Over the last year or so I’ve been developing a feature film, and after experimenting with countless different story ideas, I now have several completed feature screenplays to show for it – one of which I will be shooting this year. While it was quite an arduous process to go through the writing process multiple times over, I was able to learn and develop a technique that now allows me to write more quickly and effectively than ever.
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m a big fan of the screenwriting book Story by Robert McKee, as well as many other screenwriting texts by authors like Syd Field, Blake Snyder, and others. Studying the craft of screenwriting has really opened up my mind to different techniques and approaches to the process, each of which can spark creativity in different ways.
All screenwriters develop their own process for completing a screenplay either intentionally or unintentionally, and no two writers have the exact same process. For instance, some writers need to work off of a rigid schedule, while others wait to write until they’re inspired. Some writers prefer to have detailed character outlines before starting on the screenplay, and others prefer to find their way during the revisions process. There really is no right or wrong way to write, but the key is that you need to find the technique that works best for you.
After writing a number of screenplays over the last year, I found that I had unknowingly created a writing formula for myself, which was essentially an amalgamation of techniques I had picked up over time. Once I tapped into and identified why I was doing things a certain way, I was able to effectively break down a process for myself that helps improve the quality and speed of my writing dramatically.
So for those of you looking for a new approach to writing your story, below is a breakdown of what works for me. This technique is heavily influenced by others – namely Blake Snyder, but also taps into some of the teachings of other screenwriting gurus that I have followed over the years.
40 BEAT TECHNIQUE
The end goal in this process is to have 40 very strong beats (scene or sequence ideas) that can easily be translated into screenplay format. Naturally some films will need far more than 40 beats and some will need fewer, but limiting the beat sheet to 40 individual beats allows for a more manageable workflow, at least in my experience.
It’s important to point out that for each of the beats on your beat sheet, there may be multiple scenes within them. In other words, your beats may actually be sequences and not scenes, as a single beat represents an important moment in your story but doesn’t necessarily need to be limited to one scene. Many of the beats on the current beat sheet I am working on represent sequences of three or four scenes, while other beats are in fact individual scenes that stand alone.
A beat sheet isn’t supposed to be an exact road map of your entire film, but rather a blueprint that will help you stay on track while writing. I’ve always felt that it was important not to overcomplicate your beat sheet as you still want to leave some room for improvisation and spontaneity once you start writing the screenplay itself, and I feel that limiting yourself to 40 beats can certainly leave some wiggle room.
Getting from concept to final beat sheet can be done in three fairly simple steps:
Step 1 – Flesh Out The Idea
Before you attempt to fit your story into any type of beat sheet formula, you need to truly understand the core of the story you’re trying to tell. This may sound obvious, but it’s common for writers to jump straight into a beat sheet without having really thought through their idea, and identified the key themes that need to be explored. This can lead to a generic looking story that has all the right elements on paper, but doesn’t translate to an emotionally charged reading experience.
A strong theme and rich characters will take your script from good to great, and developing both theme and character should happen early on in the writing process. It’s perfectly okay if your theme changes and characters evolve as you continue to revise your script down the road, but at the very least you need a starting point to help guide you during the initial stages.
For instance, you might have an idea for a crime thriller that follows two characters attempting to rob a bank. On the surface it sounds like a very tired, cliche, and played out premise. But if you were to explore the characters deeply enough and find a unique theme, then you just may be able to breathe new life into an otherwise over-done premise.
Achieving this level of detail in your story largely hinges on your ability to flesh things out early on. My preferred method is very simple and involves free association writing.
I like to start off by writing as many pages as I can on the story. What happens in chronological order? Who are we following? What are the challenges the protagonist needs to overcome? What unique scene ideas can be included that we’ve never seen anywhere else? And so on.
Then I will go on to do the same, but for characters. I’ll write lengthy character bios on every character in the film. Where did they grow up? Who are their friends? Where do they work? What happened to them as a child that defines who they are today? Etc.
And finally, I’ll go through the free-association writing process one last time, but this time will focus on theme. I’ll write down some of the major themes of the story (man vs. self, man vs. nature, etc.), and then get into more specific theme ideas that are unique to my individual story.
The goal with the story outline, character breakdown, and theme exploration is to write as much as possible using only free association. When you write one line on a page and stop. Then write another line and stop. It breaks your concentration and your ability to tap into your creativity in many ways.
A much more preferable approach is to just write anything and everything that comes to mind, even if you think it’s terrible at the time. When you go back and re-read some of your free association writing later on, you’ll be amazed at how much great material is in there – even if at the time it feels like you aren’t writing anything worthwhile. There’s an element of tapping into the subconscious that I think is important when you write anything, so try to let yourself be fluid and let the ideas flow without judging yourself after every last sentence.
When all is said and done you will wind up with a ton of great story, character, and theme ideas that can be continually explored throughout your writing process.
Step 2 – Identify Key Beats
Having already gone through the concept development process in Step 1, you can now start to hone in on some of the specific elements of your story that you want to emphasize, and the elements you want to eliminate.
The vast majority of the notes that you wrote down in the first step should not make it onto your beat sheet. These notes can and should be used as creative inspiration down the road, but if you try to cram too much into your story right away then the core themes you are exploring will get lost. This step is all about isolating the most relevant story and character information, and transplanting it onto a short beat sheet.
If you’re wondering which details to focus on from your pages and pages of notes, simply look to your theme. Whatever main theme you’ve identified should be the driving force behind your narrative. So if you have an idea for a scene, but it doesn’t serve the theme in any way, then you need to either drop it or change it. The same goes for certain character details – everything needs to feel congruent, and if you don’t use your theme as an anchor point then your story will get lost in the noise.
All of these decisions will ultimately take place as you start to put together your key beat sheet. Before we break things down into 40 beats (we’ll get to that in step 3), you need to start with the most critical and fundamental beats for your story. You can really use any beat sheet formula or template to do this, but I happen to like Blake Snyder’s BS2 beat sheet as seen below:
Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BS2)
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. The Why 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.
Step 3 – Expand On Key Beats
With 15 strong beats now already created, you are finally in the home stretch. The next and final step is to expand on your beat sheet by adding 25 additional beats that will give you a total of 40 final beats.
Why 40 beats? The easy answer (at least in my case) is that it just works. You may want more beats, or less… But 40 is a nice round number that will usually end up translating to between 100 – 120 pages in your final screenplay. As I mentioned at the top of this article, not all beats are just one scene. Some are sequences of multiple scenes, so your 40 beats might actually be more like 70 – 90 scenes (or more) once you write them down in screenplay format.
On average, I am finding that each of the 40 beats on any of my beat sheets translate to about 2 – 3 pages in a completed screenplay. There are exceptions to this of course, but generally speaking this is why 40 beats seem to work well when translating to the standard screenplay length of 100 – 120 pages.
My 40 beat template looks something like this:
1. (Opening image)
2. (Theme stated)
ACT II A
11. (Break into two)
13. (Promise of the premise)
ACT II B
21. (Bad guys close in)
28. (All is lost)
30. (Dark night of the soul)
31. (Break into three)
40. (Final image)
The bracketed beats are suggestions for where you can place your 15 beats from the BS2. These can be moved around and shifted as needed, but regardless, once you inject your 15 key beats it becomes easy to fill in the rest.
For instance in Act I of any screenplay, it can be important to show your main character at home, at work, and at play to give the audience a sense of their day to day life. Since scene 3 is already dedicated as the start of our setup, we can use scenes 3, 4, and 5 to accomplish this. And if you’ve done the legwork up front with your free-association exercises, you should have no problem coming up with a few original scene ideas that can fill in that gap.
The same approach can be taken for acts II and III, by connecting the dots between existing beats with scene ideas extracted from your original notes.
I find that this third step in the beat sheet process is actually by far the fastest for me, which is interesting considering it is the most specific and demanding. That said, if the work isn’t done in Step 1 and Step 2, this step will take the longest since the initial creative heavy lifting hasn’t been done.
Once you have your 40 beats, you can finally move on to writing your screenplay. It might seem like a whole lot of leg work before you actually open up Final Draft, but trust me, it is well worth it. If you’re anything like me, working off of a detailed and well thought out beat sheet will help you write your screenplay in record time. On the other hand, if you are just figuring it out as you go, it could take you ages to re-write in screenplay format until you finally land on your final story.
Using this 40 beat technique, I’m able to easily write at least 10 pages of screenplay in one sitting – which is usually a couple of hours. If I am not working off of a beat sheet it can take me all day to just write a page or two, because so much time is spent mulling over character or story ideas that really should have been decided on before hand…
So that’s about it for now!
If you like what you read here, be sure to give it a try on your next screenplay. No technique is going to work for everyone, but this one certainly works for me and I hope it will benefit some of you readers out there.
And for more writing inspiration, be sure to check out my article on writing loglines here.