A beat sheet is almost like the bullet point outline of a screenplay. It breaks up the act structures of the script and identifies the important moments — or beats — in an episode or feature film. Once you’ve created your beat sheet, you can expand on it in detail to create the screenplay outline with specific scenes, details, and even dialogue.
There are a number of ways to create a beat sheet. If you’re hired for a writers room, you’ll format the beat sheet based on the showrunner’s preferences (and much of the beat sheet may even come from how the story is broken). If you’re writing independently, you can create them however you like.
Here are a few of the most popular methods:
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By using bullet points, you can organize your story linearly and add as much information as you like. Below I’ve listed Shonda Rhimes’ five-act structure for episodic drama to give you an idea of the blueprint. I will often start my drama pilot beat sheets with this exact skeleton, including the act descriptors (“hook ‘em” in the cold open, “launch the world” in act one, etc).
I’ve also broken down other scripts to identify their structure and emotional beats so I can become as fluent in this format as possible.
- COLD OPEN – HOOK ‘EM
- ACT ONE – LAUNCH THE WORLD, CHARACTERS, INCIDENT
- ACT TWO – THINGS GET WORSE, ESTABLISH CHARACTERS/WORLD MORE
- ACT THREE – CHARACTERS FEEL LIKE FAILURES + TICKING CLOCK
- ACT FOUR – NEXT LEVEL OF INCITING INCIDENT
- ACT FIVE – CHARACTERS CLIMB BACK OUT OF HOLE
Read More: 4 Steps to Starting Your Screenplay
Envision dividing a piece of paper into sections (say, three sections representing the three acts of a feature screenplay or six sections for the cold open + five acts of a drama pilot). Each section represents what will happen in that act and you can fill it in from top to bottom.
This is often how a whiteboard will look in a writers room, with the acts moving horizontally across the top and the beats of the acts moving vertically in each section. It’s a great visual way to organize the moments of your script, especially if multiple people are working on it.
When you first ideate what will happen in your screenplay, you can write each beat on an index card. Don’t worry about order right away — just get as many ideas and moments out of your head and onto a card.
Once you’re done, you can begin to organize the cards into the order you want them to appear in your screenplay. Some writers like to tack these cards up onto a wall, possibly in the chart/diagram structure above. You can also keep them in a stack and refer to them one by one as you write out a beat sheet in whichever format works for you.
Read More: 10 Most Desirable Things Script Readers Want in a Spec Script
Bonus: What Story Beats You Should Include
In the example for a drama pilot above, there are five main story beats:
- The Hook
- The Inciting Incident
In a comedy pilot, the structure will be similar but shorter so it might look a little more like this:
- Comedic Cold Open + Inciting Incident/Hook
- Aftermath + Introduction to New World + First Obstacle
- Escalation of Complications + All Is Lost
- Comedic Tag/Promise of More
For features, there are essentially twelve major beats you can follow:
- Opening Image
- Introduction to the Characters/World
- Catalyst/Inciting Incident
- Resisting the Call
- Establish the Protagonist’s Driving Force
- Decision to Go Forth
- Introducing B-Story and New Characters
- Midpoint where Reality Sets In
- Low Point
- Beginning of the End
Read More: How Long Should Your Feature Script Be (And Why)?
However you decide to format your beat sheet, remember that it is an invaluable tool for you. When you first start writing, the ideas feel exponential and exciting. The idea of starting on a blank page, however, is extremely daunting. Creating your beat sheet is the first step toward bringing your screenplay to life.
Once you’ve created your beat sheet, you can begin to flesh it out with detailed descriptions, scenes, and even sluglines, which will make the final step — actually writing your screenplay — all the more manageable.
Good luck and happy writing!
Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and U.S. Air Force veteran in Los Angeles with appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. She was also a 2023 DGE TV Writing Program Finalist, and her screenplays have placed in various contests. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!