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Scene Focus 3: Readers Versus Writers

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.

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9 thoughts on “Scene Focus 3: Readers Versus Writers”

  1. Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter)

    Totally agree, even though a lot of the time I can’t resist the temptation to jump in there.

    As you know from (end shameless plug), I’m planning at the moment.

    I’m starting with a high level ‘beat sheet’ of 5 or 6 points that as a whole state what needs to happen in act 2.

    I’ll break those down into a more detailed beat sheet/treatment hybrid, and then move onto index cards, each becoming a scene in the screenplay.

    Of course the same applies to act 1 and 3, but as is probably the same for everyone, I find act 2 the hardest to keep ‘on story’.

    Let’s hope I can stick with it this time 🙂

  2. This was really interesting.

    I’m currently writing a script and i’m on draft one as much as a beat sheet will help tremendously – i want to write it after i’ve written draft one so i know i have to finish this draft to find out where the story is going. Otherwise i shall probably give up. I have a very rough guide as to what is going to happen but it is that very very rough.

  3. Aaaah. Beat Sheets. Was horrified when I first heard of them. What a waste of time. I just want to write.

    But now I couldn’t imagine writing without them. They catch so many flaws in the story.

    And I still have the fun of letting each scene develop around them. After all they are just the skeleton.

  4. I learned the value of beat sheets the hard way too. Definitely worth the little bit of time involved – although they can take me as long as a couple of days … depends on the story.

  5. Hi guys, thanks for the comments.

    A beat sheet can be useful at any time in the rewriting process I think – I’m in the process of writing one for the 22nd draft of GRACE.

  6. A lot being said about beat sheets recently. Lis Fies mentioned that she sits down in front of films and jots a beat sheet for them so that she can get a feel for different types of films and their structure.

    What would be interesting is what you consider a beat sheet to be: Blake Snyder offers examples on his website that are substantially different from the brief example that Danny Stack has used before now.

    What are your thoughts on what makes a good/useful beat sheet?

  7. Hi Drac, thanks for the links.

    I’ve covered my thoughts in the beat sheets/outlines post on the “Top 25”, but since this post is proving so popular via Google over the wknd, I’ll put them here too.


    I think of a beat sheet as a list of everything that will happen, in order, throughout your screenplay. Some people call a Beat Sheet a Step Sheet or a Scene Breakdown. If you work in TV, especially soap, there’s a good chance you will be expected to submit a scene breakdown to your script editor for approval before going to script. If you go on a long screenplay course like a degree or mentorship, you may be asked for these too. I think Beat Sheets are brilliant because it’s a way of diagnosing “flabby bits” in your screenplay or seeing in advance that one effort is better placed somewhere else in order to pay off later. They are however incredibly dull to write AND read. But they really are worth doing. You just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.

    I like to write my Beat Sheets with sluglines so I know where each scene takes place AND it’s all there ready for me when I start the script so I never get lost, but you don’t *have* to do this.

  8. So, going back to your Q then Draconian:

    I would consider a useful beat sheet to have:

    1) A slugline (aka ‘scene header’) so we know where we are exactly

    2) two to three sentences to describe the focus of the scene and what the character needs to get out of it/how it progresses the story

    3) if prudent, a note to self about anything that might be ambiguous or problematic in “pulling it off” (I think the earlier you flag something up, the quicker you resolve it – ignoring it doesn’t help)

  9. John August said on a podcast if a beatsheet/outline does nothing more than give you a begining, middle an ending then it's been worth it

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