If you’ve done any research into writing a screenplay you’ve probably heard the term beat sheets. Even more likely, you’ve probably encountered my nemesis, Save the Cat*. Blake Snyder’s critically acclaimed book details exactly how to write a screenplay that’ll sell. It’s got the formula and all the tricks of the trade that’ll make you a big name screenwriter. A lot of books and websites have formulas like it as well. They’re all comparably helpful.
The formula is what we’re going to talk about today. That formula is a ‘beat sheet’.
*Ugh. Fine. Not my nemesis. StC is a perfectly acceptable book to read. I’m just a whiner.
I have a guilty secret; I love disaster movies. Disaster movies in any iteration are my bread and butter. Natural disasters and manmade disasters, you name it, I love it. From earthquake to terrorist attacks to avalanches to nuclear reactors failing, I want it all.
Ultimately it’s about normal people thrust into completely wild situations. Bring it on! Most movies fall into that basic arc but disaster movies are something really special. Usually, there’s an element of dumbness to them (let me tell you about all the stupid-dark movies on Netflix I love); the same kind of “don’t go in there!’ vibes you get from watching a horror movie, but with the bonus of not having serial killers or demons. The character you like is easy to like. The character you hate is easy to watch die dramatically. Disaster movies are easy watching, even as buildings collapse, and people are impaled.
With all that in mind, I loathe one disaster movie above all others.
‘The Perfect Storm’
The problem is that it is actually a perfect disaster movie, it has all the right elements and timing and writing. It’s on a bunch of lists of ‘great disaster movies’. But I just can’t stand it.
Ultimately there are a few things a great disaster movie needs. A great story, with great action, and great characters. And finally some sort of X-Factor. I’m not above arguing that The Perfect Storm meets the three criteria points, but jeepers, it seems like it barely makes the grade and there isn’t much there that wow’s me. So, if you’ll pardon the pun, let’s dive in.
Narrative is a funny thing. Films and books follow a storyline, usually linear, that forms the basis of the plot’s narrative (save for a few artsy pieces, which we don’t need to get into). Events in a story connect one after the other until the story is over. In a movie, something from the scene before connects to the present scene, and things get tied up at the end. This is a very basic view of storytelling.
Most screenplays and novels obviously have a little bit more nuance and ups and downs, because that’s what makes stories interesting. But they still have a definitive end. Things get tied up and concluded.
But that’s not what happens in real life. Sure there are some definitive endings; school graduations, getting fired, dying. These are events in real life that mark the ends of something. But that’s not the end of most real lives. You graduate from school and there’s no fade to black as you breathe your last breath because you do stuff after you graduate. The more you tie things up in your real life, the more new things come up. While we as a species love a classic hero’s journey story arc, lives don’t work that way. Shouldn’t we be writing to emulate the way things are in real life?
Essentially, shouldn’t things be messier in our stories?
The short answer? Yes and no, (helpful, I know).
Let me give you an example straight from Mama-Gremlin (aka, my mom). She’s an insurance litigator and is working on a strange little case (obviously not going to give any names or real details, so bear with me among the vagaries).
There was an honest-to-God car chase that ended with a few crashes. We don’t know why the client was being chased by this SUV; was it road rage, was it revenge, do they even know each other? Right now, we’ve got no idea, and might not until depositions take place and even that’s not a guarantee.
If you have been writing for any amount of time, and doing any amount of research the chances are high that you’ve come across the term, ‘voice’ or ‘voices’. There are lots of things about having a unique voice in the industry – the abstract ‘voice’ – and making sure your voice doesn’t get in the way of the story – the more concrete ‘voice’.
It’s weird. Hell, I’ve written the word, ‘voice,’ multiple times already and I’m already at that point where it stops looking like a real word at all. It’s only my second paragraph.
The truth of the matter is that your writing will reflect you as a person; sometimes your voice will be so unique it becomes a character unto itself, and a signature that follows you in your writing career.
So let’s break it down, and then look at some super unique voices that you probably know and love from movies and television.
I’ve learned one really important thing when it comes to writing, which is entirely different than editing. This trick makes a world of difference whether you’re writing a screenplay or a TV pilot or a novel or memoir or blog or ad copy. If you’re writing, you need to be doing this one thing.
In fact, you might already be doing it.
I call it the “fuck it” draft. Other people have different names like “scratch,” or “ideas draft” or something else, but I like the irreverence of swearing, so it’s “fuck it.”
It’s a draft that’s even rougher than your rough draft, and it definitely bears no resemblance to what your final draft will look like (that’s why we edit). Rather than trying to get a decent draft on the page, you just say, “fuck it!” and have a grand old time. If you’re anything like me, you flit between writing normally to bullet points to doodles that just sort of getting the idea of what you’re going for. No details, no rules.
Having a “fuck it” draft is a great way to get your words and world out of your head and onto the page. There is no necessity for perfection, and in fact, perfection is deeply discouraged. A lot of the “fuck it” mentality is to channel what you want to say about your world, and to have fun with it! That’s the point of writing, right? It’s supposed to be fun!
Now, that said; writing is the fun part, editing is the hell part.
In the past few years, I’ve had a myriad of jobs; service-oriented, administrative and editorial, and a few weird things in-between. Working full-time (while also balancing depression, anxiety, and PCOS, ugh) made the idea of coming home from work and writing seem utterly ludicrous. I imagine it’s the same for many of you.
Balancing life and a passion for writing is so freaking hard.
As I reflect on my past, working full time and writing, I’m surprised by how much I was able to get done. (Right now I’m living at home and not working and feel like I’m getting nothing done! Thanks, Covid-19 angst!). I had a whole slew of projects and was pretty productive on all of them. I realized that I had worked out a few little systems to balance my writing life with my work life. Again, it was hard; I wasn’t having the best time, but I knew I had to keep going up that mountain.
Here are some things I’ve learned that make the climb a little easier;
Write 100 Words (or 3-5 screenplay pages) before work.
(or after work, it’s your life)
Every day, sit down and try and write 100 words. It’s that simple. Usually, by the time you hit 100 words, you’re on a roll and can keep going until you lose steam. It’s not a lot of words, I get that. In fact, it’s a downright negligible amount of words if you’re trying to write a novel. Even then, sometimes 100 words can feel like pulling teeth. If that’s the case, hit your 100 and walk away; you’re still 100 words richer. (And if you’re one of my screenplay audience, 100 words is comparable to 3-5 pages of screenplay. If you can get 3 pages of screenplay done a day, you’ll have a 90-page screenplay in a month.)
It doesn’t have to be good either. Just getting the words on the page is an accomplishment. You can edit later
(And look, this section was about 130-ish words! See? it’s not that bad!)
Anger is a weird emotion. It’s very basic — compare it to envy or trepidation or love — but that does not mean it is necessarily easy to write. It can be both basic and enormously complex. Anger sucks. Being angry is hard and raw and weird. As with most things, even though the concept of anger is a simple one, the execution of it on the page is complicated and people often fail.
Translation: A lot of times dialogue that’s supposed to be angry comes off as flat. Oops.
Why is this though? We all know what anger is. We’ve all felt it at one point or another. Furthermore, we have all experienced many of the various shades and forms anger can take. Everyone over the age of ten has probably felt various nuances of anger. The anger you felt as a young child when your sibling was being a jerk is different than the anger you feel when a professor critiques your work in front of the class. This, in turn, is different than the anger you feel when you believe a partner may be cheating on you. Maybe all these things make you scream, but they’re all different and all stem from different places.
Here’s the weird truth: anger itself is not a base emotion.
Let’s talk about the differences between writing children in screenplays and novels, versus writing adults!
This post is part of the Dialogue Doctor Series, where I talk about writing effective dialogue!
I wish I could say writing child characters was the same as writing adults but I’d be wrong. Further still, I wish I could say that writing children was an easy task. That’s even more wrong. We’ve all seen movies with children in them, which means we’ve all seen movies where the child’s lines are either exceptionally on-point or awkward and stilted.
(Note, this has nothing to do with the performance of child actors, but rather the lines they’re given within the script. Sure, sometimes children aren’t very good at acting, but that doesn’t mean they deserve bad dialogue.)
Oftentimes you can tell if someone has interacted with kids or not based on the dialogue they give their child characters. Frankly, being around children makes writing children’s dialogue easier, but sometimes we just can’t hang out with kids for no reason other than to hear them talk; that’d be weird.
Read on for a few key tips to focus on when it comes to writing children’s dialogue.
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I read and edit scripts professionally (as well as for my other writing friends, because that’s what friends do), and I’ve noticed some mistakes that happen over and over again, especially with new writers. These common mistakes cripple a story! Screenwriting and the film industry is a brutal business. Avoid these common mistakes to give your screenplay a leg up from the competition.
1. No conflict.
One of the main tenants of screenwriting —literally something drilled into every class meeting in my screenwriting program at UCLA — is, “add more conflict.“
What does that mean though? The phrase ‘adding conflict’ is almost like a shibboleth within the film industry. Conflict does not mean the dictionary definition of conflict, it means challenge.
But it’s still true that the best way to make a screenplay better is to challenge your character’s goals and motives. All characters want and need to do* certain things throughout their story arcs, and making it harder for them to achieve those things makes your story better. This applies to both screenwriting and regular novel/short story writing.
To come about it another way, think of your favorite movie. Is there a scene where ‘nothing’ happens? I imagine there isn’t, (unless it’s a really artistic piece.) If there is one character in the scene, they’re trying to get something done (the ’trying’ is the challenge/conflict). If there are two characters, they are having a conversation or interaction with their unique wants and motives (their motives and interaction is the source of conflict).
Adding conflict is what makes a scene a scene. Again, it’s not adding fights and fisticuffs; if anything, it’s adding ‘story.’ The best stories happen in the conflict.
There are plenty of myths and misconceptions about the world of screenwriting and film, just like any industry. The pervasive untruths that people believe about filmmaking are pretty wild, and before I got enmeshed in this world I believed plenty of them myself. (Heck, part of me still wants to believe that I can make bank with screenwriting. Ce n’est pas vrai. C’est la vie).
Here are some of the most common and most untrue myths about screenwriting and the film industry that I have come across.
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Myth: It’s lucrative.
Fact: This is one of those myths that makes me laugh. For the most part, you cannot make a living on screenwriting alone. At least until you’re fairly well established, and even that can be a bit of a tossup. The majority of screenwriting gigs for movies are commission based; you don’t know where the next job is coming from once you’ve finished the one you’re working on. Sometimes big payouts for a script get publicized. Various entertainment and industry publications will tell you about the latest acquisition by big-name directors and up-and-coming writers, utmost scripts rarely get bought. Those that do rarely make the kind of seven-figure payout you think of when you think of Hollywood.
I don’t write screenplays for the money; it’d be nice to make some but I’m not kidding myself. I write because I love it. (And because I want to eventually have someone buy my script and Chris Evans star in it, and then meet me and fall in love with me. Obviously. This is a sound plan.)