How to Write a Beat Sheet (FREE Template)
- What is a beat sheet?
- Why is a beat sheet important?
- Blake Snyder and Save the Cat
- How to write the perfect beat sheet
- Beat sheet examples
When you’re cooking up a story, it’s important to have a plan. Without a solid story structure, it’s easy to get lost in a maze of subplots and character arcs, with no clear direction of where you’re going.
Thankfully, there’s a simple solution: the beat sheet. This nifty tool helps you figure out your story beats, guiding you through the writing process. It’s an indispensable tool for screenwriting, novel writing or filmmaking – anything that involves crafting a gripping narrative.
Beat Sheet Template
Get our beat sheet template (as a free download) to quickly plan out your next project.
What is a beat sheet?
A beat sheet is a simple document that outlines your entire story from the first act to the final image. By listing out the key plot points and important frames, it’ll make your writing process way easier. Just ask Hollywood’s finest screenwriters.
For some outlining techniques, like film treatments, you’ll explain the story in full sentences. Beat sheets are a little different because you break down the story into bullet points. These bullet points are your beats – the crucial moments in your screenplay.
The goal of your beat sheet is to collect all your beats in one document, then organise them in a way that serves as a guide as you structure and write your storyline.
Different screenwriters have different opinions about how many, and which beats you should include in your beat sheet. There isn’t one correct answer, but most people agree that you’ll get good results from around 15 major beats spread across your story acts (as popularised by the Blake Snyder beat sheet).
Pro-tip: Skip the setup and start with a ready-made free film storyboard template.
Why is a beat sheet important?
While there are a few different story outlining techniques, many are less structured than the beat sheet and don’t flesh out the story in as much depth. Beat sheets take outlining beyond the traditional three-act structure, covering the entire story in detail.
The beat sheet is a super versatile technique that’s useful for all kinds of people: filmmakers, academics, speechwriters, and more. It’s used in everything from Disney feature films to cult indie movies.
While writing your beat sheet, you’ll take a deep dive into the world you’ve created, and start to know it intimately. Your story goes from being an abstract idea to a concrete universe that you can work with.
Your beat sheet also helps you get to know the story arcs of your protagonist and main characters. They become fleshed-out characters that you understand, inside out.
Blake Snyder and Save the Cat
Blake Snyder is someone who knows a lot about beat sheets. In his comprehensive screenwriting book Save the Cat (often abbreviated as STC) he provides a plot structure template that’s trusted by screenwriters everywhere. We’ll use the Save the Cat beat sheet as the basis for our guide.
For more nuggets from Blake Snyder’s brain, it’s well worth picking up a copy of Save the Cat.
How to write the perfect beat sheet
Quick note: The page numbers listed for each beat aren’t strict rules. They’re simply a guideline for where beats should roughly land in a 110-page screenplay.
Beat 1. Opening image (p. 1)
The goal of your opening beat is to immediately command the audience’s attention. Your first visual should represent the struggle and tone of your story, giving a snapshot of your main character’s problem before your screenplay starts in earnest.
For example, the opening scene of Rocky (1976) shows the embattled protagonist fighting inside an old church for a prize of $40. We immediately sense that Rocky’s down on his luck, and struggling to get by.
Beat 2. Set-up (pp. 1-10)
In the set-up, you need to present the status quo of the main character’s world, and describe their struggle or what’s missing. This gives your screenplay a sense of reality, and provides a context for your characters before you dive into the overall story.
With this beat, you want to try to answer the following questions:
- Where does your story take place?
- What’s the culture like?
- What are the people like?
- Is your story set in the past, present, or future? (And is it the past, present, or future we know, or a different reality?)
Beat 3. Theme stated (p. 5)
While you lay the groundwork, you need to explain what your story’s about (usually during the set-up). This is often spoken to the main character, or at least in their presence. But they might not understand this message or truth until they have the experience and context to support it.
In this beat, it’s crucial to give your audience the main character’s name, a bit of their story, and set out any defining character traits they have.
Beat 4. Catalyst / inciting incident (p. 12)
An inciting incident is where the main character realises their spouse is cheating on them, or something is wrong, or they meet someone that changes their life.
It’s the turning point in your story that alters your protagonist’s life in a big way. As the old world falls away, they can begin their journey to a new destination.
Beat 5. Debate (pp. 12-25)
After the inciting incident happens, it’s clear that things can’t stay the same. But change is scary, so your main character will almost certainly doubt the journey ahead of them. Can they stomach the hero’s journey? Do they have what it takes?
It’s a great opportunity to establish your character’s internal and external conflicts. What is it that’s holding them back from embarking on the journey? What attitudes or experiences are going to help or impede them going forward? How will that influence their choices?
Beat 6. Break into two (p. 25)
This is where your screenplay starts hotting up, as your main character makes a choice and their journey begins. At this point, it’s important to set out the reasons why your protagonist is making this decision.
- Are they searching for something?
- Do they want to save something, or just themself?
- Are they hoping to change the world, or just their lives?
- Is their main motivation internal or external?
Writing answers to these questions on your beat sheet will be invaluable as you get further into the screenwriting process.
Beat 7. B story / subplot (p. 30)
Now, there’s a discussion about the theme, or your nugget of truth. If your story has a love interest, the main character will discuss the theme with them – which is why the B story (or subplot) is often called the love story.
Some people worry about their B story overshadowing their main story, but this won’t happen as long as your main storyline is strong. Instead, your B story should complement the main plot, and weave together at the end.
The B story also marks your main character’s entry into the second act of your screenplay.
Beat 8. Promise of the premise / fun and games (pp. 30-55)
The promise of the premise is the in-between moment of your storyline. It’s a chance to have fun with action sequences, shoot-outs, big laughs, dramatic moments, and other events that’ll look good in a trailer.
As your protagonist starts to interact with the world they’ve landed in, they might start to have some victories and build their confidence. Although that probably won’t last too long…
Beat 9. Midpoint (p. 55)
As you hit the halfway mark in your screenplay, things are either amazing or terrible for your main character. In some stories, the character will have everything they want, and feel on top of the world – often called a false victory. In others, they’ll be at rock bottom.
Naturally, this situation creates a turning point in your main character’s life. It’s a now or never moment, where we see the character’s best and worst traits, and learn how they’ll deal with the results of their actions.
Beat 10. Bad guys close in (pp. 55-75)
If your main character was on top of the world at the midpoint, they’re about to be brought back down to earth. As the bad guys close in, your protagonist will have a crisis of confidence, battling fear, doubt, anger, frustration, and emotional exhaustion.
With the enemy taking the upper hand, your hero’s journey just got a lot tougher.
Beat 11. All is lost (p. 75)
This beat sits in opposition to your midpoint. If your main character had gained something at that point, this is the moment they realise they’ve lost it. If they still have something, they realise it has no meaning. It’s a moment where something, or someone, dies.
In cheerier news, this physical or emotional death opens up a space for something new to come to life. But while you know it’s a false defeat, it’s important that the character doesn’t know it yet – they need to remain in this loss for this beat.
Beat 12. Dark night of the soul (pp. 75-85)
Sometimes things have to fall apart before they can be put back together. That’s exactly what happens for your protagonist at this point in your screenplay.
As everything crumbles around them, your main character hits rock bottom and mourns what they’ve lost, whether it’s a dream, goal, mentor, lover, or something else.
Beat 13. Break into three (p. 85)
With the help of a fresh idea, new discovery, or some timely advice from the B story (usually the love story), your main character pulls themselves together and decides to try again.
With this new surge of energy, your protagonist is refreshed and ready to achieve their goal. If they’ve been thinking selfishly up to this point, they’re now more concerned with the greater good.
Beat 14. Finale (pp. 85-110)
As your main character incorporates the original theme of the A story with the context from the B story, things start to come together. Even if your character hasn’t had a big win yet – or is headed towards a loss – there’ll be a sense that their renewed hope is beginning to pay off.
This beat is also when your audience and main character will both become aware of the moral of your story. Your job as the screenwriter is to make sure that there’s a lesson for everyone, and that it’s clear and meaningful.
Beat 15. Final image (p. 110)
In simple terms, your final image should be the opposite of your opening image. It’s a visual representation of the change that’s happened within your main character over the course of the story.
As it’s the final image in your screenplay, it’s important to think hard about what lesson you want the audience to take away, and how you want to complete your character’s journey.
Beat sheet examples
Want to see some examples of beat sheets? You can check out loads of story beats over on the Save the Cat! Website, including real-life examples from My Octopus Teacher, Atlanta, and Godzilla vs. Kong.