Process and Structure

I teach (and I am a super strong proponent for) getting the entire story down in what I call a basic “beat-sheet” before launching into the actual writing of the script. Think of this beat-sheet as an outline-roadmap, ultimately scene by scene, of your entire filmscript.

Working with cards can function the same way as making a vertical outline list.  I often do both. The main advantage for the cards is so I can lay them all out on the floor or on the wall…. and in doing so, I can get a visual time sense of the whole story and be able to easily change the order, delete, add, etc…again, while still getting a sense of the whole.  I can also visually begin to see patterns, repeats, and deficiencies. I often color code each character’s scenes.

The information per beat may start out with just the basic info of the “text” (i.e.: “boy overhears parents talking about divorcing”) —  but then, as I learn more about the whole story while still in this outlining phase I begin adding more to the beat, such as the “sub-text” (ex: “as the boy overhears parents talking about divorcing — he finds that it oddly compels him to think about sex”).  I also like to, as much as possible, include what the physical action and/or the “picture” of the beat might be, (ex: “as boy overhears parents he’s doodling a picture of women’s breasts,” etc.). Additionally, I often begin hearing bits of dialogue as I visualize the beats, and so I also include those bits of dialogue on my cards (and/or vertical outline).

It’s great if I can understand the purpose of each scene while still in the outlining phase: Why is it there!?  What is its function?

NOTE: clearly, many of these things are “discovered” and created and found in the actual writing process of the script. … But it’s common for pros to spend a great deal of time on this pre-writing “outlining” process (starting with the basics and then filling it out as they understand it more and more).  And once all these details are down, then the actual writing of  the whole first draft might happen as fast as a few weeks or less (especially if you binge write.)

A “beat” can be a scene or what may turn out to be a sequence of scenes. I think of a beat as that section or unit of time that pushes the story forward toward its conclusion. I also begin with attempting to make act one and act 3 about 25% each and act 2 about 50% of the whole. — this symmetry, 25%, 50%, 25%, again and again appears in the majority of popular films.

Act one often consists of:

  • Meeting the main characters.
  • An Inciting Incident: reason why we’re watching this movie today in the lives of the characters, as opposed to yesterday.
  • It also includes the reason why we are going to go on this journey, or why the character is: what is the situation/problem.
  • There is often a Turning Point defining EVENT by the end of act one that seems to push the progress of the story to the next plateau.