Beat sheet analysis for ‘Serenity’ (spoiler warning.)

I’ve been fascinated by the notion of ‘The beat sheet’ since I saw it mentioned on the Script Frenzy home page in March, and I actually went and got Blake Snyder’s book ‘Save the Cat’ on my Amazon Kindle so that I could read the chapter where he lays beat sheets out in some detail. There’s a lot of other good stuff in there that I haven’t had time to read all the way through, too – want to read the whole book from location 1 to location 2005 by 28 Feb of next year, to get ready for my next big script.

In case you’re not familiar, the Beat sheet is a fifteen-part structural breakdown for a feature length screenplay. Here’s the 15 beats as I understand them, very briefly:
Opening image: First impressions, where the hero starts from
Theme stated: Posing a question that summarizes what the movie is about
Set-up: Introduce the cast of characters
Catalyst: Something changes to start the hero off on his journey
Debate: Hesitation and build-up to the decision. Dare I get myself into this?
Break into two: The point of no return, hero commits himself/herself
B story: Move away from the main storyline to introduce a secondary theme.
Fun and games: Trailer moments and movie poster – don’t worry about moving the plot along for a while, just indulge in coolness
Midpoint: raise the stakes, minor victory but things are more serious
Bad guys close in: A reversal begins brewing…
All is lost: And the reversal is complete, hero appears to be defeated. Impression of death.
Dark night of the soul: Hero hits rock bottom and wallows in it for a bit.
Break into three: Solution to crisis, drawing on B storyline.
Finale: Wrap it up, triumph, put the lessons learned into action
Final image: Reversal of the opening image, showing real change.

After going through this, I want to try breaking down some of my favorite movies into beats, to see how the system applies to them, and where the rules have to be stretched one way or another. I’ll possibly also be applying the same analysis to some of my own screenplays, especially the ones that I wrote for Script Frenzy before I’d heard of the Beat sheet.

The first movie to get a beat sheet has to be Joss Whedon’s fantastic ‘Serenity’:

Opening image: This is the Alliance school lesson, showing River Tam talking back to her teacher. Even though this is an impossible dream inside a holographic surveillance replay, it still comes from a ‘real’ place in terms of River’s character arc. I suppose that to stretch a point, the transition into the lab and showing River suffering at the Academy is also in the opening image, and then we move into setup – and that’s all in the first 3 minutes or so of the movie.

Theme stated: This would be River rambling inside her dream: “People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.” Minute 2.

Set-up: The various layers of flashback count here, as does the landing on the border moon and even the heist, (though the heist also seems like an early installment of ‘fun and games.’) Everything up until River stares up at the Fruity Oaty bars. Minutes 4-33

Catalyst: River goes assassin, beats up everybody, it’s all caught on vid, and Mal drags her out of the bar. This is the inciting incident for the rest of the action of the script, and it’s late: minutes 34-36

Debate: Speaking with Mister Universe, going to Haven, all of this is part of debating and delaying over ‘what do we do with River’? Even going to rescue Inara is part of that, but it ends when… (minutes 37-52)

Break into two: Mal refuses to give up River to the Operative at the companion training house (minutes 53-54)

B story: Okay, this gave me some issues, because it’s hard to tell what’s the main plotline and what isn’t, I thought of Simon/Kaylee or Mal/Inara as the B storylines, but they’re probably C or lower. River and her journey back to mental health is the B storyline in my opinion, and it starts, if anywhere, back when she tells Simon about Miranda, in minute 43.

Fun and games: Now, as far as I can see it, the fun and games definitely start early, with the payroll heist and Reaver chase way back in minutes 17-25. From watching the trailer, two other possible spots of ‘fun and games’ are the bar fight, minutes 35-36 and the space battle, minutes 86-89. Both serve to tell a part of the main story, but they’re also there to delight and tempt viewers.

Midpoint: Of the two kinds of midpoints, ‘Serenity’ definitely has a false collapse. After Mal’s successful escape at the Training house and River’s identification of Miranda, all seems reasonably good for the gang, and even the lurking hand of the Alliance won’t be a problem once they get back to Haven, right? WRONG. Haven is in ruins, and Book is dying when they get there. But Mal has a plan for how to get to Miranda and maybe the secret there will get them out of hot water. Minutes 65-71

Bad guys close in: Things keep going wrong, the Alliance is still watching for them, the Reavers only just let them sneak through, the secret on Miranda is worse than they can imagine. By the time Mal has come up with his plan to have Mister Universe broadcast the secret, the Operative is one step ahead of him, he’s killed Mister Universe and trashed the broadcast center. In the battle between the Alliance and the Reavers, Serenity is hit, Wash just manages to ‘glide her in’ at Mister Universe’s complex… Minutes 72-89

All is lost: … And everything goes from bad to worse. Wash is killed so suddenly it hardly makes sense, the Reavers and the Alliance are still chasing after them, Mal has everybody else guard the hold point and goes to see Mister Universe, and sees what happened. Minutes 90-92

Dark night of the soul: This is a very short one. In minute 93, Mal looks at what’s left of Mister Universe’s control room, including Universe’s dead body lying in lovebot Lenore’s lap, and all of his hope is lost. Even when Lenore starts to speak, and it’s clear that Universe recorded his dying words on her, the moment is a horrifying one, not reassuring. Until…

Break into three: …Universe’s message tells Mal about the backup system, and he realizes that there’s still a chance to get the word out. (“They can’t stop the signal, Mal. They can never stop the signal!”) (94)
In a parallel act 3 break for River’s story, she comes to her final resolution of courage, self-reliance and dependability, and charges off to do battle with the Reavers alone to save her family: “You’ve always taken care of me. My turn now.” 101-102

Finale: Mal has his battle with the Operative, nearly dies, wins by being sneaky and resourceful, saves the Operative’s life, and starts the broadcast. River kicks Reaver butt, and is about to start a suicidal fight with the Alliance soldiers until the Operative calls them off, realizing that his mission has failed anyway. The fallen are mourned, Serenity is repaired, and Mal has his last words with the Operative, with Zoe, and Inara. 95-111

Final image: Serenity is flying again, with Mal and River together at the controls to take the place of their fallen friend. And the Alliance isn’t meddling with them, at the moment. Love’s keeping Serenity in the air, and she’s once again a home.
Even if pieces still fall off her, from time to time. Minutes 112-114

Overall impressions – it’s interesting to see what fits and what doesn’t apply as strictly as Blake Snyder said it would. 😉 Most of the elements do fit, but not that closely in terms of page count as they ‘should’ (or as far as I can determine using minutes as a guide,) and some of the elements don’t seem to show up quite in order.

This is reassuring to me, since I had problems doing things strictly by the numbers, and so it’s a comfort that one of my favorite movies ever doesn’t exactly fit the formula either.

(Adapted from a discussion thread idea I posted to )

2 Responses to Beat sheet analysis for ‘Serenity’ (spoiler warning.)

  1. rozmorris says:

    Great analysis. Years ago I developed a tool for assessing my novel drafts. I’d shrink it down to a one-page summary that showed the highs and lows with emoticons and colours so I could see the structure at a glance. My husband writes screenplays and he told me that Blake Snyder had written about doing this and that in Hollywood they called it a beat sheet. I call mine the beat sheet too now – and it’s an absolute life-saver for novels.


  2. Geoff says:

    I would say your break into 2 is closer to a midpoint, your inciting incident/catalyst is actually the break into 2. I’d also say the inciting incident is actually super early and lies more with the antagonist which is a bit strange but it’s Simon busting River out and then the operative beginning his pursuit.


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