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Whether you’re brand new to the world of screenwriting or a decades-long veteran, the beat sheet can be an invaluable guide as you script that next great story.

But when writing a screenplay alone is already so challenging with much time, effort, and emotion that go into it, why should you also create a beat sheet? It is really that important?

In a word, yes.

We’re going to break down exactly what this vital document is and how a beat sheet comes into use during the screenwriting process.

What Does a Beat Mean in Screenwriting?

A script is a story, and a story is a series of moments that propel the narrative forward. A beat is one of those moments that occurs in a script.

Maybe it’s one character slapping another. Or a passionate kiss. An unexpected knock at the door. A knowing head nod.

Together, these series of beats establish who the characters are, where they are in the world, and what each of their objectives are in the story.

What Is a Beat Sheet in Writing?

A beat sheet is a screenwriting support document that chronologically strings out the meaningful beats that make up the story as a whole.

Beat Sheet FAQ

Got some introductory beat sheet questions? Here are some common ones that pop up when first beginning on the path to either becoming a Screenwriter or using this tool for your scripts:

How many beats are in a scene?

Anna Keizer

The answer is that there is no set or correct number of beats in a scene. A scene might last seconds or minutes. It could have a single beat or dozens of them. It all comes down to how the scene is constructed and what the intention is behind including it in the script.

So when putting together your own beat sheet, don’t feel limited by number. If you have two beats for a particular scene, that’s okay. If you have twenty, that’s okay, too.

That being said, what can be so useful about a beat sheet before you even get to the screenwriting part of the process is evaluating if those beats actually convey at the most basic level what is supposed to be happening in that scene.

Two beats might be just enough, or you might decide to flesh out that particular scene a bit more. In the same way, twenty beats might be exactly what the next scene needs or you might look at those beats and choose to par down.

Hitting a certain number of beats per scene is not the goal. Hitting exactly the number of beats you need for each scene is.

What should a beat sheet look like?

Anna Keizer

A beat sheet is comprised of the core moments in a story that keep moving it forward. To that end, no extraneous information is needed for it.

That means no dialogue. No character descriptions. No details that don’t inherently impact how the story unfolds.

There’s no single way that a beat sheet should look, but many Screenwriters create them as a bullet point document so that they can concisely map out those core moments and quickly refer back to them when the time comes to start writing the actual screenplay.

What makes a good beat sheet?

Anna Keizer

The most important marker of a good beat sheet is that it’s a beat sheet you’ll actually use.

If you’re new to beat sheets, you’re probably going to look at examples of them, whether they are documents you find online or get from your Screenwriter friends. That’s great.

Use them for inspiration but don’t feel obligated to construct yours in exactly the same way if it doesn’t feel organic to your personal writing style. The same goes for any screenwriting students who have been taught to create beat sheets in a certain way.

Considering that it does take a fair amount of time and energy to make a beat sheet, make sure that it flows in a way that will help you create the best script possible.

Given the intention behind beat sheets, it’s also important to keep it restricted to those most important moments in a script. Be mindful of a beat sheet so detailed with extraneous information that you find yourself getting lost in it.

If you personally feel like you want a support document for your script that does include certain elements like dialogue and the like, consider doing so with an outline instead.

How Do Beat Sheets Differ from Outlines and Treatments?

It might be surprising to some newer Screenwriters that beat sheets are only one support document used to help in the creation of a script. There are more! Two of the other commonly used documents are outlines and treatments.

An outline is in many ways a beefed-up version of a beat sheet. It will often include locations, perhaps bits of dialogue, and other details that help to flesh out what is happening from scene to scene.

A treatment is a prose description of the story told in present time. When reading a treatment, it often feels like what we often think of as a “traditional” story with main characters identified and central plot points explained.

What sets treatments apart from beat sheets and outlines is that they can be used as both an internal document–meaning, for the Writer’s eyes only–as well as an external document that can be given to others as a shorthand version of what the script is about.

Why Are Beat Sheets Used?

So when put into context that beat sheets are just one of several support documents that can be used during the screenwriting process, what specifically makes beat sheets a useful resource?

Namely, to help a Writer stay true to the basics of what they want their story to say.

Take a moment to think about just how long the average screenplay is… Typically, it’s between 90 and 120 pages. That translates into many, many opportunities to get side-tracked and lose sight of your story.

A beat sheet is incredibly helpful in being that touchstone needed when you’re at page 56 and suddenly blanking on what comes next.

The metaphor of a beat sheet being as necessary to screenwriting as a blueprint is to the construction of a building or a map is to a road trip is a common one, but for good reason… You need a guide for what you are undertaking, as it can be a long and winding road.

Who Sees a Beat Sheet Besides the Screenwriter?

As briefly mentioned, treatments are documents that can be used in lieu of a script if someone just wants a shorthand version of what a particular script is about.

That generally doesn’t happen with a beat sheet. In most cases, the only set of eyes that will ever look at a beat sheet are those of the Writer themselves. With a couple of exceptions.

Are you a represented Writer?

If so, your Manager may want to look at your beat sheet to make sure that the script you’re writing is the one they think you’re writing. Instead of waiting to hand them that 100-page script, they can quickly get a sense of the story you’re going to tell.

Have you been hired to write a screenplay?

In some cases, the Producers on the project might ask you to provide a beat sheet ahead of the actual script so that they can quickly confirm that you’re on the right track or to make revisions.

Revisions to beat sheets are much easier to do than revisions to a completed feature script. (Though those will happen, too!)

Do You Need a Beat Sheet If You’re Writing a Screenplay?

Here’s the thing. There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to writing or using a beat sheet for your screenplays.

Though they are highly, highly recommended, especially for Screenwriters just starting off on their professional careers, you won’t get into trouble per se if you decide not to use one. No one is going to come knocking on your door and demand to see it.

Honestly, the only trouble that might occur is ending up with a meandering script that doesn’t represent the story you intended to tell.

It’s rare that a Screenwriter will sit down with no preparatory materials at all and just start writing a screenplay. If they don’t have a beat sheet, it’s because they’re using an outline. If they don’t have an outline, it’s because they’re using a treatment. Or maybe it’s a bulletin board covered in notecards. In some cases, a Writer will have a combination of all of the above.

The point is that there really is no downside to creating a beat sheet if you intend to write a screenplay. In fact, it can only help you. A lot.

But if you ultimately decide not to use a beat sheet for your scripts, make sure you have another way of tracking your screenplay so that the finished project stays true to your intended vision.

Can You Make Changes to Your Beat Sheet Once You’ve Begun Writing Your Script?

Of course! Using a beat sheet is not about stifling your creativity but rather aiding it.

It’s incredibly common for Writers to have epiphanies about a better character arc or stronger plot point or any other aspect of their scripts as they’re in the middle of writing them.

"Beat sheets are not iron-clad documents that you cannot change once they have been written out. If you suddenly have a great idea about some element of your screenplay, go with it."

In such instances, your beat sheet can again be incredibly useful because you should be able to see quickly and clearly if the change you made works with the rest of the story or disrupts it.

If it’s the former, fantastic.

If it’s the latter, you can update the rest of your beat sheet accordingly… Again, we can’t emphasize enough how much easier it’ll be to make those edits to a beat sheet rather than a completed screenplay. Better to do it sooner than later.

How Do You Create a Beat Sheet?

The way in which you craft your beat sheet is essentially up to you. And as you move forward in your screenwriting career, odds are that you will change your personal beat sheet format as you learn what works and what doesn’t work for your specific writing style.

But below are basic story beats that can help you build that initial foundation of a beat sheet.

Keep in mind that if you’re writing a feature screenplay, you’ll likely break up the beats below according to your script’s three acts. If the script is intended for television, you’ll probably find it more useful to break it up according to the story’s five acts.

1. First shot

What is the image first seen by the audience that will set the stage for the rest of the story? Describe it.

2. Character/story intros

Whose story are we following? And what is the journey that they are undertaking? In a sentence or two, set up the who and what of the script’s narrative.

3. Story theme

What is this story really about? Love conquers all? There’s no place like home? Include a beat that reveals the deeper meaning of the story and the reason why we should be invested in it.

4. Inciting incident

Why are we following the protagonist’s journey at this particular moment in time? Explain what happens that initiates the story to come.

5. Conflict

What is getting in the way of the protagonist going after their goal? Is it a physical obstacle like a storm? An unsupportive family? Or perhaps some sort of internal struggle like doubt or depression? Include it in your beat sheet.

6. Subplots

Even with a central protagonist and their specific journey, most stories have other subplots and conflicts. Give a brief description of them.

7. Supporting characters

Who is helping the protagonist in attaining their goal? Who is making it harder for them to reach it? Provide a concise breakdown of the other characters who significantly factor into the overall trajectory of the main storyline.

8. Middle of the story

The protagonist has made several decisions that have moved them closer or further away from their goal. Explain where they are in the narrative.

9. Rock bottom

Your protagonist may have some wins as they move forward in their journey, but for the story to evoke some type of emotional response in the audience, you also have to give them some losses. What is happening when your main character hits rock bottom?

10. Climax

This is it. Your protagonist is facing their final and most significant conflict in the story, whether that’s a deadly confrontation or romantic ultimatum, or another life-changing or potentially life-ending event. Include it as a beat.

11. Resolution

What is the outcome of the climax? Describe how it has impacted the protagonist and other major characters.

12. The end

Provide a parting shot of where we leave the main character in their story. The end should provide closure for the protagonist in both a narrative and thematic sense.

What Do Writing Experts Have to Say About Beat Sheets?

Again, the methods used to write a screenplay may be as individual to the Writer as the actual story they end up creating.

Whether or not you decide to use a beat sheet for your writing is your choice alone. However, you may want to find out why story structure expert and screenwriting coach Jill Chamberlain thinks this support document can be so beneficial:

It’s totally understandable that when a Screenwriter first gets the idea for a great script, they’re eager to immediately sit down and start putting to paper–or computer screen–that vision.

But beat sheets are not obstacles to that process. In fact, they can make it a whole lot easier by providing a clear and concise guide to exactly how that story will play out.

Before you spend the time and energy to write 100 pages or more of a script, a beat sheet can help to identify any parts of your narrative that are insufficiently explained or too bloated. You can more quickly see what’s working and what’s not.

Really, using a beat sheet is about making sure you create a clear, compelling story that’s true to your imagination and intention. And who doesn’t have time for that?

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