questionmarkFirst, thanks for telling me to buy a new car. (I did.) Second, what the frak is a beat sheet?

I’ve taken screenwriting, short-story writing, and novel writing classes. I’ve taken filmmaking classes. I’ve read several writing manuals. Writers and professors all love to talk about the importance of beat sheets. While they are apparently the single most important thing a writer can ever do, they never show examples. And I’ve heard multiple definitions, from a one-sentence description of each scene to a detailed breakdown of every action in the script.

I’m beginning to suspect conspiracy. I don’t think anybody really uses beat sheets. They claim to in order to sound responsible, much like the myth of flossing. Can you post an example of a beat sheet and blow this mystery out of the water?

– Nick T.

Beat sheets are a form of outline. Each major plot point gets its own bullet point (or occasionally, a number). That’s it.

They can be a helpful way of discussing the storyline of a movie.

PRODUCER

What if Shoe and Dog’s dance number at Marvin Gardens came before Race Car discovered the Community Chest? We could get rid of these three beats, including Top Hat and Thimble’s knife fight.

SCREENWRITER

Did you know Inception wasn’t based on anything?

In the Library, you can see a minimal beat sheet that Jordan Mechner and I did for our never-shot pilot Ops. It includes a column showing which characters are in any given scene, and which one of us was going to write it.

For the first Charlie’s Angels, I did a series of beat sheets as we debated and formulated. This one shows a pretty close approximation of what I ended up writing for the first draft. Numbering the beats ended up being a huge help for conference calls.

(Trivia: You’ll notice there’s a villain character named “Lucy Liu,” which far predates the actual Lucy Liu being involved with the movie. That villain character was ultimately played by Kelly Lynch, while Lucy was later cast as the third angel.)

Note that beat sheets are also commonly written after there is a draft of a screenplay. I’ve asked my assistants to do a beat sheet of a script I’m about to begin rewriting so that I’ll have a roadmap of how things are arranged.