People keep on emailing to ask me what a ‘story beat’ is, and how you put them together into a ‘Beat Sheet’.
‘Beat’ and ‘beat sheets’ are words that people in the industry in the UK use all the time, and the whole concept can be just a little bit slippery.
At its heart it’s very simple. A beat means ‘Something That Happens’.
A list of these beats, that gives the main events in a story, is called a beat sheet.
The confusion comes because, just like a fern is a fractal, a beat is too.
A beat can be made up of other, smaller beats.
And each of these smaller beats can be made up of other, even smaller beats. On and on down, seemingly forever.
You could call each of these big story events a beat:
1. John is all alone.
2. John meets Jane.
3. John loses Jane.
4. John wins Jane back.
You’d definitely work at that level of detail when you are sketching out the overall shape of a story.
Later on, when you’re happy that that part of your story definitely runs along those lines, you’d break those five down into more detail.
Look at beat 4. John wins Jane back.
Let’s break that down, into a component set of possible beats:
1. On his way to the match, John runs into Jane. She offers him a lift. Desperate to talk, he calls his friends, says he’ll meet them later, and hops into Jane’s car.
2. Very quickly their old problems surface, they start a row over his football obsession and she kicks him out of the car.
3. He’s stranded. Middle of nowhere, no cabs to be seen.
4. He calls his friends – they’re already inside the ground. He’s going to have to make his own way there.
5. Desperate to get to the match, he flags down a passing bus.
6. But the bus is full of supporters of the opposing team. They see his team shirt, and close in on him to teach him a lesson.
7. He wakes up in bed in hospital – to find Jane there. She has been waiting by the bedside, terrified she will lose him.
8. He takes his chance, she proposes. The shock has shown her she can’t live without him, even with the football, and she accepts gladly.
And of course, to get to what you’d see on screen, you’d break each of those beats down even further, to yet another, even more detailed set of beats.
Look at beat 3, “He’s stranded”, and break it down into yet another set of beats:
1. John falls out the car, Jane zooms off.
2. He tries to flag down a passing car. No luck.
3. He realises there is a bus stop over the road. He runs – misses the bus, which zooms off without him.
4. John does a war dance of anger and stress.
5. He looks round. No more traffic in either direction.
6. He starts to walk.
So really, what’s contained in a beat depends entirely on the level at which you are currently thinking about the story. The real trick is to keep all the beats in your beat sheet at roughly the same level of detail at any one time.
The way I write involves a great deal of playing around with beats and beat sheets.
I never go near Final Draft until I am are sure the story really sings, and that when I read the beat sheet I can play the whole story in my head.
Only then do I move to writing actual scenes and dialogue.
The reason for spending so much time on this more abstract work is that once I’ve committed to dialogue in a scene I tend to fall in love with the scene, and it becomes much harder to cut, reshape and generally chop the story around – all of which is essential if you’re going to find the best possible version of your story.
As with most of these techniques I mention, it’s about clarity of mind, finding your story as simply as possible, and – by not wasting time writing scenes that don’t even belong in your story – saving weeks, possibly months of your life!
(A simple list is the very basic version of a beat sheet. In the real world there’s a little more to it than that. I put these beats into a spreadsheet, one column per character, divide them horizontally into the difference acts of the story, and look for chances to insert certain types of beats I know work really well in certain places.)
So that's beats. I hope you found it helpful. If you're having other trouble with your story, and you want a quick, reliable checklist to point out where you're going wrong, you should definitely download our '11 Critical Questions' cheatsheet. You can get that here.