A beat sheet is actually an intermediary document between a TREATMENT and a SCREENPLAY, and it’s the most common item a producer will request before green-lighting a screenwriter to move forward with penning a script.
Beat sheets are specific items; they need to be done properly, or they’ll expose a newbie’s unfamiliarity with the business.
So, then—what IS a beat sheet?
A beat sheet is a word document that usually runs about 5-8 pages long, and breaks down EVERY SCENE in a screenplay into its essential BEATS – meaning, the most important elements that happen in that scene. Each “beat” usually runs about 1-3 sentences long, and is numbered from 1-to-whatever down the left-hand side of the document. Other than these “beats,” a beat sheet should contain a TITLE LINE and a BY LINE at the top of Page 1, and ACT BREAK LINES for ACT 1, 2 & 3 before each act. Do NOT reset your numbers at act breaks—the beat numbering should be continuous throughout the beat sheet.
Since there are usually 70-90 scenes in a feature film script, your beat sheet should also have, on average, about 70-90 beats.
Here’s an example from the first page of the beat sheet for the screenplay “Mehdi Time”:
The important thing to remember is that a beat sheet is MORE than an outline, but LESS than a screenplay—essentially, it’s like a finished script, but void of any dialogue or real emotion.
More than anything, however, a beat sheet is a TOOL that should be used by a writer to clarify their ideas for a script, and to COMMUNICATE these ideas to producers and to other writers. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your beat sheet will not change—IT WILL. Just like your college essay on Sigmund Freud changed after you’d already handed in your outline… Producers understand that things may change—even drastically—once a writer gets into the thick of it on the actual script. But they also want to know what approach a writer intends to take on a script before launching in, and that’s why they request beat sheets.
This process can be a pain in the butt, but it is ultimately helpful for screenwriters. It forces writers to focus their thoughts and to think through their plotlines beforehand, but just as importantly, it forces producers to sign-off on a writer’s creative vision before they get into the heavy-lifting…
But do it correctly!
Spend some time making sure that your beat sheet lays out a clear, well-developed movie. A sloppy, rushed beat sheet will do more harm than good, and will raise a red flag for producers that their writer may not be ready for the task ahead...