A “beat sheet” breaks a 90-120 minute story down into 25 to 40 “beats,” or basic story steps. It gives you a bird’s eye perspective and helps you visualize the economy of the screenplay, what the story needs more or less of. Blake Snyder’s Hollywood screenwriting how-to book Save the Cat is one of many attempts at codifying what things have to happen during particular beats, but I’ll save that topic for a future post.
A few working screenwriters have told me that before they sold a single script they wrote dozens of “beat sheets” for other films, especially films that they thought were successes in the genre they were breaking into. It’s like learning to play a bunch of other songwriters’ songs before you can expect to write a good one yourself. (One guy even told me he’d done hundreds of them, but I suspect he was exaggerating.) It’s an exercise that, like stretching, is actually a pleasure once you’ve set aside time to do it. If watching your favorite films with a laptop or a pen and paper in front of you sounds like a big drag to you, then you probably shouldn’t be a screenwriter.
In the next post, I have a sample beat sheet I recently wrote for The Graduate, the classic film written by Buck Henry based on a Charles Webb novel. The first time through it in many years, I was sitting in the dark at Film Forum, and I spontaneously started recording its beats. Page One is below.