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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Beat Sheets Are Fun

Oh yes, Beat Sheets... they were the bane of my existence, once.

For a long time I never understood why the hell people bothered to write them -- of course, at the time, I tended to just start writing my script from the ground up and edit it on the fly. Sometimes it'd work out alright, sometimes it wouldn't. Often what would happen is I'd get a first draft done, look at it and then do massive, massive rewrites.

That, hopefully, is what a beat sheet (and Outline) will help you to avoid.

Essentially, a beat sheet is a half-brainstorming, half-organizational tool -- you're slotting in ideas and playing with a progression of beats to get a sense of how you want your story to go.

Think of it like plunking on a xylophone before hitting the piano before hitting the main stage with the full orchestral backing.

This is where you get to play -- get to go 'okay, that's cool, but what if...?!' without getting hemmed-in by your already-existing script.

You're working with a few words or a phrase instead of paragraphs and pages.

Of course, one of the classic writer's problems is sitting there staring at a blank page and going 'uh, okay, where do I begin?'.

Truth be told, everyone finds their own answer to that question; how to get the page to 'open up' for them.

But since we're all here anyway, this's how I tend to approach the problem:

The first thing I do is think of one thing I absolutely want to have happen in my episode. Remember: Broad strokes here. Big events only. These are going to be your nodes, your way-points through the story as you get deeper in and into the finer and finer details.

Okay, first thing that I MUST have in my episode:

-> Doctor Who Faces Down A Dragon.

Where in the story is that? Who knows? Doesn't matter. Not yet. We know it's going to be in there though... so that's a start.

Also, give yourself a start and an ending. If you don't know what exactly that is yet, that's okay, it's just to give you a bit of a way to help limit your scope. Help you focus.

So we add:

--> Doctor Who Arrives
--> Doctor Who Leaves

Which means we now have our first story. It's a shit story right now, but there we go:

--> Doctor Who Arrives
---> Doctor Who Faces Down A Dragon.
--> Doctor Who Leaves

If we were writing a 5 minute short, there you go. You're done. Those are your beats.

We're, of course, going to need to go deeper.

So, how do we do that?

What I do here is one of two things:

1) I think of another event that I REALLY want to have happen in my story or
2) I try to imagine an event immediately preceding or proceeding one of the other events on the tree.

So... what immediately happens after Doctor Who Arrives? Let's get to it:

--> The Doctor and his companions are greeted by the locals
--> They go exploring
--> They are attacked
--> They get lost

Now, let's pause here for a second -- please realize that on their own it's not all that interesting. It's all very bland. That's where you use what you've already decided about your locale, time period, etc to help you spice it up.

Since this is happening in 1930's Iowa, great depression, dustbowl, what location/time specific events can we add?

--> Get caught in a Dust Storm
--> Plague of locusts
--> wander in the 'desert'

Obviously these are a bit more detailed than 'broad strokes' but they help you get into the mental 'mood' of your story and help get the juices flowing for more ideas along those lines.

So, let's try this:

-> Doctor Who Arrives
--> Get Caught In A Dust Storm
---> Doctor Who Faces Down A Dragon.
-> Doctor Who Leaves

One other thing you may notice that I try to do, even at this stage, is to create a 'flow' of events.

So, once I start to actually put things in, I'm trying to create for myself a sense of progression and tension. For myself, I do something as simple as this:


Always trying to be moving in waves, building towards something. Once you get into doing B stories and C stories, once you create several 'waves' and then integrate them, it can make for some really exciting story progression.

Anyways, I digress.

We've got a good event off the top... but is it the best? That'll be your mantra once you're done and working on a second and third and fourth draft.

For now, let's move on.

We're going to need a pre-major event. Something to bring us in deeper to the story, something that will set the tone for the coming Dragon Confrontation.

--> They make a startling discovery

Wow. Crazy hard. This Beat Sheet stuff is nuts, right?

Okay, but what could that 'startling discovery' be? Well, you do need to let the audience know that a dragon actually exists. Maybe your startling discovery involves foreshadowing. Or maybe it involves one of them stepping into dragon poo? (uh, no, I won't be using that).

Or, Maybe:
--> They hear a dragon roar


--> They find the charred remains of a local townie named Buster (how's that for specific?)


--> They actually come face to face with a full-blown dragon and run for their lives

Just to keep things moving, lets say: Option A (while keeping an eye on Option B for later...)

So now we've got:

-> Doctor Who Arrives
--> Get Caught In A Dust Storm
---> They Hear A Dragon Roar
---> Doctor Who Faces Down A Dragon.
-> Doctor Who Leaves

So, now they're trapped in a dust storm, blinded by sand and from somewhere, all around them, they hear a Dragon Roar.


Now what could be a neat outcome of that?

--> The Doctor Understands the Language.

Hell, the man can understand Baby. Why not? Maybe he 'understands' it in the same way you might 'understand' olde English. Not entirely understanding what it is saying, but knowing enough about the expression to know that it is DAMNED OLD!


So now you want them to

--> Find shelter from the storm

Where they end up

--> in a small Hovel

Which is, of course, full of half-starved 1930's-era Iowans. Seeing the Doctor and his companions in their current clothing configuration -- AHA! our first person-on-person conflict!

--> They meet the Locals (aaaawkard)

So now we have:

-> Doctor Who Arrives
--> Get Caught In A Dust Storm
---> They Hear A Dragon Roar (Doctor understands it... sort of...??)
--> Seek Shelter
-> Find Hovel
--> Meet Locals (aaaawkward)
---> Doctor Who Faces Down A Dragon.
-> Doctor Who Leaves

Can you see how the story starts to build? From just a few small points they start to take on a logical life of their own, even at this simple stage.

Like finding a raw, musical hook it just FEELS right.

That's how you know that you're on the right track for the story you want to tell.

And, if you'll notice, we've also created our first full 'wave'. Lull building to high-point to lull. A natural progression and our first 'building block' of our story.

Not too freaking shabby if you ask me.

Anyways, it's getting late and I'm skirting the midnight mark as it is so, I'm going to go off and play with this some more.

That said, I hope I've given you all a small but helpful rundown on Beat Sheets and how they can help you organize your thoughts and your story; help you focus and find the things that are most important to you and the story you want to tell.

Cheers folks and happy writing!

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