Writing a beat sheet helps to prevent that common syndrome, the polished treatment which nevertheless fails to materialise into a dramatic script. However, a treatment is a selling document, and should not be considered as a substitute for a beat sheet. The beat sheet you write for yourself.
The beat sheet is the key to nailing your script down; to transforming the ideas that are up in your head, into action. For those who find plots difficult, the beat sheet allows you to understand that action does not need to be overly dramatic, or even wholly original – only appropriate to the nature of your story, and the unique qualities of your characters swept up in it.
If you are not convinced: think for a moment about films such as Sophia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’ or Mike Leigh’s ‘Vera Drake’. These films are extremely short on dramatic events, but strong on dramatic tension and suspense. In these stories, the smallest actions take on huge significance; while the slightest overplaying of their narrative hand would send them careening into melodrama.
Action does not drive a story, but it is the vehicle for expressing its dramatic potential. Action provides the opportunity to externalise the quality of your characters, their values, flaws and strengths. It provides the energy which stirs the latent conflict. Once aroused, the design of the beat sheet allows that conflict to reach its fullest, logical consequence without being dissipated into side alleys of character development or incidental events.
When action is built from the outside in – as in bad action movies, or melodramas – it renders its characters simplistic or one-dimensional, or alternatively passive and at the whim of fate or destiny. The beat sheet provides the opportunity to marry action to character without getting caught up in the magnificent detail of your invention. One rarely has the same emotional commitment to the skeleton of a beat sheet, as to the living, breathing detail of words on a script page. It’s much easier to rewrite a beat sheet than to sacrifice a beautifully written, but redundant scene.
When we think about story, we naturally think in terms of linear progression, forward momentum. This is as much a reflection of our modern obsession with progress and development, as it is of our disconnection with the underlying cyclical patterns of life: the turning of the seasons and the daily rituals which have the strongest tidal pull.
However, while film is experienced as the forward momentum of narrative, its unique quality is more as an abstract mosaic of impressions coming gradually into focus as we move backwards and forwards in time, and sideways between different characters and storylines.
On the script page, such patterns are almost impossible to discern until translated to the screen. However, the beat sheet gives as much primacy to the connections across scenes as to the linear development of the story. When done successfully, these resonating images create the most satisfying experience for the audience.
Since these connections are barely conscious, the audience ‘feels’ them without needing to analyse why. This is important, because the moment the audience starts thinking about things, you’re in trouble; since they’re no longer being swept along by your story.
All too often, when a film successfully achieves these effects, it’s put down to the ‘eye’ of the director, or the cutting skill and sense of rhythm provided by the editor. But those who have sweated over the craft of the beat sheet know better.
Taken to one extreme – as in the genius of Tarkovsky – action becomes the slave of imagery, every action imbued with hidden potentiality, but often leaving the overall meaning of the story impossible to discern. Taken to the opposite extreme – as in the current Hollywood fashion for movies that feel like computer games – action becomes improvised and arbitrary, each new event existing only to cap its predecessor in excitement and visual spontaneity.
But excitement is fleeting, and our senses are soon dulled to extreme stimulation. The slow drip-feed of suspense, however, creates an unstoppable tide of momentum which saturates our emotions, and creates excruciating tension. The goal is not to provide your audience with the chemical pop and fizz of fast food, quickly consumed and just as quickly forgotten, but as Hitchcock expressed it: “to make them suffer as much as possible”.
Hitchcock, that master of narrative, never put a word of dialogue on the page until he’d storyboarded every scene. Hitchcock understood that the beat sheet allows you to map out not only the twists and turns of your story, but where every scene is going. In doing so – since the beat sheet should always be written without dialogue – it frees up the dialogue from the burden of carrying the story, from being ‘on the nose’.
When you come to write the dialogue in your script, you will be free to allow it to do what it does best: to react and respond to events, to offer colour and point of view, and to reflect our human inability to ever entirely understand the deeper streams of destiny and biology that govern our actions.
This lack of ‘knowing’ and the complications that arise between us because of it, are what allows a great film to continue to play out in our heads long after the lights have come up, leaving us hungry for more.
It is not necessary to have the plot all figured out before you begin the beat sheet. However, it will be useful to have a clear sense of the forces thrown into conflict in your story, as well as the themes that shape them. The beat sheet is your opportunity to ensure that every dramatic situation provides a new twist on that theme.
Naturally, for a story to be dramatically interesting, there needs to be a constant see-sawing between these forces, as each alternates in gaining the upper hand. The moment the audience can predict which will prevail, or feels that you are leading them by the nose, the tension will be killed stone dead.
Leave propaganda to the politicians. The job of a dramatist is to penetrate deeply into the power of both sides, the light and dark, the yin and yang that make up the alternating faces of reality, which can never be separated. To show one without entering deeply into the nature of the other, is to create a world lacking in credibility.
This does not mean that writing should not have a ‘point of view’. But point of view is a stylistic device, a way of ‘slicing’ into the material which gives it a unique, unifying point of attack. If you are interested, manipulating point of view is one of the techniques I explore in my ‘Maverick Screenwriting’ seminar.
A beat sheet is like a snake of dominos, one careening into the next, the next into the one after that. If one domino fails to connect, the circuit is broken and the tension is lost. The audience feel a ‘gap’, as though the ball has been dropped, or something has been missed. Where they expected a secure stepping stone, they have stumbled and fallen into a void.
The beat sheet allows you to keep the tension flowing by thinking in terms of sequences, rather than just individual scenes. These sequences are like melodic lines which sweep us along on an emotional tide, breathlessly, before delivering a bigger payoff. Like a roller-coaster, they keep us careening this way and that; but in the end we must always face The Big Dipper.
The form of the beat sheet is very simple, but doing it right can be very hard. However, when done correctly, it can make writing the script a breeze and a joy.
In my upcoming Beat Sheet seminar, we’ll be exploring not only the form of the beat sheet, but its use as a invaluable tool to improve your writing.