy — both physical and emotional — with the man in her life, that her husband is gone all the time, that she’s still getting over the departure of her son and trying to let go so she can adjust to her new role without him in the house.
Catalyst: (Trio) All deal with problems at home and the difference between the reality of marriage and their real lives vs. their fantasies and the projections they’ve put on these potential lovers. (Bridget) Decides to start taking her cooking dreams seriously and begins making meals for co-workers. (Jennifer) Gets an invitation to meet David alone to plan a college club reunion and decides to go. (Tamara) Loses her aunt and decides she must start living more fully because life is short.
Debate: (Bridget) Wrestles with the issue of morality vs. immorality. (Jennifer) Wrestles with the issue of certainty vs. indecision. (Tamara) Wrestles with the issue of depth vs. superficiality.
Break into Two: (Trio) Each woman considers having an affair for her own reasons. (Bridget) Needs confidence in new self: Is it a sin if she’s not the same person she was when she got married? (Jennifer) Needs a sense of reassurance to stand up for herself: Did she make the right decision in moving on after college and does she need to deal with unfinished business now? (Tamara) Needs freedom to show her insecurities: How guilty is her husband for not valuing or knowing her if she doesn’t know or value herself?
B Story: (Trio) Each woman gets to know the man outside her marriage a bit better — this becomes a window into understanding how the women think of themselves. (Bridget) Talks to Dr. Luke, treats him as a mirror for her new self. (Jennifer) Reconnects with David, treats him as a memory of her former self. (Tamara) Chats with Aaron, treats him as a boy toy/object so as not to see herself.
Fun and Games: (Bridget) Flirting with Dr. Luke at an Italian restaurant, a sensual foodie experience they both appreciate. (Jennifer) Flirting with David via text, email, and phone — their calls get racier and she meets him again in person. (Tamara) Flirting with Aaron in his house and yard, surprised by the high level of personal disclosure they share.
Midpoint: (Trio) Real life vs. fantasy life meet at an adults-only Halloween party. (Bridget) Gossipy colleague mentions to her husband that Bridget was at the restaurant with Dr. Luke. (Jennifer) Gets a text from David, then a phone call, which her husband overhears. (Tamara) She and her husband spend most of the party apart, but Aaron happens to be there… and, when they’re both very drunk, he kisses her.
Bad Guys Close In: (Trio) Each woman must deal with the confrontations that result from the revelations at the party. Arguments with the husbands, stress with the family, and/or the demands of the love interests all put pressure on the women to make changes.
All Is Lost: (Trio) The marriages of all three are in flux and the relationships they have with the dentist, ex-boyfriend, and neighbor aren’t in a great place either. (Bridget) Realizes she may have damaged the trust she had with her husband. (Jennifer) Realizes there are things about herself that she doesn’t know and she needs to find out. (Tamara) Realizes that her feelings for her neighbor are more complex than she’d expected, but she can’t follow through the way she wants.
Dark Night of the Soul: (Trio) The moment of clarity when each woman knows — finally — what her story is about. (Bridget) Must accept her current self as a sensual and worthy being and honor her dreams. (Jennifer) Must accept that the past is over, learn from it, and take the best from those experiences. (Tamara) Must accept her own responsibility and culpability in any relationships that have failed, but also allow for self discovery now.
Break into Three: (Trio) Each woman makes a choice to determine who she’s going to be with and what steps she needs to take, fully understanding that there’s an element of loss and sacrifice no matter which choice is made. (Bridget) Husband or the dentist? (Jennifer) Husband or the ex-boyfriend? (Tamara) Husband or the neighbor? (I included their final choices on my personal beat sheet, but I’m keeping them to myself here! Let’s just say that all three women must use the knowledge they’ve gained about themselves and their relationships to make a conscious decision at this point.)
Finale: (Trio) The consequences of Bridget, Jennifer, and Tamara’s actions play out in the form of three concluding stories that take place at the end of the fall, just as the holidays are about to begin.
Final Image: (Trio) The woman are together again, talking/eating/celebrating, all of them having gained courage in a different area and exercised it while responding — via the life choices they made — to their individual “Debate” questions regarding morality/immorality (Bridget), certainty/indecision (Jennifer), and depth/superficiality (Tamara).
Hope some of you have found this helpful, especially those fellow writers who are wrestling with multiple protagonists in your own stories!
What type of narration do you most like to read? Stories written in first person with one protagonist throughout? (My debut novel was like that.) Or, one protagonist but told in close third person? (My third novel, which will come out next year, is written in this way.) Multiple points of view for different protagonists, told in alternating first person, alternating third, or omniscient? Obviously, I enjoy trying out all of them, but I’d love to know your favorites!
Best wishes to you all on your writing.
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