I was asked recently (by a novelist) “how do you do a beat sheet”? It gets easier the more you do, though there’s no science to it; people  certainly disagree on them.  I put a lot of time and energy into unravelling THE DARK KNIGHT, which I found mystifying; I’ve read other versions that I …
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Patterns: Beating sheets

I was asked recently (by a novelist) “how do you do a beat sheet”?

It gets easier the more you do, though there’s no science to it; people  certainly disagree on them.  I put a lot of time and energy into unravelling THE DARK KNIGHT, which I found mystifying; I’ve read other versions that I profoundly disagree with.  I’ve read a beat sheet of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK fixing the Midpoint as Indy in the Tannis map room, discovering the location of the Ark.  I think the Midpoint is when he (and Sallah) actually heave the Ark up out of its housing into the light.  (I even think that’s non-debateablely obvious; probably this other person thinks my choice of Midpoint is equally foolish).

In the end, it’s something your Spider-Sense learns, and then tells you.

If it’s so unscientific and unknowable, why bother doing it?

I try to avoid “screenwriter debates” over structure now; if you think two people arguing vehemently over abortion or the Iraq war is pointless with no real resolution possible, try sitting in on two screenwriters arguing whether structure is important or not.  At least there’s stakes involved in debating pollution or capital punishment.

I think I wrote good scripts before I read Save The Cat, and I know that I never finished a script until I sat in on Robert McKee‘s Story seminar.  In both cases (as in the cases of other books), I seized upon everything that struck me as right, and ignored all the rest.  (I believe that everything that “struck me as right” has helped me.)

I know that Jamie Nash (someone I have considered a real mentor and trailblazer in screenwriting) wrote some really, really strong stories and scripts before he read Save The Cat (he’d already read McKee and Christopher Vogler (and Richard Walter and Linda Seger and anyone else he could)).  Does he write better scripts today???  Probably not, no.  But I really believe he writes scripts faster today (and he was already prolific) and that they’re just as strong as ever, and I think he gets to a “final draft”, so to speak, faster now, too.  He joins and glues and sands all the “errors” faster now, in the planning stage.  I would guess he requires fewer drafts to finish today than he did before Save The Cat.

Many screenwriters argue that reading structure books is confining and erases creativity; I know there are people (one Melissa Goulding comes to mind) out there who genuinely found Robert McKee as stifling as I found him liberating.  And I agree with them: they have to ignore Mr. McKee and move with what feels right to them.

Many people believe it’s best to write organically or naturally, without preparing a structure beforehand.  I believe everyone’s different, which is why screenwriter arguments over the validity of structure can be futile.

I personally struggled for a very, very long, long time on turning points, on understanding what constituted one.  Overall, I don’t today have a definition of one, and different aspects of different act breaks can say “turning point” to me.

Here’s two useful items that helped me:

1. FilmCritHulk: An Act Break is a decision there’s no return from
(And I expand that to say “a decision/action/revelation there’s no return from)
(If nothing else grabs you here, read that link.  It’s as good as a whole book.)

2. Blake Snyder: A new world
Without downloading it to verify, Ariel landing on the beach with legs in lieu of a tail, and without a voice, is almost certainly the Little Mermaid’s first turning point, or act break.  The air, the feet/lack of tail (and lack of water), the gravity, the inability to communicate, are all an obvious New World for her.
Bruce Wayne’s decision (which there’s no going back on) to bug the entire city and violate everyone’s privacy is a New World for him: he’s a rule-abiding vigilante, and he now accepts that fighting a homicidal maniac who lives to push him further and further must involve accepting being pushed, into dark places.  (The first New World is, imo, the Joker’s public announcement he will kill people until Batman unmasks.  Now, the fight against crime is a whole new ballgame that Bruce never anticipated.)

I think it’s valuable to understand Turning Points or Act Breaks because I think they’re the key to “keeping things interesting”, or, “not boring people”.  They change values and conflicts and directions and feelings, and I think, or “sense”, that as long as you can have one every 25 or 40 minutes, audiences will hang on.

(I also think that Catalysts and Midpoints are “Turning Points”.)

How do you do a beat sheet?  It’s hard for me to answer this.  I examine the events in the story and try to pick out what the turning points/act breaks are.  (Even doing just this, JUST locating the act breaks, is pretty useful for training your brain.)  When I think I spot one, I weigh it against what preceded it and what follows and try to determine if it’s valid/legitimate, whether it feels heavy enough, deep enough, significant enough to be more than a complication or a relief.

Something I find useful is to watch a movie that I want to analyze, typing out everything that happens as it unfolds.  Then, I use that list/synopsis to mentally run back and forth over the events and evaluate them.  It’s far, far faster than skipping around a DVD.

It’s a vague answer, however I think that reading books on story structure and applying the parts that strike you as intuitively correct to stories you love will really help you analyze stories and grasp turning points.