The beat sheet is the best way to learn about screenplay structure, genre conventions and how to structure your script when you’re starting to outline.
A beat sheet is basically what you should create for yourself as an outline before going to page, however even before you start beating out your own script it is very helpful to look at other projects within your genre to see what techniques those stories used and how the story is constructed.
Scenes should ideally both expose character and also move the story forward, however specific construction is genre dependent in many cases, because it’s sometimes possible to have a major emotional beat scene coupled before or after a major A story plot scene. This generally happens at the turning points (six major beats, act breaks).
If one is writing a political thriller that takes place in the world of journalism and also has a heavy male-female relationship, I would recommend watching at least 5-7 films that include those elements. Choose the three to five that most closely resemble the type of project you are trying to write and then create a beat sheet for them. (Please keep in mind that ideally you should choose great movies that also did well at the box office. Nobody will be impressed if you go to pitch your project and reference another film that tanked at the box office.)
I construct my beat sheets in three columns:
Column A is the running time
Column B the beat of the scene
Column C is the scene length
Length is a good overall indicator because it is unusual for a scene to actually hit or run over three minutes (which is why it’s important to keep most of your scenes well under 3 pages). That would be a scene that carries a significant beat. So, when analyzing overall structure, you can look at those scenes more carefully for both content and placement.
Certain genres can have scenes that are more chatty than other genres – dramas and romantic comedies tend to be more chatty.
When you start beating out movies, it might not be obvious to you where the act breaks and major beats fall. However, generally they fall where there is a major emotional beat for the character – a pivotal decision, the point of no return. If you’re confused, look for the overall timing (20-30 minute intervals) and then deconstruct into major time breaks and then look for the major beats that fall around that time.
Once you have your three or more beat sheets, lay them out on a table beside one another and compare and contrast the timing, length of scenes and where those major scenes fall. Look at the overall structure as far as dramatic stakes, emotional reversals and reveals.
Within each genre, you will likely be quite surprised at how similar the overall structure is, and that each genre uses the same conventions (i.e., in romantic comedy, the love story is the B story and there is a “gets girl, loses girl, has to get girl back” superstructure; in broad comedy, the love interest is introduced at the midpoint; thrillers depend on setting up and paying off reversals).
So, if you’re working on that journalism thriller and you look at how other writers structured produced thrillers in that same territory, you can see exactly how they were done and what the essential elements are, what the reader will expect of your script given the genre. And you’ll get lots of ideas on how to do it so that it works.
I personally love breaking story. I think it’s the really fun part of what we do. To me, the harder part comes with making specific plot and character choices and then having to justify those choices with other choices. But, as they say, writing is really about rewriting, right?