Earlier this summer I wrote an article documenting the very first steps of developing my independent feature film, and now that some real progress has been made, I felt it was time for another update. Below I’m going to walk you through my process of refining my feature film’s story, and fitting it in to the context of a beat sheet… But first off, here’s some backstory on how I got there:
Taking Time Away From The Story
At the tail end of my last article (which primarily focused on choosing and developing a story idea), I had mentioned that before I would move ahead with developing the idea any further, I wanted to take some time away from it. I always find this to be a really critical part of the process as it allows me to think clearly and see any problem areas that my story may have from a more objective standpoint. That said, I took a bit more time away from it than I initially had planned to, simply because my working schedule over the summer became quite hectic. Making a feature film is not something that I take lightly, and naturally I always want to make sure that I am able to give it 110% of my attention… So rather than attempt to fit my story development process in on evenings and weekends, I opted to let the dust settle a bit and revisit things once I would be able to truly give it the attention it deserved.
To put things in context, over the past few months I directed 3 projects (including my short film ‘The Mechanic’, which was selected to compete in HBO’s Project Greenlight), polished/color graded 2 feature films, photographed 2 editorial photo shoots, produced many commercial/corporate projects through my business, started renting out all my camera gear, released my DSLR Cinema Guide, and have been planning for my upcoming 2 day Digital Cinema Bootcamp in Los Angeles, amongst other things. So as you can imagine any attempt to develop my story idea in the midst of that chaos would not have been wise. In the end though, the time that I needed to take away from the story was well worth it and ended up being a blessing in disguise.
The Evolution Of An Idea
After taking several weeks away from my initial story and character ideas, I came back and felt even more confident about the direction I was going. Often times after taking weeks away from an idea, I will come back to it and start to see major problem areas, or will lose interest in the idea for one reason or another. But in this case, the opposite has been true. If anything, the time that I took away from it has only solidified my initial attraction to the idea and genre, and given me some strong character ideas to build off of.
The initial concept that I had for this film was very simple. I wanted to make a dark, dramatic thriller that was set on the road, and I wanted the protagonist to hold a hidden backstory that would be exposed throughout the second act. None of this has fundamentally changed since the initial seed of the idea, which I believe to be a very good sign… So rather than changing what’s already there (and what I believe works well in it’s current form), I’ve been focusing on adding important details, character backstories, and stronger themes to the story as a means to strengthen it’s core.
For instance, some of the initial details that I had in place with regards to character motivation have changed. In one of the early iterations of the idea, I wanted the motivation for the protagonist to hit the road to be centered around her journey to find her younger brother, who had just ran away from home. When I revisited this idea though, I felt that it would work better in the context of this film to place it in the past, as a backstory detail. I didn’t want this to become a cat and mouse film that was primarily action driven, focusing on her chase to find her younger brother. That could be a great story too, but just not the one that I wanted to tell. Instead, I was inspired to take what was a small sequence featuring the lead character visiting her terminally ill/estranged mother who she hasn’t seen in nearly a decade, and build up that storyline much more substantially in the first act – Ultimately making it the motivation for the break from act 1 to act 2A. So now the emphasis and conflict in the story is centered around a far more dramatic premise… The reunion of two family members who haven’t spoken in years. And the plot line featuring the protagonist’s younger brother that ran away is now set in the past, which allows it to live as a texturizing character detail as opposed to a plot motivator. As I fleshed out the idea further, I actually found a way to connect the past storyline of the brother running away with the present day story line of the terminally ill mother, and ultimately both ideas are now working in tandem, elevating one another.
Creating A Beat Sheet
Once I was able to start connecting the dots with regards to the plot points in the film, I forged ahead by creating a beat sheet. I should mention though, that before I got to this point I went back to my notebook and re-wrote all of my character bios, backstories, and any other notes that I felt were important. I don’t like to get too far into the writing process before I have all of the answers (or at least most of them) for the story that I’m telling. In the past, I would write out a beat sheet and get stuck for hours, or sometimes even days on a single beat. This was because I didn’t yet fully know what the story was and this was a big red flag that I needed to go back to the drawing board.
In my opinion, the bulk of the legwork when it comes to writing needs to be done up front – and much of it is mental. Once you’ve spent days, weeks, or months thinking through your idea and understanding your characters, everything becomes easier. In an ideal world, when it comes time to actually writing your script, that should be the fastest part of the process (at least the first draft, that is), as you are simply putting words down on paper and everything is already mapped out. So if you’re writing a story too, and are having trouble during the beat sheet stage, you might need to take a step back and re-assess the idea itself. I’m not saying that everything needs to be easy… Writing can be a very difficult and arduous task (even when thoroughly thought out and developed), but generally if you don’t have the answers to most of your own questions once you’re at the beat sheet stage, there might be a problem.
So when it came time to write my own beat sheet, I took it as a very good sign that things started to gel for me right away. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a beat sheet writing session go as smoothly or as productively. I attribute this to a number of factors, including my growth as a writer (since writing my last feature length screenplay), but more so to the time I took away from the story over the summer. All of those weeks that I wasn’t able to write because I was busy working, I was still thinking about the idea… Even though much of the time it was completely subconscious. This allowed me to freely explore the ideas without pressure, and let my unconscious mind do some of the heavy lifting for me. In the past, I would think of an idea and write it down immediately without giving it any room to grow or change, and more often than not when I would work that way I would get stuck during the beat sheet stage since ideas were not yet fully formed.
In terms of the beat sheet itself, I really like to use the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. It’s a great tool that’s used by professionals and amateurs alike, and it seems to work in a very wide variety of contexts. One of the reasons that I really like it, is that my ideas tend to be very out of the box and often don’t fall into a three act structure. In many cases I think this is a good thing, however for a film to have commercial viability it’s reassuring to know that the idea will work within the constraints of a three act structure as well, and that’s exactly what Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet does. It doesn’t necessarily change any of the story ideas or plot points that I already have been developing, but rather it allows me to map them out and see how well balanced my film is. Then when it comes time to actually writing the film, I can take some liberties again with regards to where I place my beats, and by balancing things in this way I have the best opportunity to tell a unique and original story in a way that is still engaging for the audience.
For those of you that haven’t used Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, I’ve included it below along with Tim Stout’s summary of each of the beats. You can also get lots more great screenwriting info and resources on Blake Snyder’s website at www.savethecat.com
The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet
Opening Image – A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.
Set-up – Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life.
Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up) – What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.
Catalyst – The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.
Debate – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.
Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two) – The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.
B Story – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.
The Promise of the Premise – This is the fun part of the story. This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms, when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.
Midpoint – Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.
Bad Guys Close In – Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.
All is Lost – The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.
Dark Night of the Soul – The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. TheWhy hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.
Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three) – Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.
Finale – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!
Final Image – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.
With a solid beat sheet now in place and dozens of pages of character backstories, scene ideas and details all written down, I am just about ready to actually start writing the screenplay. My goal is to write 5 – 10 pages a day, which I believe should be reasonable given the amount of leg work and prep that has already been put in. I anticipate the screenplay will be around 95 pages, so factoring in some days off during the initial writing process I should be able to bang out a first draft within a month or so.
Once that first draft is done, things will start to really heat up. While I don’t doubt that the script will go through many drafts of revisions (I expect to revise up until the day we start shooting), I will also simultaneously be casting, crewing, fundraising, location scouting, and much more! Be sure to check back for more updates on the process, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of this journey with you.