beat sheet at the ready, revising it often as I write, and track my adherence to the form using a beat sheet excel spreadsheet. But it wasn't until I read Peter Dunne's book Emotional Structure that I realized the character arc of a story has a similar underlying structure that holds up the story and makes it shine.
Dunne lays it out (in a somewhat meandering fashion) in his book Emotional Structure, and I encourage you to read it. But here's my Emotional Beat Sheet to get you started (note that when I say "dangerous" and "survival" this can be in the literal physical sense but also the emotional/spiritual sense):
Emotional Beat Sheet
THE OLD WORLD - Hero has survived by using practical ways to avoid pain (aka the Set Up in Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet)
This is our hero’s emotional starting state. He gets by in his day-to-day life, pretending to be someone else, covering old wounds, using skills carefully honed to deal with the troubles in his life. It’s working (sort of) and given his druthers, our hero would stay in this state. Of course, that can’t happen (or there would be no story). Sometimes there will be a “sigh moment” that signals how pitiful and unfulfilling this life is, so the reader knows: this cannot remain as is, because it is a death-of-the-soul. But the hero is determined to stay here, because it works for them.
The hero’s world is upset in some dramatic way so that her old way of operating in the world doesn’t help - in fact, using those old coping techniques may actually get her killed (or lose her job, or lose her boyfriend). Our hero scrambles to react to the new circumstances - just temporarily - because she's just sure if she fixes this one little problem, everything will go back to “normal” again.
Now our hero's normal tools for survival aren’t working at all. Her emotional walls start to crack and her weaknesses are exposed (maybe weaknesses she wasn’t even aware of). She starts to question those old ways of dealing with the world, because they’re not working at all in this new world. The new world is strange and dangerous (to her emotionally) and she realizes that getting back to “normal” is going to be a lot tougher than she thought. She’s moved fully into this “new world” that requires new skills to cope.
Our hero has run out of old ways of dealing with the world. He’s tried and failed. He's beaten down by the plot (which doesn’t exist to beat our hero, but to force him to change). He finally is forced to take that leap of faith. To change. Because in his moment of vulnerability, he finds that he can learn, he can change, he can reach down into the depths and find that thing (that piece of the divine) that will allow him to move forward and triumph. In reaching deep inside, he will learn the secret history of his past - the thing that caused him to build up those defensive habits in the first place. He has to face those demons to move past them. The plot serves to force this to happen, to connect this moment to his physical survival.
Our hero isn’t going to be super awesome with these new emotional tools right out of the gate. He may have figured out that he has to change, but may not know exactly how to make that work. He will try, again and again, through action and decisions, until we get to the climax of the story, where his use of these new tools will ultimately be critical to his survival.
My favorite quote from Dunne (paraphrased): The life-threatening plot doesn't exist to kill your character, but to reveal her.
In other words, the gun isn't there to kill your character, just to motivate them to change.
(Aren't we authors mean?)