Thursday, December 01, 2005

Beat Sheets

This is a blog post from 2005, useful, but there's lots more info on my new site here


Every scene has a purpose, or so they say. But sometimes, even when you’ve written your script with due diligence, the drama can feel a bit flat or inconsequential. You may notice it yourself, it will bug you, but readers will definitely pick up on it and it will bore them. So what’s wrong? You’ve given every scene a purpose, why isn’t the drama working?

Well, the likely answer is that you may be hitting the mark on what the scene’s about but it’s not being effectively dramatised. Denis over at Dead Things on Sticks
made a recent reference to TS Eliot’s notion of ‘The Objective Correlative’ where Eliot mused that the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is to find a chain of events that will be the formula of that emotion.

So, while the purpose of your scene may be to establish that Philip and Sonia fall in love, you must find the dramatic chain of events that will best represent what you want to communicate. For example, a bland rendition of Philip and Sonia’s love affair would be:


Philip looks up from his coffee, catches Sonia’s eye. She flicks her head in his direction and is suddenly transfixed by his sexy glare.

PHILIP: Jeez, y’know, I never believed in love at first sight but I think, well, that I’m there.

SONIA: (melting) Me too.

The scene hits the purpose but it doesn’t do the characters or story justice. This is where establishing ‘beats’ to your scene will help to enrich the drama and increase the reader’s (audience) involvement.

‘Beats’ are the dramatic structure of your scene. They help build to the point and purpose of what you want to establish. So, going back to Philip and Sonia’s first meeting, let’s give it three beats before we reach the purpose of the scene.

Beat 1: Philip buys a takeaway coffee, in a rush, but as he turns, he bumps into someone and spills his coffee all over her: a doddery old woman.

Beat 2: The doddery old woman is annoying and treats Philip with disdain, hits him with her brolly. Despite the assault, Philip remains calm and goodnatured.

Beat 3: Sonia watches on, admiring Philip’s cool, and as Philip helps the old lady on her way, they catch eyes, rockets & fireworks explode in their hearts, and Philip slips on the spilled coffee as he exits, flat on his face.

Now the scene might play like this:


Philip’s waits at the counter, impatient.

PHILIP: (checks his watch) Come on, come on.

The waitress hands him his takeaway coffee and he takes it with a swift movement, no time to hang around, and as he turns -

Whack! Straight into a doddery old woman. Coffee everywhere, Philip drops his briefcase. And the Old Woman falls on the floor.

OLD WOMAN: You buffoon! Watch where you’re going.

PHILIP: I’m so sorry. Let me help.

OLD WOMAN: Get away from me, cretin.

Philip tries to help her up.

OLD WOMAN: Keep away! I know your kind.

PHILIP (amused, despite Old Woman’s behaviour): My kind?

From the side, Sonia smiles as she watches the exchange.

OLD WOMAN: Bloody yuppies.

PHILIP (helping her up): There you go. I’m so sorry.

OLD WOMAN: Out of my way.

She smacks him with her brolly and continues to the counter, leaving Philip somewhat bemused.

Then, he catches Sonia’s eye. She smiles at him, a show of sympathy. In that moment, Philip’s world turns upside down. He stares, transfixed. A glare too long, unnerving Sonia a little. She looks away, still with a half smile.

Philip snaps out of it, picks up his briefcase to leave, still clocking Sonia, but as he goes, he slips on the spilled coffee and falls flat on his face.


As you can see, I don’t write romantic comedies but it’s just an example of how you can approach a scene to make sure that there’s involving action going on whilst still hitting the mark of what your scene is about. And to do this, establishing the beats can help clarify and single out what you’re going to deliver.

Perhaps a better example would be the Ghostbusters scene I referred to a few posts back when we meet Peter and Ray for the first time. The purpose of the scene is to introduce them as characters, show that they’re involved in the paranormal and get them to the library where the ghost has appeared.

But the drama/comedy of the scene is played out with Peter trying to impress a vacuous blonde with his paranormal test and Ray coming in spoiling his moves before they go on their way. The scene has three beats.

Beat 1: Peter tries to impress the blonde by favouring her answers over the geek who he supplies with electric shocks and the geek, fed up, leaves.

Beat 2: Peter moves in on the blonde, buttering her up for his seduction.

Beat 3: Ray bounds in, interrupts, and forces Peter to dump the blonde so that they can check out the ghost in the library.

It's important to note that a 'beat' is not an exchange of dialogue. They're mini-beats if you like, to help progress to the proper beat. For example, Peter, the blonde and the geek go through a few funny exchanges but the beat is for Peter to impress the blonde and be alone with her.

In writing for soaps, quite often you are given the “story beats” of the serial element. For example, you may get the story line: “John goes to tell Sarah that he’s impotent but he can’t quite summon the courage. Sheila and Maria prepare to adopt their first child together.” Etc. So, as the writer, you’re looking at this outline, and these story beats, and thinking of how to break it down into small dramatic beats of action so that you can do each scene justice.

I don’t know a lot of writers who actually take the time and bother to write a full ‘beat sheet’ (where you list the scene’s purpose and its relevant beats). Crikey, sometimes an outline and treatment can be hard enough without having to go to this much detail. But if you attempt a scene by scene breakdown or a ‘step outline’ then this is essentially expressing the key beats of what’s happening and how it’s going to be dramatised.

In writing for TV, it’s invaluable and obligatory, and perhaps if we all took the time to do it with our features then our scripts would have that extra edge of efficiency, drive and purpose to make the characters and drama truly stand out.


Want me to read your script? Check out my consultancy page.


Anonymous said...

Beat Sheet has been invaluable for me as a beginning screen writer. It is a simple breakdown of words and actions which I needed. Writers in general tend to be snooty and have an air of superiority over those less talented then themselves. I have registered for the NY Workshop and was feeling intimidated by other blog topics but the beat sheet has given me courage to move forward. Thanks a bunch!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this. I'm still a litle confused, having just started writing plays for theatre, tv and radio. Do you actually put: Beat 1,Beat 2 etc on the script, then submit it, or just for your own personal reference?

Essentially, are beats just points of action that get to the crux of the matter?

Thanks in advance


Danny Stack said...

Hi Antonia - put 'beat 1', 'beat 2' if it helps you (or bullet points, or a new paragraph, whatever marks out the action). It's just for your own personal reference really, unless someone asks you to put it in a specific style.

And yeah, essentially, they're just the points of action to get to the crux of the matter. Very helpful to stay focused on what matters, and to keep the story going...

Unknown said...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this; me and a friend wrote one of those relationship setup scenes recently which was totally flat, I think I now see why:

Apart from the more general problem that we didn't fully get what we were trying to portray, there weren't enough dramatic shifts: The characters had walls and common points, and we shifted from closed to open, rather than flickering back and forward. It should have been that they get flickers of closeness before stepping back again.

It seems like a scene should be a set of changes that hang together in some way, not just one broad change.

Unknown said...

Could another way of thinking about beats be the dialectic?