You’re in a restaurant, and you hear a passing conversation, or you see something out of place, and it sparks something in your brain. That spark starts to weave together an idea that grows into an image. Then that image begins to play out in your head, and you see a story, but not completely. You have a concept now, but you’re not sure what to write or where to begin. Should you jump right into the script, or should you start smaller and work your way up to the entire thing? Both options could work. It’s whatever works for you as the writer. However, a beat sheet has its advantages.
To start, a beat sheet is a tool to help you organize your thoughts and show the arc of the story you want to tell from a macro perspective, from beginning to end. It breaks down your story into small chunks of the most crucial beats in your script. Look at it as a blueprint. It’s not the actual house, but it will give you and others an idea of what it will be.
Here are some tips on writing a beat sheet:
- Pick a structure: It’s a dirty word to some, but those who truly understand the craft know its purpose and that it’s essential. Even the films that feel like they may not follow structure actually have it. Structure is the story laid out to show the story arc. It can be as simple as a three-act structure or built all the way through The Hero’s Journey. Maybe you don’t know what the structure should be. That’s okay for now. Start writing out what happens in bullet points. The important thing is that we can see the story arc through the beat sheet.
- Look to others: The best teaching tool for any writer is not to start with picking up a pen and writing. The best tool is to see how others have done it. Understand the basics of the storytelling craft and start from there. Find beat sheets of films or tv shows that you have seen and see how they structured their story through a beat sheet. Google is an all-knowing entity that has vast amounts of them. This will make it so much easier to understand what your beat sheet needs in order to encapsulate the whole story.
- It’s okay if it sounds familiar: When you write out a beat sheet, your story may seem similar to another movie.That’s probably because it shares a similar genre structure to another story, which is not bad. In fact, it’s usually a good thing. The reason is the built-in story structure. Certain mechanics of story are essential in storytelling. Every story has an inciting incident. It’s the moment when something out of the control of the protagonist happens and launches them on their inevitable path. The story doesn’t start without it, the same thing with breaking into act 2. There is no adventure if the protagonist doesn’t enter a new world.
- Start wherever: Not sure where to start? Remember that first idea you had that sparked an image. Where does that take place in the story? Is it the beginning, is it in the middle, or halfway through the first act? Start there and build out the story as it comes to you. Play the movie through your head and write out the big moments that take place. Try to visualize those moments where your main character makes a decision that turns the story’s direction. Write those out and fill in the gaps.
- Write what you know: Similar to the last tip, this is about writing what you know about the story so far. You don’t have to have the complete picture yet but putting something down will help you see the rest. This also goes back to structure. Know what a story needs in order to give it dimensions. Every story needs an inciting incident. It requires a midpoint where the protagonist goes from passive to active. It also should have a moment where the hero looks like they may have failed.
- Nothing is set in stone: This may be the best advantage to starting with a beat sheet. It gives you the freedom to explore all kinds of ideas before you dive into the script. You get to test the story and find out what may work and what definitely doesn’t. It’s better to figure those things out early so you don’t spend that time writing them into the script and realizing later you need to cut it completely.
- We need a hero: Story is told best through character. It’s what makes stories connect to people. That is why the best way to see your story is to lay out the beats through your main character. It anchors what you are writing and allows the reader to see the story’s arc and character. Show us the big turns in the story through your main character.
- Leave the detail for the script: Too much detail and adding every story element into a beat sheet could lead to the primary story being lost in the words. You want to keep it simple. Keep it to the singular moment for a particular beat. For example, if you have a story in which your hero must find a way to save their ill mother, the inciting incident may be the hero discovering their mother is ill. In the beat, you could go into grand detail about the sickness, how the mother is dealing with it, and the protagonist was distraught when they found out. The best way to write that moment in the beat sheet would be, “The protagonist was devastated to learn their mother was ill.” The details will come out in the script.
- It all leads to the rewrite: Whether it’s a script, a treatment, a one pager, or a beat sheet, it’s never a perfect first draft. True writing happens in the rewrite. Once you have the first draft written, it’s always best to go back through to see if the story makes sense. Check to see that the story flows. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but at least it flows to a point where you can see the story.
- Polish is the last step: When you first do this, it may look like chicken scratch and shorthand, which you may be able to understand, but others may not. You may ask, “Why polish if this is just for me?” The reason is twofold. First, it’s a good writing exercise. It gets you in the habit of rewriting. Secondly, you may not end up being the only one to read it. You may need someone to read it to give you notes before you write the script, or you may want someone to read it to see if they’ll help you get your project made. You want to make sure that others can see and understand the story you are trying to tell.
- Get it done: My favorite phrase to tell aspiring screenwriters is, “The most important job is to get from FADE IN: to FADE OUT.” Simply put, just get it written regardless of if it is perfect or not. That’s what rewrites are for. Even if you realize something was wrong in the beat sheet when you get to the script, that is okay. Remember, nothing is set in stone. At the end of the day, as long as you and others can picture the story, that is all that matters.
The script is the ultimate goal, but a beat sheet is one of the best tools in your writer’s toolbox when you are unsure where to begin. It helps you work out the problems early, and you can change things easily. The beat sheet will help you and others see the story without spending time breaking it in the script. Wherever you decide to start, know that you have tools to help you build the house, and a blueprint can help make the house quicker.