Beat Sheets: the Forgotten Introduction.


B is for Beat Sheet (A-Z Challenge Listing)

Well, I’ve talked about Beat Sheets a lot on this blog already, but when I got a PM from somebody over at Script Frenzy, I realized that I had never really described the concept in detail, so I figured I’d do that today.

Beat sheets are a way of structuring a screenplay script that Blake Snyder described in chapter 4 of his great book “Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.” It’s a recipe for planning a screenplay, determining which scenes are needed, which scene goes where, and what the characters will need to do at different parts of the story.

And, as a minor point, I’m not going to go into any details for this post regarding Blake’s prescriptions for WHERE in a screenplay you should place the different beats, or why. You can find some of that out different places on the web, and I want to keep myself focused on WHAT the different beats are.

There are fifteen elements to Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet:

Opening image: In the first few pages of your script, you should set the mood of your movie, and show where your hero starts out. This beat isn’t about action, it’s not the first thing that happens in the movie, it’s about where the movie is before it starts happening. But you can show style, tone, what type of story you’re telling and what scope it is, from the very start.

Theme stated: This is the part of the beat sheet that I always have the most trouble with. Basically, the theme is the answer to ‘what is this movie about?’ It should be a question that you’re exploring and giving an answer to, or a statement that you will ultimately demonstrate to be true or false, not just a general topic like ‘true love’ or ‘man versus nature.’ (It could be ‘should man conquer nature?’, though.)

Just to illustrate, here are some of the themes that I’ve come up with while doing beat sheets to post up on the Kelworth Files, either favorite movies or my own scripts.
“Does a young man born King have the right to put his own wishes ahead of what his subjects want?”
“Can an ordinary person step up and become a hero because of a crisis? What does heroism entail?”
“Does government have the prerogative to meddle in the lives of citizens?” (Serenity)
“What does it mean to live up to the duties of fatherhood?” (The Simpsons Movie)

This beat is where the theme is referred to fairly casually, in conversation, for the first time.

Setup: At the start of the script, you need to establish the characters and what’s going on in their lives – their ordinary lives, as it were, before the plot really starts to take off. It’s also a necessary place to establish ‘things that need fixing’ that you can reference later on, and grab the interest of the audience.

Catalyst: This is the moment that starts off the main plot – where some outside event totally disrupts the life of the main character. This is bad news, or looks like it – but if your character is going to have a happy ending, this is also where the road to his or her happy ending starts.

Debate: This section is usually set up for the hero to answer the question of whether he (or she) is ready to embrace the change brought into his life by the catalyst, or if he’s up to the challenge. For Serenity, talking with Mister Universe and going to Haven fits under the debate – Mal knows that River is bringing a storm of trouble into his life, but he’s not sure if he’s going to stand by her and protect her through it.

Break into two: This is the moment where Act one, (in the basic three-act screenplay structure,) transitions into Act two, where the hero makes his choice and enters the turned-upside-down version of his old life. It should always be his own decision, and not external pressures forcing him into Act Two.

B story: This is where you ‘break away’ from the main A plot and have the main character interact with somebody new, often an ‘upside-down version’ of somebody from his old life in the setup. This could be a love story in a movie where the main plot isn’t romantic, or the introduction of a sidekick.

Fun and games: Like the B story, this beat doesn’t move the A storyline forward, but just takes the premise of the movie and has fun with it. Here’s where you can put in any scene that you ‘just have to do’ based on the idea, and generate great visual moments for the trailer of the movie. In the Simpsons Movie, this would be a lot of the antics of the Springfieldians just after they’re put under the dome.

Midpoint: This can go two ways – an ‘up’ midpoint or a ‘down’ midpoint. In a down midpoint, everything starts to go from bad to worse, and the main plot suddenly becomes very desperate. In an ‘up’ midpoint, it looks like everything’s coming to a happy ending much earlier than you’d have expected.

Bad guys close in: If you had an ‘up’ midpoint, this beat is where it starts to evaporate and the hero learns that everything isn’t nearly as rosy as he thought. If the midpoint was already down, then things just seem to keep going wrong.

All is lost: This is where things look as black as they’re ever going to get for the hero. Often somebody dies here, or something dies (a plant, a fish?) or death is invoked metaphorically. That’s what Blake calls ‘the whiff of death.’

Dark night of the soul: The hero wallows in the whiff of death, unable to rouse themselves to fight back – at least for a few seconds.

Break into three: As with Break into two, this is a transition in the three-act structure. It involves the hero using the characters and themes of the B storyline to find a way to beat the bad guys or otherwise prevail against everything that they were losing against in ‘all is lost.’

Finale: Where you wrap up the plot, actually beat up the bad guys or solve the plot problems, bringing the hero to his triumphant moment.

Final image: This is the inverse of the opening image – showing where the hero ends and a different emotional mood, demonstrating the change in the world or the hero’s life.

Okay, that’s about all I can think of to say about the Beat Sheet for now. I do think that this structure may be somewhat useful to novelists or people writing in other formats than the screenplay, but it would need to be tweaked somewhat. I hope that it’s been educational at least.

I’ll be taking tomorrow off blogging, and be back on Monday with something for you to C.

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11 Responses to Beat Sheets: the Forgotten Introduction.

  1. I don’t think I’d ever have it in me to write a screenplay, but I truly admire those who can.

  2. What I think is so cool is how you can adapt a lot of these to writing regular novels. I mean, writing a storyline, for me, is like watching a movie (in my head) and documenting what happens, hopefully catching mood and voice, etc…Great post!

    • Paul Rose Jr says:

      I’ve read elsewhere that some novelists take Snyder’s Beat Sheet, taking its approximate page indicators (which Kel left off, but are easy to find) and tripling them. So setup takes 30 pages instead of 10 in a screenplay, but yes, they translate well to novel writing, especially cinematic novel writing, very well.

  3. Yeah, that’s a good point, CQG.

    I just took a moment to think about some of these beats as they apply to my YA fantasy novel, “The long way home.”

    Setup – Naveli back home at the palace.
    Catalysy – she gets captured by rebels.
    Debate – Imprisoned, she plots escape with her friends.
    Break into two – she makes her bid to escape and brings her friends along.

    I’m not sure the draft has a strong midpoint, which might be an indication of a plot problem, and the third act is very short on account of the surprise twist at the ‘Break into three’ point, but that might be workable.

    Hmm… maybe I should work more on this approach before I continue my LWH revisions.

  4. Luana Krause says:

    Excellent post! I just finished reading that book, as well as “Your Screenplay Sucks” by Akers. I love writing movies and plays.

  5. Becky Taylor says:

    Thanks for stopping by!

    I love “Save the Cat.” I come back to these ideas, hints and tricks again and again, they’re helpful for novel writers too.

  6. Lindsay says:

    Wow, great post! I love Save the Cat. Looking forward to your future A to Z posts:)

  7. Shelley Batt says:

    Great post. I have the book and software. It’s great to go back and see if you’ve added all of these elements to make sure you have a great story. Great post.

  8. Misha says:

    This was very educational to me. I’ve never thought of script writing like this, but I will definitely come read it again if I ever do decide to write a script.
    :-)

  9. K.C. Woolf says:

    Interesting! I don’t know much about screenwriting, so this is very educational. Thanks!

  10. Lynda Young says:

    fantastic description of the different beats of scripts

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