Beat sheets and how to use them

A “beat sheet” is a form of an outline. In this form, you can think of each beat as an individual unit of plot, so a beat sheet in an outline that’s specific purpose is to touch on each of those.  (John August’s screenwriting.io).

Note that beat sheets are also commonly written after there is a draft of a screenplay. I’ve asked my assistants to do a beat sheet of a script I’m about to begin rewriting so that I’ll have a roadmap of how things are arranged.  (JohnAugust.com)

You’ll find I talk a lot about “forty beats” in the pages of this blog, and when I say that I’m really talking about a beat sheet.  A beat sheet is just a list of what happens in the story.  It can be written after the fact, as a precis of what’s in the draft, or it can be written in the development process as you try to flesh out your story.

A beat sheet is an agnostic tool.  A lot of writing “gurus” like to map out the beats according to their personal theories on how stories are told.  Take these with a grain of salt, when talking with another writer or producer never try to impose conflate the concept of beats with a theory on how they should be used, it just leads to an argument.

So in brief, a beat sheet is an inventory of the key moments that exist in your script.  They are commonly used after the script is written.

There are ways to create a beat sheet before you write your screenplay (most approaches that use index cards on a board create a de facto beat sheet that’s intended to help develop the outline and facilitate the writing of the first draft).

As an exercise, I like to have my clients test their story ideas in beat sheet form before they start writing.  This is a good test to see if you have enough content to fill 100 pages.  This is also the hardest exercise I’ve ever come up with, so hard that 90% of people get discouraged while doing it (when something’s that hard, it’s the fault of the dumb teacher who inadequately explained the exercise, me, than the people).

With that said, I’d like to break down the exercise a little more in my next blog post, in the hopes of making it easier and more useful.  When done right, it’s a powerful development tool.

Basic guidelines for a good sample script.

A common misconception in writing is that you are writing a spec so you can sell it. This is not the case. A sale, while nice, is unlikely in the current climate. My advice is to write a sample that communicates your ability to work in a given genre.
My advice for beginning writers can be summed up thusly:

  1. Your story should be between 95-115 pages.
  2. Your story should have a likable star part with a clear and recognizable arc.
  3. Your story should hit the familiar beats while paradoxically feeling fresh and original.
  4. Your story should be a strong example of a single, commercial genre.
  5. Nothing in your script should be longer than 4 lines. You can break this rule 5 times.
  6. It should explore cynicism, but reaffirm optimism (unless it’s a horror movie, in which case kill everybody).
  7. Don’t world build too much – if your universe begins to resemble Warcraft or Star Wars, you might want to write a novel.
  8. You must give a shit about what you write. If you can’t give a shit within these rules, then mainstream screenwriting might not be for you.

It’s not that this is the best way, or the only way, or even the right way. There is no right way, but there’s nothing egregious in this advice (again, so long as you give a shit).

IS THIS A BY THE NUMBERS FORMULA?
No. A common misconception with Save the Cat and other Mad Lib-type approaches to movies is that they’ve done all the thinking for you, and you just need to fill in the blanks. If it were that easy, they would have software to write screenplays. The great challenge of screenwriting is to take a familiar form like this and find a way to make it personal. Find what you’re trying to say, then use this story to say it (this topic merits 10,000 words on it’s own, but for now just remember that there are no easy answers). You have to give a shit (for more on this, see below).

IF EVERYONE DOES THIS WON’T THIS APPROACH LOSE VALUE?
Absolutely. No approach works forever, but for now, given that most people can’t internalize simple advice like this, if you do try it this way, it’ll help you stand out. Screenwriting advice is like rock, paper, scissors. There’s no best approach, the battlefield is always changing.

IS THIS GUARANTEED TO WORK?
Nothing is guaranteed to work. Being a professional screenwriter is like making it to the NBA. There’s a hoop on every playground, but only 350 NBA players in the world. This is just some simple advice that represents what I think gives you the best shot of showcasing your ability to write to the average reader.

HOW DO I DO THIS?
There’s no best way. You will find your method. I have my ways, which are listed on my website.

REALLY, WHY ARE WE DOING IT THIS WAY?
There’s a kind of sameness to most movies. This isn’t due to a great conspiracy, it’s because humans are particular in terms of the kind of culture they will accept. A good story tends to have some sense of unity, causality, and obedience to some kind of theme. The most successful writers are the ones who find joy in what they do. There’s a misconception that Michael Bay or Brett Ratner are some kind of sellouts. Not so, they love the kinds of movies they make as much as Tarantino or Scorcese do theirs. If this advice makes you gag, don’t follow it. If you see the sense of it, try writing within these parameters. It’s an approach that’s as good as any, better than most.

A Hater’s Guide to Save the Cat – Part One

Blake Snyder was, by all accounts, a nice man. He tragically passed away in 2009. I’m not here to disrespect the man, and if you do, you’re an asshole. That said, this is a Hater’s guide to his book, Save the Cat, in case you ever have to quote anything about it to someone who’s taking it way too seriously.

PART ONE – THE ROMAN NUMERALS
FORWARD
Sheila Hanahan Taylor, then a producer at Zide/Perry, now a producer at Practical and adjunct faculty at UCLA, gives a glowing review, as she should, it’s the forward. Still, some choice sentences stand out.

“I also found myself trying to come up with a way I could politely refer Save the Cat to a number of repped, produced writers who could use a little goose from it’s tactics.” I would pay money to see the real-life flame war that would erupt if you tried that on the wrong guy with the wrong agent.

“[If everyone read STC] My weekend read would dramatically improve… On second thought, are you sure you want this published, Blake? It might beef up the competition.” I’m sure someone will point out that Mr. Snyder was long out of the writing game at this point.(1)

She notes his use of Miss Congeniality and other hit movies of the era as a good example of his ability to pitch advice in terms of how executives think.  We may never know why Miss Congeniality made such an impression on Mr. Snyder, but he went bananas for it. While I’m sure some bright spark will argue the relative merits of some of these choices, I think the larger point here is that studio heads are very cynical about the way they see movies (more box office = better film), a useful cultural point that gets lost amidst the more polarizing points that come in the book.

“Once you learn to think like the people with the checkbook, you’re one step closer to success.” Implicitly, the argument that’s being advanced is that STC is the closest model to showing how producers think that’s ever been published. That’s a very dubious inferred statement, but it’s worth understanding the basic premise.

She goes on to compare the precepts of STC to the same pearls of golden development wisdom that undoubtedly rolled forth from the story department of Zide Perry. She also announces plans to introduce Save the Cat to the UCLA screenwriting curriculum. She was at least partially successful, it’s available in the UCLA bookstore, and every extension course at UCLA recommends it.

INTRODUCTION (IN WHICH MR. SNYDER INTRODUCES HIMSELF, HIS CREDITS, AND HIS TITULAR TRICK)
Mr. Snyder acknowledges that the screenplay market is flooded, and expresses his admiration for Syd Field, Robert McKee, and Viki King of HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE IN 21 DAYS fame (people used to talk about this book a lot more than then do now. It was referenced in THE SOPRANOS for gods sake). Mr. Snyder states that this is one of the few/the only screenwriting books that talks the way writers talk and isn’t too academic. While certainly not academic, the “talks the way writers talk” is very arguable, given that most of the trusted pro writer bloggers (John August, Ken Levine, etc) give this book a tentative “marginally better than useless” at best.

Mr. Snyder talks about his credentials, about how he’s sold millions of dollars worth of screenplays. As a hater, it’ll be useful for you to know that he was born with a foot in the door (his father Kenneth was an Emmy-winning TV producer) and he sold in the 90’s, a glorious, coked up time where the spec sales fell like rain (I’m exaggerating, not by much).

He also talks about the writer’s he’s coached. As a coach myself, I’m in a poor place to make fun of this, but the glaring elephant in the room with the book is the lack of testimonials from working writers. He has good testimonials from producers, but that’s it. Given all the flack his book would later receive from the cynical chattering classes of the internet, the lack of testimonials from name writers shines particularly brightly here. The phrase “turd in a punchbowl” comes to mind.

Mr. Snyder says that movies need a conceptual hook. This is a fair point, especially when a spec comes from an unknown writer, but he’s far from the first to mention this. I’m reasonably sure Crafty Screenwriting and Breakfast with Sharks beat him to it. Still this is good advice. Write movies with strong hooks.

He hates on the practice of movies opening wide (putting a movie in 3,000 theaters opening weekend, so it doesn’t matter if it stinks). Ironically, this is probably the sentence where he shares the point of maximum commonality with people who hate his book. He quickly follows this up with a point that works against this own point, that people should “follow the rules” to make writing more commercial. There are problems with this statement (see below).

WHAT IS A SAVE THE CAT MOMENT?
Mr. Snyder explains a Save the Cat moment as a moment that makes a character likable. He uses this moment from SEA OF LOVE, a deathless classic that every real American has seen twice:

http://www.anyclip.com/movies/sea-of-love/the-guy-who-was-late/#!quotes/ (2)

Why use Save the Cat? “Because liking the person we go on the journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.”   He might have said something like, “There are many elements that draw us into the story. I believe that empathizing with a character is the biggest part. That’s why I’ve titled my book the way I have.”  He didn’t.  A bigger problem than phrasing is the fact that saving the cat and likability have very little to do with his list of 15 beats, which end up being the money part of the book.

Mr. Snyder probably should have gone more into WHY likability is such a key issue, and then illustrated HOW his specific beats work to build that likability. He doesn’t, which is a major weakness in the book and the premise. A later chapter has more on the term, but it would have been nice to see a chapter on HOW to make a character likable (interestingly, there’s no Save the Cat moment in Blank Check), instead the concept gets short shrift and is tossed off in a few hundred words, then left to die.

Mr. Snyder sneers at LARA CROFT 2 (sic) and says that if they had followed “the rules,” and written a save the cat scene, it might have done better (historical note, it made 65 million domestic vs a 95 million production budget). This is another groaner moment.

  • There are no rules, and if there are/were, SAVE THE CAT was certainly not there yet.
  • Another turd in the punchbowl – 4 CHRISTMASES, held up in this book and subsequent ones as a model of his theory. It flopped, critically and commercially.
  • Again, I still don’t know HOW to write a Save the Cat scene, and I’ve read this book like a dozen times.

This sets up the biggest ad hominem critique I’m going to make against Mr. Snyder, and it comes back again and again. He has no sense of humor about himself, and he honestly believes his rules are empirically tied to box office performance. The Four Christmases thing is worth examining on several levels, but I’ll touch on it when he brings it up again.

Mr. Snyder brings it all home on page xvi –

“We are in the business of trying to pitch our wares to the majors, make a big sale, and appeal to the widest possible audience.” Oy. I agree that a beginner writer is well served by writing to the most lucrative development market, but the words “make a major sale” actually hurt the fillings in the back of my teeth. The spec market that bore, shaped and made Mr. Snyder aware was basically dead by 2005, which is why he had the time and financial interest in writing the book in the first place. He might have been hoping it was coming back, but it didn’t. Early, he said “this is a book that talks the way [professionals] talk.” This line is an example of how they talked in the mid 90’s.

He admits that this book is written for writers who want to work in the studio system and not the indie market, which is a a fair assessment. He thanks young writers who have given him new perspectives by “questioning me in that snotty-as-hell ‘tude that only insightful young people have,” a line that shows a marvelous economy, as it sounds simultaneously disingenuous, square and patronizing.(3)

“If my Save the Cat example has whetted your appetite to learn more tricks, let’s begin. Because it’s one of many that are basic. And they work. Every time. These are rules I hope you will use learn and use and even break. And hopefully when you’re movie comes out, and it’s satisfying and a hit — you can pass on your rules to others.”

Clearly, a goodly number of people were sufficiently intrigued to read on, this book was a bestseller, which is why we’re talking about it. But given that this is the hater’s guide, this is where he lost a large chunk of potential audience/credibility.  If tricks work every time, why would you want to break them? If they work every time, why did you transition from writing to coaching? If they work every time, why would LARA CROFT 2 (sic) have maybe made more money using a Save the Cat scene instead of DEFINITELY making more money? And, not to belabor this, but how the fuck do I write a Save the Cat scene?

IN CLOSING
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” F. Nietzsche
“When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Folk Wisdom.
“Only the Sith deal in absolutes,” O. Kenobi, missing the point of irony.”

Save the Cat’s introduction is a pretty good glimpse of the book to come. A smattering of good advice, that’s often undercut by the overweaning pride of its author. Mr. Snyder offers up each of these pearls as if he were a benevolent god shining his wisdom on the morlocks. If you’re a Save the Cat fan, it’s useful to understand that a lot of the flack the book received comes directly from the tone used by the author.(4)

Save the Cat is badly overhyped. It calls itself the “last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need,” when you could call it a good starting point for an understanding of screenwriting. It’s really simplified, it’s like an EZ Bake oven – it’s a kid’s toy, but a good chef could use it to make a fun meal. STC earns more flack from naive beginners who talk like it’s all you need to know about screenwriting, when in fact by citing it, they look like people with training wheels talking a big game to X games athletes.

Much of this stems from an apparent lack of irony from Mr. Snyder. Look at William Goldman and Stephen King. Both are highly accomplished commercial writers, but in their books they fall all over themselves with self-deprecating humor. It may be a pose (I don’t think it is), but it makes them super likable, they’re not trying to big time us, they’re trying to relate like a guy at a bar. In a sense, a self-deprecating voice is like a “Save the Cat” moment for a know-it-all author. Mr. Snyder ironically misses that point.

Snyder wrote STOP OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT and BLANK CHECK, and now he’s writing a writing book. That is freaking hilarious(5). If and when I write a writing book, I will mock myself at every fucking turn, because it’s easy, it’s fun, and it undercuts your own bombast (I haven’t done much of that yet – I will. To start: I’m far from rich. At this point in my life, I would kill to have the commercial success that Mr. Snyder had, either as a coach or a writer). Mr. Snyder either fails to see the humor, or refuses to comment on the humor, which leads me to believe that when he says the rules “work every time” or that LARA CROFT 2 (sic) could have made more money by following his rules, he’s not being hyperbolic, he’s committing the logical fallacy of magical thinking.

Personally, I find utility in everything.  It’s important to understand that everything has good and bad in it, and the purpose of this guide is to examine the strengths and weaknesses of a given approach.  Also, it’s fun to snark on the works of a dude who made tons more money than I did.

FOOTNOTES

(1) The secondary point one should take from this is that Ms. Taylor found the book useful as a conceptual framework. She might be the odd case, but if everyone in town were talking about Save the Cat (or whatever flavor of the month book comes next), the smart writer will find a way to make their story fit that pattern).

(2) In grudging fairness to Mr. Snyder, I just rewatched this scene and I forgot how truly good it was. Still, he might have considered his audience and used a more popular example. He uses Pulp Fiction and Aladdin later. It’s difficult to make a straight line that connects all three of the Save the Cat scenes he cites, but those are pretty much the only examples in book one (we’ll doubtless find out for certain as we progress through the tome, but I can’t remember off the top of my head.

(3) A recurring theme of this guide will be that Mr. Snyder writes from the point of view of someone who knows that he should SEEM amenable to other points of view, but who doesn’t really get WHY. I also what he might have made of the “snotty-as-hell” ‘tude that would surely have blown his way from the cynical internet circa 2014.

(4) Is that fair? Probably not. But as a screenwriter, Mr. Snyder was a communicator. He should know the old axiom: it’s not how the message was intended, it’s how it was received.

(5) These scripts don’t disqualify him as a teacher. You can often learn more about a craft from a hack than from a master.

A beginner’s guide from John August’s screenwriting.io

http://screenwriting.io/how-do-i-write-a-screenplay/

I like this guide. It’s friendly. It’s clear. It’s platform agnostic. It’s written in an accessible way to help other people. It has hyperlinks to other articles that explain what he means when he uses trade talk. And it’s written by someone with unimpeachable credentials. I’d be happy to deal with someone who used this as the basis of their understanding.

His five steps:

1. Get a feel for how they work.
2. Learn the format.
3. Pick your idea.
4. Flesh out your story.
5. Write

If you like this approach and would like to get more specific, I recommend you check out my guide to fleshing out an idea, which corresponds with steps 3-5.

Beginners want straight answers. Learn to give them.

SAMPLE QUESTION: I’m using Save the Cat. I have a question on the dark night of the soul. Should it run from pages 85-95, or is it a shorter moment that falls somewhere in that range.

BAD ANSWER: Why would you read that book, dumbass? This is why every script feels formulaic. Just write a good script, man.

SLIGHTLY BETTER ANSWER: No idea what you’re talking about. Let me ask some questions so I can see where you’re coming from.

SLIGHTLY BETTER ANSWER: I disagree with Save the Cat. That said, the answer is ______

THE ANSWER THE PERSON WANTED: I’ve read Save the Cat. I see the lowest moment as a 2-5 page scene that can land anywhere in that range.

The person in this example didn’t say “please inflict your words and philosophy on me,” he asked for a question with an answer. If someone asks a question that has an answer, just answer it.
If he’s asking how to do something egregiously wrong (how can I slip a script to an executive’s child at kindergarten?) feel free to correct them, but if they’re using an approach you don’t like, do everyone a favor, don’t judge the approach, let them explore their craft in their own way.

Didn’t Matter, Had Franchise (the Hobbit 2 from a screenwriting perspective)

Image
Thorin Oakenshield is a sawed off little runt who can’t fight but seems to think he can. He’s desperate to avenge his father’s defeat by launching a preemptive strike for the mineral rights of an enemy he doesn’t understand. He has no exit strategy. He makes George W. Bush look like freaking Aragorn.

The Hobbit Desolation of Smaug does not have a great screenplay.

  • It takes ten minutes for anything to happen in the story.
  • Most of what’s cool about it is visual spectacle that wouldn’t show on the page.
  • It’s 3 hours long
  • There are many sequences that you could cut out and the movie would still make sense.  Arbitrary plot points are not good things.
  • It loses the titular Hobbit for wide patches of the action.
  • No one has an arc.
  • The one interesting love interest pops in for four scenes, has chemistry with a dwarf for no reason, and then shows up again near the end almost randomly.
  • There are way too many dwarves.  Other than Thorin, I’m hard pressed to remember their names.  They get captured like all the time.  The only way the movie makes sense is if you imagine it as if they’re on a bondage tour where they pay fantasy creatures to contain them and menace them.

The list goes on.  None of this matters.

  • 66% Metacritic score, 74% Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Will win a grip of awards.
  • Audience response hovers around the 80% approval.  This movie has made more people happy than all of us put together are likely to do in the next ten years.
  • Most importantly, box office: .3 Billion Domestic, .7 Billion international.  Movies like these keep the lights on in Hollywood, and thank god they do.

That being said, it’s important that we take the right lessons here.  A lot of aspiring writers might be tempted to say, “Desolation of Smaug was a success, so it’s a good model for screenwriting.”  I’d hold that it is not, at least not for the kind of screenwriting journeymen are likely to focus on.

  • It’s based off of a classic book.  Regular folks won’t get the rights to material like this ever.  Yes, even if you’ve got the option on that one Michael Moorcock story that everyone in your WoW guild knows about.
  • It’s a sequel in a franchise.  No LOTR success, no Hobbit.  Side note:  Don’t write trilogies.
  • Much of what works about it is visual.  Peter Jackson can go into a meeting with artwork and pre-vis material.  The beginner screenwriter cannot.
  • Even with all these factors considered, it took years to get a greenlight from the studios.
  • Peter Jackson can make a movie like this because he built a reputation.  Look at his early works.  He cut his teeth on smaller, less ambitious movies.  His early projects used familiar genres to hint at his great imagination.  That’s why he was able to make Lord of the Rings when the time came.

The lesson to take is this: once you’re big, once you’re established, once it’s a studio project, once it’s a franchise (or preexisting material) some rules go out the window.  But that’s tomorrow’s problem.  If you’re serious about breaking into screenwriting, Desolation of Smaug could work as an aspiration target, but it isn’t a model of what to write next.

We aren’t writing to sell giant Lord of the Rings-type ideas, at least not initially.  We write samples that showcase our ability to write, so we can make more interesting or grandiose movies down the line.  Forget that at your peril.

WriterDuet makes sharing and collaborating a breeze (and why that’s awesome)

WriterDuet is a free online screenwriting tool that allows you to write scripts on the cloud. It’s no-frills but functional. In terms of ease of use, it’s easily my favorite free tool out there, it’s like CeltX minus the bloat. That’s enough to recommend it right there, but it’s got one killer feature.

WriterDuet was built to do one thing: effortlessly collaborate in real time. Final Draft technically has the ability to do the same thing, but Final Draft is a) clunky and bloated, and b) doesn’t easily connect to the internet. I have dozens of writer friends, and only one has actually used Collaborwrite. He says, “You have to fuck with your network settings, which basically means it doesn’t work.”

This is a feature that’s so brilliant that people will miss the point of it. So let me evangelize. This is a killer feature for three reasons.

MINDSHARE
When I was 8, I had a girlfriend named Emily, an artist, with black hair and blue eyes, and she was 9, which made her the exotic older woman. We would create storybooks together, and I vividly remember the thrill of drawing on the same piece of paper at the same time. The connection was electric, immediate, it was like sharing an imagined world with another person.

No collaboration in my adult life has ever come close. Until now. I’ve written with other writers in Google documents, but it just didn’t feel real. It didn’t look like a screenplay, so my primitive reptile brain didn’t treat it like screenwriting.  It was a barrier to letting my imagination free.

Then WriterDuet came along.  By removing the barriers to collaboration, it’s that much easier to slip into that hypnotic state, to feel like you’re sharing a universe with another person.  I can only imagine what that’s like high.

PLAY
This is me dating myself, but does anyone remember AOL chat rooms? Back in those early days, imaginative nerds used it for freeform roleplaying.

DRJim132: I am a barbarian.
DRJim132: :::Takes beer from table.
ANNEDAX: Hey that’s my beer!
ANNEDAX: :::: Attacks DrJim with sword.
DRJim132: ::::dies

People instinctively wanted a way to separate dialogue from action, hence the colons. WriterDuet makes that effortless, which makes play that much easier.  You can collaborate and pitch lines as easily as you IM, and you get useable script pages as a byproduct.

COMMUNITY
WriterDuet is a  tool that makes collaboration easier, and makes my job as a story coach both more fun and more useful, as it allows me to show people script fixes in real time. By standardizing the WAY we collaborate, we begin to standardize the language we use to collaborate, and that is how communities are formed.  Just as swing dancers use steps to dance together, and improv artists use techniques to play together, WriterDuet allows for the creation of new language and new communities that will make it easier for people to write together.

IN CLOSING

Just try the damn software. It’s free. You’ll be glad you did.

https://writerduet.com/