April 5, 2019

How to Write and Use a Beat Sheet (Free Template)

How to Write a Beat Sheet
Stuck and can't write your way out? A beat sheet can help you pick moments that keep your narrative thrust moving forward. So why aren't you using one? 

Your screenplay is built up of individual story beats that create emotional reactions in the reader and viewer. These beats are based on classic screenplay structure. The beats help guide the character arcs, story structure, and even your elevator pitch. So where do the beats come from? A lot of people find the Save the Cat Beat sheet a little overrated and it seems like every writing website has their own beat sheet template. 

Well, I am proud to bring No Film School its own beat sheet template and our readers a free beat sheet they can use to help structure their screenwriting work. 

Let's dive into the beat sheet and talk about the important parts of a screenplay. 

What's a beat sheet? 

A beat sheet is a list of emotional moments in a feature film screenplay that helps a writer outline their story. 

There are writers all over who love the beat sheet and others who think they're a waste of time. I tend to like any tool that helps me really whittle down an outline and follow the character and plot points. Beat sheets are just a tool and only function as well as your story, so think about how to implement them moving forward. Do whatever works best for you. 

Now let's take a look at what works best for me and, hopefully, it helps you. 

Beat Sheet Template

Writing is terrible and hard and maddening. But when you have a spark of an idea, nothing feels better than beating it out and setting up all the emotional payoffs. I love beating out a story because it truly gives me something to clearly work toward. A great beat sheet, coupled with our story map, gets my drafts ready to go out into the world. 

Here's a template we made for you to use as a guide for your beat sheet. 

Beat sheet

Now that you've seen the template, let's go through the individual beats and look at a few movie examples to hammer home a few points.  

The Movie Beat Sheet

1. The First Frame 

We know the importance of first and final frames and we've covered the best opening scenes of all time, so I won't belabor the point. You need to grip the audience right away. A script reader will tell you that the first ten pages are where they make the determination about whether or not they want to recommend a script. So make your opening image stand out and try to link it to the theme of the story. 

Think about how Manchester By The Sea opens...how the story is set and how the theme of family and resilience is introduced. Find a way to stand out, even subtly, and make everyone want to read more.   

2. The World Around Us 

After we're hooked, steep us in the world. I want to know who inhabits these areas and what's going on in the world. Are we in the present, past, future? This is where you really set the tone as well. If you're writing a comedy, these pages should have people laughing. If it's a drama, give us some drama. 

I don't think there are better "world-building" scenes than the ones within Blade Runner. They are quick hits that show us a dystopian future. These hits occur before the opening scene. Now would be important to point out that beats are malleable. They can come in a different order and be switched up to fit the story you want to tell. 

3. Protagonist Introduction 

At some point, we need to meet your protagonist. It would be wise to give us a character introduction and character name that are also indicative of the tone of the story. There are no Gaylord Fockers in American Beauty. When we meet your main character, we want to know them and know their story. Try to put them in a situation that makes us care about them or understand their struggle. 

Look at how we meet Craig Robinson's character in Hot Tub Time Machine. We know immediately that he's too good for this job. We see a guy with an expensive car be a dick to him as well. We're on his side from the start and we're laughing. 

 

4. The Character Traits 

This is another good time to point out that some of the beats can occur in the same scene, or series of scenes together. When you meet your character, we need to see what's driving them. what stands out about them. What do we think they need to change? Hint at possible arcs. Allude to who they are and how they interact with others. 

Game Night does this especially well.  We know the level of competitiveness of the leads and why they work well together. So, naturally, the movie is driven by that force and by the forces pulling them apart. 

5. The Emotional Hurdle 

We talk a lot about an external conflict in stories, but what about internal conflict? We want to know what's inside the character that can hold them back. What needs to come out over the journey? In Love, Simon, this is a literal coming out. Simon is dealing with the struggle of who he is, how society views him, and the fear of if anyone will be around when he shows them who he really is on the inside. These hurdles don't just happen in the first act, but it's where we set them up so they can be paid off later. 

6. The Physical Hurdle

This is the beginning of the external conflicts in the story. Again, these beats get repeated, but we need to know what impedes the characters. But even in act one, we need to know what will be in the way. In an adventure movie, it could be an opening set piece that shows the world and tone. Or in a science fiction movie, it could be navigating a world you're not used to in a place where you have no allies. 

One of the most inventive versions of this is from The Terminator, when Kyle Reese arrives on earth he has to navigate cops and city streets in order to find Sarah Connor. 

 

7. The Reason Forward 

Each protagonist's quest needs to have a reason behind it. When do we break from act one to act two? What's the driving force. For Indiana Jones, it's the thrill and the call from Army intelligence. He wants to stop the Nazis, that's his external driving force, but he also wants to secure the greatest find in human history. So that's something to get on a plane across the globe for...that and Marion Ravenwood. 

8. The Decision to Try

As you enter the second act, your character needs to fully decide to participate in the quest. This decision to try, to put it all on the line, is the most important one of the script. This is what sets the audience off on an adventure, or even just begins to change their life. Not always for the better. It wasn't enough for Frodo to get the ring to Rivendale. He has to seize the moment and offer to get it to Mordor as well. 

9. Why We’re Here 

People who have read Save the Cat have heard of the promise of the premise...this is my version. Why would butts be in seats to watch your movie? What are those trailer moments that draw the crowds? This is where it shines! But I think we do need a series of scenes that really give people those trailer moments. If you went to an action movie, you'd want to see huge set pieces. If you went to rom-com, you want to see people falling in love. And if you went to a horror movie, you want the kills. 

This is where Scream racks up the body count and gives you the suspects. These scenes are the reason you chose to write the script. So have fun, be bold, and stay interesting.  

10. Antics and Escapades

These are the actual events within the promise. I think it's important to look at them in two different beats. This is the first. In these, you want the payoffs to be fun and engaging. This is where things go right. Your characters could even get a bit cocky here. We often associate these pages with the genre. In heists, it's the break-in. There can be comedy set pieces, but what about within dramas? 

Take a movie like Spotlight. While the successes here involve an investigation, the answers to the questions are damning. This is not fun and there's no joy here, but as the intrepid team gets answers, the story moves forward. 

11. Consequences and Casualties 

One thing we need to see is failure. Things can't go smoothly. Beats of failure are the most important part of a second act. This is where great characters deal with their actions. When you see your character fail, you can expose the character traits you want to see them fix. You can also build in the backstory to explain those failures. The more we know about the people within the world, the more we will root for them. Or against them. depending on your story. 

One thing I love about the failures in Infinity War is that they come with consequences. If Peter Quill doesn't hit Thanos here, he might have saved more lives. But we know his flaws...he's cocky and arrogant...and so does Thanos. When Peter fails, we set up the necessity to see him succeed, although it might take another movie for that.  

12. The Final Straw 

At some point, we need to see the straw that broke the camel's back. What's the low point? The one where people want to quit. Where the mission stops making sense. I think this is gracefully handled in Saving Private Ryan. We see characters lose their friends, brave danger, all to find this one guy, who when they get there won't come home. 

It provides a breakdown not only for the characters but for the theme of the movie. What's war? Why are we fighting? 

Is this all worth it? 

13. Rock Bottom 

After your character has found their worst failure, we need to see them wallow. Wallowing scenes can still be funny or dramatic or action-packed. Think about how John McClane deals with the knowledge that his wife has been taken. He runs to the roof, she's not there, he's being shot at by the Feds and by terrorists, it's insane. Let him think it's all over. Let him think he's going to lose. 

Let him wallow in that loss. 

And make that loss hurt. 

Make the worst part of their day or life reflect the worst thing they're going through. A divorce. A terrorist takeover. The city of Los Angeles. Make it all the worst. 

14. The Bounce Back 

Once you've hit rock bottom you can only go up. When the story bounces back, it can in a big way. You player was down, but now he's up taking one last swing, or one last run through the airport to get the girl like in Love, Actually. We want to see that passion and desire bubble up into palpable action. 

15. Triumphs  

We all like a winner. Maybe these triumphs come at the expense of someone else, or maybe they're just minor wins. Maybe your characters lose, but thematically we should see what you want to communicate to the audience triumph here. That's the lesson, the moral, the reason you want people to tune in and watch. This is where you deliver that lesson, bitter, sweet, or somewhere in between. 

Don't let anyone down. 

Think about the payoffs in movies like Apollo 13. We sit on the edge of our seat for two hours. Give us a reason to cheer! 

16. The Final Frame 

We covered the first and final frames above. But this is where your story ends. What image will you leave in your reader's mind? What can sum up the story or sum up the intentions of the story and close the loop of the character's journey? I love the final frames of Being There, the Hal Ashby movie. It's a classic that turns god into a fool. Or maybe we're fools for believing in god? 

You need some film theory to figure it out, but once you've seen it you'll never forget it.

The Beat Sheet Calculator 

When I'm writing I like to estimate where I should be in my beat sheet on which page of the screenplay. These estimates help me trim and cut from the story and allow me to explore other plot points if I think I have space and pacing setup properly. While all the math I do is theoretical, a website called Beat Sheet Calculator allows you to plug in estimates while making your beat sheet. 

As their website states: 

"The Beat Sheet calculator allows you to enter the total projected number of pages in your screenplay, and then returns to you a beat by beat sheet of the fifteen major events in the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet."

As you can see, it's built around the Save the Cat Beat Sheet, not ours, but I still wanted to endorse it for people looking for a mathematical way to structure their scripts. I like to free-write and trim later, but I wanted you to have the most information at your fingertips. After all, the more great movies that come out, the better all our lives will be. 

What's next? Learn character development

There are lots of terms thrown around when you try to write a character in a screenplay. But what sets character development apart from the pack and why is it crucial to your story? We've all sat down to watch our favorite TV show or movie series and enjoyed how the characters progress over time. While these arcs are confined to different time frames or throughout multiple episodes, the core of a character is within their development. Character development is the foundation of every great and memorable character, and it's something you have to master if you want to be a professional writer

Characters matter. Whether you're developing protagonistsantagonists, or minor characters, details about their lives and internal struggles matter. 

Click the link to take your character development to the next level!      

Your Comment

1 Comment

Great article, thanks.

April 9, 2019 at 12:03PM, Edited April 9, 12:03PM

1
Reply
Tim Shar
108