Blake Snyder wrote an influential plotting guide, Save The Cat, which contains his famous Beat Sheet.
Tim Stout, himself a writer of a how-to guide on writing graphic novels, has put a condensed version of the Beat Sheet up on his blog, and I’m going to quote the whole thing:
Opening Image – A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.
Set-up – Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life.
Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up) – What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.
Catalyst – The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.
Debate – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.
Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two) – The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.
B Story – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.
The Promise of the Premise – This is the fun part of the story. This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms, when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.
Midpoint – Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.
Bad Guys Close In – Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.
All is Lost – The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.
Dark Night of the Soul – The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. The Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.
Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three) – Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.
Finale – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!
Final Image – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.
I’ve more or less made that post redundant, but you may of course want to follow the link to Tim’s blog, where he discusses character roles and structure within graphic novels.
I’ve seen some slight variations on the Beat Sheet structure – I’ve two printed copies of the condensed list, one of which calls The Promise of the Premise by a different name, Fun and Games, but is otherwise identical. One reverses the order of Set-Up and Theme Stated. But as the Theme is Stated within the Set-Up, this is a minor difference as well.
Now, I’m going to apply this to a classic film, which I assume most people will be at least vaguely familiar with – Planet of the Apes. A warning, there are spoilers ahead.
I watched the film on television with ad breaks, and though I’ve tried to compensate for the places where the breaks occur, minute numbers are only a rough guide for where events happen in the film.
I’m not sure how literally to take the term ‘opening’ image – the film starts with some shots of space, quickly moving to the interior of a shuttle-sized spacecraft, coloured in clinical white, where George Taylor (Charlton Heston) sits alone.
Taylor records a message, explaining in brief the effects of time dilation. We see the dates – it’s 1973 by the crew’s standards, they expect it to be 700 years later on Earth.
As part of Taylor’s log entry/musing/message to future humans, he says that any humans who receive the message will be “A different breed, a better breed, I hope.” and asks “Does man still make war on his neighbour?”
The ship crashlands in water, and the crew all have beards. Stewart’s sleeping pod appears to have failed in some way, killing her.
After signalling their arrival, the remaining three crewmen abandon ship, Taylor noting that they’ve travelled further than they expected. They’re in the Orion cluster, in the 40th century. And now they’re stuck there.
As the three men walk through the desert, Dodge races ahead, leaving Landon and Taylor to talk. Landon says that, where Dodge would risk everything to learn something no-one else knows, he can’t get his head around what motivates Taylor.
Taylor replies that “I’m a seeker too. But my dreams aren’t like yours. I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be.”
Break into Two
The three men come across a lake, and strip down to bathe. A barely seen hand steals their uniforms. The three give chase, eventually recovering their uniforms, torn.
Then, for the first time, come across a – herd? – of humans, standing round mute in a field, eating corn. There’s ambigious noises, and the humans run. We hear gunshots and see horses before we see who’s riding them – apes.
A chaotic action sequence, as the apes round up the humans. Dodge appears to have been killed, and Taylor’s throat has been slashed in the process of capture.
It’s not really a ‘love story’ but we see Zira, a chimpanzee psychologist, express her belief that humans have intellecutal potential. She tries to communicate with ‘Bright Eyes’ – her name for Taylor. She throws in Nova – a pretty but dumb woman (in both senses of the word), as an incentive.
After a couple of failed attempts at communicate – with Doctor Zaius rubbing out words he’d written in the sand – eventually Zira realises Taylor is intelligent, but too injured to talk.
Taylor is taken to Zira’s quarters, where she and her fiancee, Cornelius, argue over him, and discuss Cornelius’ potentially heretical idea – evolution.
Cornelius thinks that Taylor could be a mutant, and possibly proof that apes evolved from man. However, even Zira and Cornelius find Taylor’s story that he travelled from another planet ridiculous – even the idea of flight seems scientifically impossible to them.
Promise of the Premise
Threatened with gelding by a guard who thinks he can’t understand him, Taylor breaks free of prison.
On the run, Taylor gatecrashes an ape funeral (mildly satirical) and continues to evade the gathering ape police, running round the village. He comes across Dodge, who’s been taxidermied in an exhibit, and continues to run.
Eventually he’s caught and strung up in a net, and speaks, for the first time since he was originally captured:
Taylor is now assigned to the Ministry of Science. A man who can talk is an embarassment to the authorities, and they’re not sure how to deal with him.
Bad Guys Close in
Doctor Zaius, Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith, puts Taylor on trial.
There’s some legal arguments – among them that, as an animal, man has no right to a legal defence. Taylor is ‘tested’ for reason – the fact that he’s unfamiliar with ape law is taken as proof that he’s incapable of rational thought.
All is Lost
The court is told Landon has been located, they go and talk to him to corroborate Taylor’s story that he came from another world… but he’s been lobotomised, and can’t speak. On returning to court, Zira and Cornelius are charged with heresy.
Dark Night of the Soul
Zaius and Taylor debate in Zaius’ office. Taylor is offered an easy life, if he’ll reveal the location of the rest of his mutant tribe. He’s threatened with experiments which will result in a ‘living death’ if he refuses.
Break into Three
Zira’s nephew fakes a transfer order, and Taylor is broken out of his cell, insisting on taking Nova with him.
Cornelius has been to the Forbidden Zone before, and says there’s a cave which contains proof of human intelligence. But, The Ancient Scrolls say that all of the Forbidden Zone is deadly, and that nothing could survive there.
The group reach the cave, but Zaius and an armed party arrive at the same time. After a brief shootout, a stalemate is reached, Zaius taken prisoner, and they head deep into the cave to examine the evidence.
Cornelius has dug out remains, with the more advanced equipment deeper down, indiciating a society roughly as advanced as their own further back. Eventually they find a damning piece of evidence – a doll of a human that talks, a sacriligeous idea in ape society. As Taylor and others are lured out by shots, Zaius appears to be wrestling with this almost inarguable evidence.
Zaius explains that he’s conspired to hide the evidence of human intelligence as the Ancient Scrolls teach that “The Man Beast is the Bringer of Death”, which matches with his own experience.
They strike a deal – Taylor and Nova will be allowed to leave with supplies, and Zira and Cornelius will be spared punishment in return for hiding the evidence.
As soon as Taylor rides off, Zaius announces the two will be charged with sacriledge.
After riding further along the beach, we see a giant statue from behind. We see Taylor approach, climb off the horse, and react in shock. There’s tense build-up, then the image flips round, and we see the Statue of Liberty.
Taylor pounds the sand with his fists as the waves wash in and out and yells
“You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
Snyder argues that the first and last image should contrast, if we take this a little less than literally and call the first scene in the spaceship the opening scene, there’s a massive contrast.
In the cabin, everything is clinical, white, smooth and clean. At the end, Taylor is dirty, in rags, surrounded by nature, both the sand and waves.
Whereas in the beginning Taylor is detachedly discussing his disappointment in human nature, at the end he’s raging at his fellow men, pounding the beach and yelling at people long since dead.
I’ve had to do a little bit of shoehorning/creative thought to make some of that work. Taylor, the hero, states the theme, though his belief in a ‘better breed’ is later proven wrong. The B-Story is more of a story of friendship than love, though the film’s theme, of intelligence across species, is debated most openly here. And I’d originally noted down the scene in Zaius’ office (Dark Night of the Soul) in with All is Lost. There isn’t really a scene where Taylor totally loses hope, though this is the closest. (Given that he’s played by Charlton Heston, he’s unlikely to totally fall apart.)
On the whole though, I don’t think I’m misinterpretting, and the Beat Sheet model seems a pretty good fit for the film’s story.