As my final word on this series, I thought I would take a look at the decisions we make in pushing the story forward with our scenes throughout our scripts.
Very often scenes are good in the spec script: the dialogue may be well-drawn, the characters interesting – yet the scene does little to move the story forward. But what does this mean? Well, as a reader, very often I will read a scene and wonder how it “fits” in the bigger picture of the script itself. It’s as basic as that.
It appears to me as a reader (rightly or wrongly) there are not many writers who work out how each and every scene gets us from A to B to C to D (and so forth) in the actual script. Perhaps this is because not many spec writers write actual beat sheets – or those that do, usually work in telly and don’t have enough a lot of time to write specs? Whatever the case, I think being realising what each scene GIVES to the story as whole can only help our focus as writers.
Of course, this is something a writer can only do BEFORE they start a script – and judge AFTER they’ve finished the first draft. A lot of writers express dismay they “can’t get a draft right” but personally I think they’re judging themselves way too harshly. If you decided you were going to take up the piano, clay pigeon shooting or needlepoint, you would not expect to be able to pick it up immediately and do everything right, would you? Scriptwriting is the same. Someone said to me once: it’s not about getting it “right”. It’s about “trying it out” and seeing which scene “fits best” – a bit like trying a dress or suit on, really.
If you use a beat sheet, even if you are allergic to treatments, you will save yourself a world of pain. By writing a blow-by-blow list of every moment in your script, you will be able to see those moments that don’t work before you embark on the pages; you will be forcing yourself to address not only the miniscule details of each scene, but the bigger picture as well. It’s win-win. That’s why, if you work in TV (especially soap), your script editor will often ask you for such a beat sheet, step outline or whatever else they happen to call them.
I won’t lie to you. Beat Sheets are dull to write – and very often, difficult too. Forcing yourself to go from one scene to the next without the fun distraction of dialogue, arena or character can be a pain in the arse. But it will mean you can stay on track in the long term. That’s surely worth it, isn’t it?
Well, I think so – but as with everything scriptwriting-related, there are counter arguments. “There’s no spontaneity” is one of the most obvious – according to some writers, their scripts become pedestrian if they know where they’re going, one single moment to the next. I disagree. I think spontaneity is for the scene itself, not necessarily for its structure. And knowing where you are going doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous: I’ve cut out scenes, re-arranged them, changed their focus, whatever. Your beat sheet doesn’t have to be set in stone. Why should it? Instead, think of your beat sheet as a map – but you add things to the journey as you go along, because you’re *semi-familiar* with the directions already, a bit like me when I’m walking around in London. I’ve been there a million times, but without a map I’m afraid I will get lost – so I always take one. But it doesn’t mean I necessarily follow it. As a result I’m nearly always on time for meetings, gatherings etc.
Readers don’t love your story like you do; when they open your script, they don’t even know what your story is – you need to communicate it to them. Very often, scenes add so little to the progression of the overarching narrative, a reader will finish and say, “I have no what that was about.” Sure, they get the *gist* of what the writer is saying – it’s not they’re thick or from another planet. However because the scene focus does not fall into place (and often because a script simply has TOO MUCH in it), the story itself will not be clear.
Yet a beat sheet can help you avoid this.
It’ll take you maybe three hours, tops – versus multiple redrafts. If only I had started with a beat sheet on GRACE, eight years ago and twenty one drafts ago… C’est la vie! But I’m sure as hell writing one now – and already, I think I can see the light – is the end in sight for this project??? Will this story finally come together, once and for all??
Well, only time can tell. But at least I’ll know I’ve done everything I can to resolve my issues with it. Can you say the same with your spec? Don’t get confused or beat yourself up; it’s not worth it. Write a list of your scenes and how they work instead.