A beat sheet is an outline tool Screenwriters use to write a script.
Instead of Roman numerals, etc., you typically just use bullet points for each “beat”, which essentially represents a plot point. These beats help structure your story so you know where it’s going and help you hone in on what you are trying to communicate. Then hopefully, when you sit down to write you are less likely to get writer’s block!
There are plenty of examples of a beat sheet online and most of them follow a similar structure, but before we look at the most popular, let’s look at what a beat is. Your whole story is made up of beats. They are the building blocks of the tale you are spinning, from breaking down your story into Acts 1, 2 and 3, to breaking down what happens in each act, to breaking out each scene that makes up each act.
You can make a beat sheet for each of these steps. And when I say beat, I don’t mean a pause in dialog. I mean the moments that push the story forward. For example, you have a plot point beat: She discovers her husband is cheating. Within this beat you will have smaller beats: She sees lipstick on his collar. Jealous rage surges through her flushed cheeks.
Sometimes a beat sheet refers to what is also called a step outline, which is a bullet point list of each scene in your script from head to toe.
Some people stay away from beat sheets or outlining tools because they believe outlines can inhibit discovery. Coming from a film editing background, I like them because I am used to changing things — moving scenes around, putting in new scenes and rewriting dialog — after a film is made. So as far as I’m concerned, any idea that hits paper is fluid and can change at any time, so it doesn’t bother me. It keeps this ADD gal writing!
However, all that said, I do find some outlines to be limiting because most are based on Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” which is really only one way to craft a story.
The three-act structure is certainly popular, but it’s not the only way. On top of that, story analysts and the like are starting to understand that there is a different journey for women altogether. If you want to read more about that, check out The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness by Maureen Murdoch 1. If you are writing a story about a woman, she identifies different beats that can be found in the References section at the end.
Right now, Blake Snyder’s, Save the Cat2 beat sheet seems to be the latest trend among screenplay writers. I don’t say trend to diminish it. It builds upon the Hero’s Journey and I am sure that someone else will come along and refine these ideas even more. For someone looking for a place to start, it’s a great tool. Snyder breaks down his beats in the sections corresponding with the subheaders in the body of this article.
Film is a visual medium. Your opening shot and scene sets the tone of your film. It should introduce your protagonist and let your audience know who they are before their journey begins. What is their conflict? How can you illustrate who they are and what their challenge is? Ideally, this sets up or is related to your last shot.
This should be your page 1.
What grander question are you trying to answer with this character’s journey? What is it about themselves that they don’t know? Usually, a character other than the protagonist points it out or it’s shown through the way the protagonist interacts with their world and the choices they make.
This should happen within the first 5 pages.
All of these beats blend together and expand on your opening image. We see the protagonist in their everyday life – also considered “the status quo.” This beat should reveal the world we are in and examine who the protagonist is and what are they up against. What do they need? What’s in their way? Each scene should reveal new information. It’s easy to get redundant here.
This should happen through page 10.
This is the moment that propels your story into motion. Something happens to your protagonist that rocks their world and shakes up their status quo.
Here is where your hero is conflicted. Joseph Campbell calls this the refusal of the call3. Nobody likes change. Characters often retreat before they can move forward.
This happens roughly across pages 10 and 25.
This the beat in which the debate is over and the protagonist decides to go on the journey. Or maybe they don’t decide; maybe they get swept away by it. This is the moment that gets you into Act 2. From now on, everything is geared to this character transforming.
This should happen by page 26 or so. (However, all these numbers are nothing more than suggestions to help you contain your script to a shootable length).
This is when we meet a new character that gets involved with the protagonist. Sometimes it’s a love interest; sometimes it’s a child or a character that helps the protagonist on a thematic level.
This should happen around page 30.
This is when things start to happen. It sounds easy, being fun and games and all, but this is the moment people have been waiting for. This is when your protagonist does what we promised they would do. That’s why it’s also called the “promise of the promise.” It’s the answer to the question: “What’s your story about?” What does your character do? Are there discoveries? Are there obstacles?
This should cover pages 30 to 55.
This is when all the character has done is not enough. It’s that moment when something else must happen or there is no movie. This is when The Millennium Falcon comes out of light speed and Luke and his crew discover the Death Star. It’s the “now what?” moment — the moment when the characters are in too deep to turn back, so they must bolster themselves for what’s to come.
It can also be a false victory: Luke discovers that Princess Leia is on the Death Star and rescues her.
This should hit around page 55.
At this point, your protagonist is losing. Maybe it’s someone that betrays them; maybe they’ve used up all their resources or don’t have the skills to face the challenges. This is the time to raise those stakes and have us wondering how they’re going to get out of the mess. Let’s stick with the Star Wars structure; after Luke rescues Leia, they are forced to retreat and they end up in a trash compactor.
This is the insult to injury moment. The hero loses everything they have worked for. Somebody dies or they make a huge mistake that puts them in a hopeless situation.
This should hit or start around page 75.
This is how the protagonist reacts to the “all is lost moment”. They feel hopeless and want to give up or it seems impossible for them to succeed.
This should take you to page 85.
This is the moment when new information is introduced to save the day. It can be a result of the B story character or it can be another kind of discovery, but this is when the protagonist gets it together and pushes forward within the theme. They’ve learned the lesson. They know what to do.
This should happen around page 85.
Also known as the climax, the finale is when the protagonist faces the antagonist. It’s when there is a battle scene; it’s when lovers unite; it’s when Dorothy faces the witch in The Wizard of Oz and realizes she had the power all along. The world is a better place now that the protagonist has gone on this journey.
This is your last act and should end around page 110.
This is a response to the opening image. It ties your theme up and lets us know that the protagonist has changed.
Fade this out around page 110.
Beats help you not only map plot points, they also help integrate them with a theme. If you want to explore more, you can check out Blake Snyder’s book, Save the Cat. I would also suggest reading Joseph Campbell’s A Hero With a Thousand Faces4.
Read screenplays and watch tons of films so you can understand these things intuitively. Don’t know how to get your hands on a screenplay? Check here.
I also suggest breaking down some stories on your own. Take a movie and see if you can identify the beats. Analyze plots of all kinds of movies. See how a historical film is structured versus a romantic comedy or a superhero film. Blake Snyder breaks films down on his website if you need a starting point 5.
>Most importantly, remember that rules are meant to be broken. Master the craft then see what you can do to shake things up a bit!