When writing a screenplay, a “beat sheet” is an invaluable tool. After you’ve come up with your concept; characters; beginning, middle and end of your story, a beat sheet enables you to put it all together and take a 30,000-ft view of your story.
A beat sheet allows you to check your work. It allows you to step back and view your story in its entirety. It gives you a perspective from which you can experiment with moving scenes around and deciding what is the most dynamic way to present your story.
So, how do we create a working beat sheet…?
Context and Content
When constructing your beatsheet, you are basically plugging the structured beats from your plot exercise into the schematic outline of a beatsheet, then figuring out where to insert the emotional beats of the story so that your audience can understand and identify with your main character’s plight.
Your main character is always the agent of his/her own destiny.
It’s your main character’s story. It’s your main character’s wants and needs that are driving them forward. You want them to be at the center of the plot at all times. When they’re on screen, they are the ones making choices and taking actions.
Know your big steps first.
From your structure exercise, you should know the majority of the big steps in your main plot. Plug those into your beatsheet first.
Make sure these elements are clear and in their proper places:
Remember, that we’re using a 4-act structure. That means the end
Course of Action
Antagonist Action Choices
Revised Course of Action
Antagonist Steps (rising conflict)
Moment of weakness/resilience
Final Course of Action
Fill in the gaps.
As you fill in the major elements in place, number the scenes. If you’re not sure how many scenes you are going to need, assume 12. (Each act is probably going to run +/- 3 scenes on either side of that.) Number the scenes, leaving the interstitial scenes blank.
Once you’ve identified where you think you’re missing scenes are, you can then start to fill in the empty spaces with your story ideas.
Limit accuracy for clarity
At this stage of the process, what you’re trying to do is get a 30,000-ft view of your plot & story. You may have intra-scene details that you haven’t figured out yet. You may have subplot issues, relationship turns, emotional beats that you haven’t figured out yet. That’s okay.
The trick here is to embrace the lack of specifics. Try to get a clear idea of how your story is pacing out. From there, you can get a sense of where your story runs too lean and where there is too much. You can determine what is redundant, what needs to be moved around and what needs to be expanded.
Don’t get bogged down in the details.
The writer’s instinct is to fill in everything on the first pass and have your story work perfectly. THAT NEVER HAPPENS!
The way the process works is this:
- You do is fill in what you know.
2. You fill in what you think you want.
3. You look at what’s missing and try to figure out you need.
- You assess what you have, you identify what does and doesn’t work.
- You start over.
That is how you use a beatsheet to flesh out your story so that the plot is camouflaged by your main character’s journey. Once you have that established, you can go back and resolve any missing details.