Posted by: steveonfilm | October 18, 2009

12 Beats

Each time I start a new screenplay, be it from scratch or as a revision of an existing project, I approach it from a scientific standpoint. I study what methods and techniques help me as a writer and which ones don’t. Over time I’ve been able to put together somewhat of a formula that seems to work well for me, and I figured now is as good a time as any to write about it in a two parts. Tonight I’m posting part one, 12 Beats.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I like to try new screenplay structuring methods that I come across. Whether it’s a blogpost, book, or just something described to me by a friend, I enjoy going through the exercise of trying out new storybuilding methods. Usually I’ll take an existing story (something that I’ve already written), or adapt a movie I’m extremely familiar with, and see how the method works out. Sometimes the new method works great. Other times it doesn’t. But I typically walk away with at least one part I found beneficial and I eventually come back to again in one way, shape, or form.

Over time (and most recently with Served Cold), I’ve put together a method that seems to work well enough for me. It takes the core components from Joseph Campbell, “The Hero’s Journey” and Syd Field’s “Three Act Screenplay,” and uses them in a way that provides me the structure I need to flesh out the details.

I start with the frame work that Campbell defined (for more info see this post), but in a more genre agnostic manner. In other words, I don’t frame it with the standard 12 steps he outlines, since that is limited almost specifically to action or adventure movies. Instead, I take the 12 steps and cut them into four basic acts. Steps 1-3 are Act One. Steps 4-6 are Act Two A. Steps 7-9 are Act Two B. And steps 10-12 are Act Three. You might be able to see where I’m going with this. Each act has three main beats, and I keep in mind that each beat needs to be accomplished in 10 pages. The theory here is that all 12 beats will add up to roughly 120 pages.

Doing this accomplishes two things. First, if forces me to simplify my story into 12 major beats. If I can’t do this, it’s likely my story is too big, or too complicated. I’ll take a look at it, figure out what I need to change, and keep tweaking it until I can fit it into the 12 major beats. Second, these 12 beats give me the skeleton I’m going to hang the rest of my story on. If I can’t get the skeleton right, then I know I don’t have a strong enough foundation to build a proper screenplay around.

Once I settle on my 12 beats, I’m ready to take that framework an adapt it into the next step in the process, “56 Points,” which utilizes a lot of Syd Field’s “Three Act Screenplay” method. However, I’ll go into that with my next post.

Until next time, keep writing!


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