This week’s discussion is the development and writing of those dreaded documents that always accompany your screenplay. The documents are the beat sheet, synopsis, and treatment. And yes, you have to write these documents yourself.
There is a lot of confusion and discussion in the screenwriting world about the words ‘synopsis,’ ‘beat sheet,’ and ‘treatment.’ Truthfully, there really is no single standard for any of these documents. So, for discussion purposes let’s start with standard definitions.
A synopsis is a one to two page plot summary written in the present tense that includes the main action and the major characters and what they do that affects the action. Only subplots that are integral to the main plot are included. Characters’ names are written in CAPS the first time they appear and title case after that. The essential tone and mood of the genre and the writer’s style is communicated in the synopsis.
A beat sheet is a point by point list of the actions of the story. It appears as a short breakdown of the important moments in your script – the beats. Essentially a writer’s outline, the beat sheet is your first really big step in organizing and shaping your material into a more detailed story. For convenience, you could use scene numbers. Numbering or bulleting is not a requirement, but lots of people do it that way. If nothing else, it indicates sequence. There are no particular rules. However, description and action are minimized. A beat sheet is not the place to wring out every ounce of drama or comedy inherent to a scene. Beat sheets are a good diagnostic tool for writers.
Here’s an example of a start for a beat sheet that I put together for a class. No, you may not copy it. Yes, it is copyrighted for what that is worth.
HIGH DESERT is the story of L.A.P.D. DETECTIVE ROBERT HALL.
- Start on the sun scarred steppes of Russia. Russian Army COLONEL Stefan Urievich “URI” Yuvchenko escapes from the infamous KOLCHAK MILITARY PRISON. He seeks revenge for his false imprisonment and the return of money stolen from him by GENERAL Andre Stefanovich Adryan.
- Burned – out and suicidal after the death of his full – blooded Apache Indian wife MAGGY, HALL reluctantly guards RUSSIAN VICE PRESIDENT ADRYAN.
- Under pressure from LA City Councilman PALMERSTON, HALL decides to let Adryan see the “seedier” side of LA and takes them to the strip club GARDEN OF DELIGHT.
- While at the club, masked RUSSIAN SPETZNAZ assassins attack. Hall and Gomez exchange gunfire with the killers. Gomez is killed in a grenade blast.
- Emerging from the chaos of the shoot – out, Hall is blamed for the killings and accused of working with the Russian MAFIA. He is suspended from the L.A.P.D. pending an investigation.
- Knowing that he has been set – up somehow, Hall kidnaps Adryan’s lover, the dancer Alexandria,
- He takes her to his wife’s grave. He tells her of the love he had for his wife and his dedication to he police force.
- A bullet ZINGS across the gravestones. Racing through the cemetery, they are shot at by fleeting “ghosts” of the Spetznaz killers.
- They go to the high desert CHONDAY APACHE INDIAN RESERVATION. He can be protected there.
- Fearing her own preconceptions about Indians, Alexandria does not want to an Indian reservation. She wants “real” police protection.
- While arguing, the Russians ATTACK. Escaping out the back of the house, Hall finds a car and hot wires it.
- At the reservation, they are under the protection of the tribe.
- In the final confrontation, Hall and Alexandria are tracked across the barren desert by the Spetznaz.
- The Spetnaz are tracked by the Indian BRAVES. Using all the skills of their ancient ancestors, the Indian trackers make their own war against the Russian “white eyes.”
- Finally, on a desert mesa Hall and Blue face their last confrontation. Swinging his last blow, Hall falls off the cliff while Blue falls to his death. In one reach, Alexandria saves Hall.
A treatment is a prose narrative that tells the story emotionally. Your goal is to write a document that is a tight, easily readable re-telling of the story in three to eight pages. While you may have to write something longer than eight pages, try to keep the effort pithy. You should use active verbs. This document is not an academic exercise. While complete scenes are not normally written out, you can write in a little dialog for effect.
In effect, what you are writing is a mini-movie. You need to write a document where you get a feel for the main character(s), the overall flow of the story, and include pieces of dialogue. The treatment can be the writer’s best selling device after a good synopsis. Keep in mind that treatments have a beginning, middle and end. Treatments also help the writer weave in your subplots and minor characters with grace and style.
All these documents have value to the writer as writing tools. Helping you focus on the key elements of your story, the synopsis, beat sheet, and treatment serve as a writer’s trail through that dark night of writing. The skills of writing these documents come with practice and doing. It’s going to take time. So, do not get angry at yourself for becoming stuck. They will also keep you from forgetting all the minor, but important scenes, without which parts of your story may threaten to become incoherent or totally mystifying.
Writing is an act of faith. You are putting your faith in your ability to create and imagine. Just as your characters face increasingly difficult obstacles, you must continually strive to create better and better stories. Each step of this writing process is progressively more detailed and difficult. On the other hand, at each step, you’re working with more material, and the world of your story and characters are becoming more real to you. So once again, like the hero of your story, you – the writer – are growing stronger, enough so, that you will be able to succeed at each stage.
8. Solid Grounding
You know I searched throughout the interwebnettube thing, I could not find a definition of solid grounding. A lot of people write about how one could get a “sold grounding” in such and so without defining what that would be. So be it.
As a writer, you need a solid grounding in your skills and in your abilities to proceed as a writer. Therefore, I have come up with some “grounding” attributes. If these attributes sound a trifle militaristic, it is because I took them off of a United States Marine Corps site. However, these are valid attributes that can help in your success as a writer in Hollywood.
Mission First – Remember why you are writing. What you are doing is not art. Ultimately, there may be ‘art’ in the result but the writer writes. You are writing because you love writing and you need to pay the mortgage, buy diapers, and put food on the table.
Method Training and active leadership are our keys to success – You need to take charge of your own career. There are a lot of folks out there selling their various ‘confidence’ methods, but ultimately you are responsible. So, pack the gear and saddle up.
Have good self-realization - Understand your abilities and risks. Don’t gamble on something turning out right because that’s what you want.
Rigor is your deliberate training and preparation – You train as you work. You work as you train. Simply – the more you write, the more you can write. Attending classes and seminars, joining writing groups, and replying to agents wanting scripts are excellent ways to expand you experience and knowledge base, but you must write everyday to be successful.
Honesty and forthrightness - Yes, there are those in this industry who are dishonest and dishonorable but you should be above that. Do what is right, not what is easy.
Be bold and aggressive - However, avoid the stalking behavior.
Be prepared physically, emotionally and intellectually for this fight - Yes, it is a struggle. Write everyday.
Endstate – As a screenwriter, besides the paycheck from the studio what is your end state? You have to decide that for yourself. However, never forget that you are writing to make a living. If that talent takes you to becoming a producer or director rather than a writer then so be it. It’s your life. Just remember the old Airborne response: “How far?” “All the way, sir.”
Remember Avrech's rule: All great movies are love stories
Why are you reading this? Go write!
John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.