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Screenwriting Homework: Beat Sheets

Screenplay is about structure. Structure isn’t a random fascist convention designed to sabotage and infuriate would-be screenwriters: it’s a means for the reader and audience to know where we are in the journey. Structure as it relates to screenplay is a tool to help writers develop and increase the dramatic stakes of their story.

Everything in life has structure, and screenplay reflects this. We must graduate from high school as preparation before going to college. We use teaspoons and cups as measurements for proportion so the cake will have the right mixture and actually rise and taste good. There are mile markers on long highway journeys so we know when to gas up. The structure is the audience’s mile marker. It tells us if we’re at mile 100 or mile 300. It’s the roadmap that tells us we’d better get gas now because there won’t be another gas station for 200 more miles.

One of the greatest tools I got from film school is the beat sheet. Most projects that make it to the big screen are very tightly structured. The best way to learn about and study this structure is to find five to seven projects that are similar in genre and tone to the project you want to write and then watch them. Once you have watched the project once, then watch it again and create a beat sheet of that movie, which is a scene by scene plotting analysis of the film. I include time markers in mine so that I can track where the beats fall as regards inciting incident (usually by 10 minutes), act 1 break/plot point 1 (20-25-30 mins), midpoint (50-60 mins), act 2 break/plot point 2 (75-90 mins).

Click here for an example of a romantic comedy beat sheet I did for myself on “The Wedding Planner.”

If you set out to write a romantic comedy, first try to identify some benchmark films that work for you. Once you’ve created a list of those romantic comedies, beat them all out.

Once you’ve beated them out, you can look closely at how each one of them is constructed in terms of overall time, timing of major plot points (establishing the real world, inciting incident, act 1 break, midpoint, act 2 break, climax and the new world). You can compare and contrast the major beats of each of the stories, investigate how these beats are constructed, what the connecting tissue is, how the story builds. It is very important to look at how conflict and dramatic stakes continue to escalate throughout the beginning of act 2 and then in the second half of act 2.

Using this process, it becomes clear in comparing and contrasting the various beat sheets how the stories are similar and in what ways they are unique.

I look at constructing screenplay like building a puzzle. When I start fleshing out an idea, I begin by writing my major beats out on index cards. I lay them out on a table and then move in a non-linear fashion to insert the major connecting scenes that I want to include in my project. If the scenes are on cards, it’s easy to reorder them or switch them around.

Beat sheets are a fantastic way to learn how the emotional story of the character (in a romantic comedy, the love story) is carefully plotted alongside the A story, which is generally more about accomplishing the goal set out for the hero. In some stories, the emotional story (character arc) is within the A story. However, in many types of stories, the emotional arc is plotted directly alongside the A story, so that whenever there is a critical scene for the A story, we immediately get before or after a scene that clearly tracks the emotional journey of the protagonist.

It is critical to repeat this process within each genre, because every genre has its own story conventions, although in many cases they may overlap or seem quite similar. Constructing a romantic comedy is very different from constructing a thriller, which is different from an action or a drama. Get educated as to how these stories and constructed and then begin your own process. You’ll be ahead of the game!

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