While beat sheets started with product marking, in current usage a beat sheet imagines a story as a series of beats. Simple enough, no? What those beats are vary by explanation. For some, beats are moments in a scene where the emotion shifts. (I confess I do not necessarily know that means – is that like shifting gears while driving?) For others, beats are either/both key plot points and/or frames within a narrative. The use of frames here is both metaphorical and literal: beat sheets are most often used when discussing either the writing or screenplays or analyzing the final product, a particular film. The number of beats varies.
In the current moment, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet is perhaps the most well known. Often abbreviated STC, and often referenced in Youtube analyses of films, Save the Cat offers the following structure / sequence / shape.
Note that this version of the sheet, adapted from StudioBinder’s adaptation, uses both page numbers and percentages. The film industry is very tied to typescripted screenplays with the conventional wisdom being that each page represents a minute. With the preferred run time of most Hollywood films being about 90 minutes, the page numbers and percentages are roughly equivalent.
Opening Image (1): Start strong with an image that catapults your audience into the look and feel of your story.
Theme Stated (5): Film structure requires that the theme of the film is communicated by someone fairly early on. Commonly, this is dialogue spoken to the protagonist that he doesn’t quite grasp yet.
The Set Up (1–9%): Use your first ten pages wisely. Here, you’ll need to establish your story scope (and “look and feel”) for the audience. First, show your character in their “old world.” Let the audience know what the status quo is for them, then hint at the adventure that follows. Second, establish all characters who will factor into your main story beats. This may take some creativity. Sometimes, for story reasons, you will just have to hint at those characters. The setup is one of the most important sections of your script because it provides the essential context needed for the audience to become either immediately engaged, or lose interest within the first ten minutes. Obviously as a screenwriter, the former is required to sustain a career.
The Catalyst (11): Sometimes called the “inciting incident” the catalyst is the event that disrupts your protagonist’s status quo. But they’re not ready to make the choice that catapults them into the story just yet. This inciting incident gets us hooked, let’s see what keeps us there.
Debate (11–23%): This is where the protagonist has doubts about setting out on their perilous journey. In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey this is called the ‘refusal of the call.’
Break into II (23): Inevitably, your protagonist will overcome his or her doubt and make a choice to set out on their adventure. This is the choice that officially sets the plot in motion. From here on out, your Save the Cat beat sheet template will be filled with obstacles and twists resulting from making this choice.
B Story (27): The A story revolves around the choice your protagonist made as Act 1 breaks into Act 2. But another subplot ensues, commonly a love story.
Fun and Games (27–50%): Thankfully, the Save the Cat beat sheet template is not just “all work and no play.” Your plot structure requires a stretch where your protagonist wields their new power, and does cool stuff with it. Have fun with these scenes. Just make sure they make the world you’re creating more interesting or serve a purpose. These scenes should also reinforce the “rules” of the world and what your hero can or can’t do.
Midpoint (50%). At some point, your protagonist will either get what they’re after… or not. But there will be consequences either way.
The Bad Guys Close In (50–68%): After your protagonist gets what they want, or not, there will be consequences. These forces will tighten their grasp, and throw the protagonist off balance. These forces don’t necessarily have to be actual antagonists. It can also be fighting within the protagonist’s circle.
All is Lost (68%): In film structure, the dire circumstances your protagonist endures will lead to an inevitable loss. This is usually a character, and classically the “mentor” (think Obi-Wan, Gandalf and Morpheus). Whatever the loss, it’s felt deeply because this item (or person) gave the protagonist their bearings.
Dark Night of the Soul (68–77%): This is the most dire circumstance your character reaches. At this point of the Save the Cat beat sheet template, your protagonist has lost hope.
Break Into Act III (77%): Like a forest fire, loss and misery are followed by new life. In plot structure, this is where your protagonist claws around in the darkness, only to find or remember something useful.
The Finale (77–100%): Treat the finale as the Act 3 summary. The Save the Cat beat sheet template is at its end, so it’s time for the protagonist to take on their foes. Armed with new tools and self-discoveries, the protagonist often synthesizes what they’ve learned (in Act 2) with values they’ve always had (Act 1).
Final Image (100%): Along with the opening image, the final image creates the bookend that encapsulates the journey. It’s the last thing the audience sees, and should cement the theme of the film, as well as represent what happened and changed over the course of this journey.