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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
Writing answers to these questions on your beat sheet will be invaluable as you get further into the screenwriting process.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.