Can you write a story around screenplay story beats?
There are plenty of great screenwriting coaches, authors and experts out there.
We like Blake Snyder’s “Beat Sheet” approach. Chris Soth has been making noise recently with his “Mini Movie” method.
Check out Dave Trottier, Dov Simens, Jeff Kitchens, Robert Rodriguez and dozens of others, not to forget the guerilla
filmmakers out there.
They all share one belief: Stories told with film have a definable structure. Or the good ones do, anyway.
The individual coaches and experts have their own “take” on film structure, but the basics go all the way back to Homer:
- Three acts – beginning, middle, end
- About one minute of on-screen activity per page (110 to 120 pages total)
- A dramatic arc that challenges a main character
- A few twists to keep the audience wondering
- A “satisfying” ending, which may or may not involve happiness, but should make sense.
You can dig a lot deeper into structure by checking out any of those experts (above).
But my main concern isn’t structure. It’s discipline.
Can you create story built around a pattern or – horrors, here comes that word – a formula?
If you cannot, you may be a really talented, really proud, really independent writer, but you’re not likely to build much of an
Even if your intended audience happens to be the avant garde, guess what: They can only remain “avant garde” if they jump on
your bandwagon for a while, use you for a few stories, then flit on to somebody else.
However, if you can write within the bounds of structure, there’s never been a better time to make it as a writer.
Why Screenplay Structure Matters
You may find yourself rebelling at the notion that some heavy handed producer or low level screenplay reader can force you into
a certain type of “structure.”
Get over yourself. It’s not about them. It’s about their audience.
Here’s the reality of our audience today: They’re ferociously time crunched. Yet they’re bored.
They’ve been going to the movies all their lives. Heck, for most of them, the movies have been coming to them all their lives.
They have an embedded, maybe subconscious, expectation for the way a story is going to unfold.
They especially expect a certain pace.
They know something big is supposed to happen at the beginning.
They know the lead character will fall in love or get a pet or take a trip or lose a favorite uncle somewhere along the line –
and it will have nothing to do with the actual storyline (it’s called a “B Story” in some quarters).
They know there will be a harrowing event about 2/3 of the way through that will change the way they anticipate the ending.
They look – at least surreptitiously – for an emotionally charged twist somewhere close to the end.
And they know that as the credits roll, they may not like what happened, but they should “get” what happened and how.
Still with me?
That’s a quick and dirty description of almost every decent movie you see these days.
Feel free to print those statements out and watch how they play out in the next film you watch (and like).
If your audience is watching movies – theater release, made for TV, straight to DVD, YouTube or Hulu original – and they are, all
of their experience gears them to expect a certain pattern and a certain pace from a story.
Why not write the way your audience expects?
That’s not the same as writing what your audience expects. That’s boring.
Writing the way your audience expects to be engaged is, well, engaging. It gives them what they don’t expect in a way they do. Sort of like pineapple on pizza.
If you’re trying to figure out how to craft a story that will connect with a 21st century audience, take a hard look at screenplay structure.
You can apply it to every type of story. And you can even apply it to many other types of writing, even blog posts (yes, feel
free to critique my failure to do so in the comments!).
Learning to Write Screenplay Story Beats
You are a writer. You deserve a process. Your own.
Don’t let me or anybody else tell you which path to walk. But I’ll share how I found my way up the path and maybe it’ll help
I found Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” an absolute treasure. Blake’s enduring legacy was to provide a roadmap for great story
structure, including some fantastic and memorable terminology.
Get your hands on a copy of the classic “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet,” and pick up a copy of “Save the Cat.”
Aside: I also had the pleasure of “meeting” Blake via email and, though I wouldn’t claim to have known him, I certainly understand
why so many of his friends and family deeply miss him.
I found that by reading STC and reviewing it a few times, I started seeing variations of Blake’s story points in films I was
watching (even lousy ones, but rarely).
I then picked up a copy of the second STC book called “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.” While on its face it looked like Blake
had just taken his formula and copy and pasted a bunch of application points from notable movies …yeah, that’s pretty
much what he did. But it was incredibly useful to see how real pro screenwriters had designed classic, popular films, sure
enough, around highly disciplined story points.
What You Can Do With Screenplay Story Points
If you’re reading along with these posts, you know that we’re developing concepts and technologies for the “21st Century Book.”
It involves creating story structure – built around screenplays, surprise, surprise! – and a story building app we’re calling
We’d love to have you come along on the journey, so join the email list and we’ll keep you in the loop.
But beyond us and beyond Qunaia, telling stories in the 21st century is going to be all about good structure, images and a
very careful array of technology.
Learn to write on screenplay story beats. Figure out how to integrate good images. And write your stories so people can flip
through them on Kindles, iPads and other pad devices in about, oh, the same amount of time it takes to watch a film.
Post them on Amazon, iTunes and every valid ebook distribution platform you can find.
Build an audience. Blog and tweet and Hang Out on Google+. Work your chops as a writer who can reliably inspire and entertain.
Be fast. Have fun. Make stories!
Thanks for joining Ames Media Institute. Stop by again some time soon.