Welcome to Part 5 of our Series on Story. It feels like the month has flown by… yeah, right. Story is hard. In fact in a famous lecture, Andrew Stanton calls it his “Journey of Pain.” I’ve tried to take as much pain as I can out of the process, but you’ve still got work to do. So roll up your sleeves, put on your George Lucas glasses again and take out your 15 Beat Sheet.
Now take out yet another piece of 3-holed college ruled paper and write the numbers from 1 – 31 down the left side of the page. Each number will represent a sequence and each sequence will be about 3-4 pages. If you stick to that, you’ve got a good chance that your screenplay will end up between 93 and 124 pages long. No more surprises like I had the first time I sat down to write a screenplay and kept coming up with 62 page manifestos (old TV habits die hard) and no 250 behemoths either.
Now, I’m sure a few questions are burning through your mind.
QUESTION 1) Why 31? Why not 34? There are 34 lines on the page!
Here’s the time honored reason why. When I started working on TREASURE PLANET at Disney, they handed me a binder with 31 tabs on it so I could keep the sequences straight. Sequences 14 and 17 were due that Friday so I had to get up to speed on the sequence numbering system on the fly. Now it’s a decade later and it’s second nature to me and I love it. Hopefully you will too.
QUESTION 2) What if I need more than 31 beats to tell my story?
If you look at the table of contents for most movies, they’re divided like this: INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, a 2:30 movie has 28 sequences; TAKEN has 24; THE INCREDIBLES has 32 but that’s counting the end credits (which won’t factor into your writing); even BRAVEHEART has 22 and it’s 18 hours long! Okay 3 hours, but you get the point. If you really need more than 31 sequences to tell your story go for 31A, B, C. Or 31.1, .2, etc. There. I hope you’re happy.
QUESTION 3) Why go through all this trouble of outlining and numbering sequences? Why not just let me write for Pete’s sake!
I’m currently working on 5 different screenplays. I’m frequently doing notes on one, a rough draft on another and breaking a third. Each draft of each script can take 3 months or longer to execute and I’m often married to a project for several years after that, so it’s really really important for me to be organized.
I’m also the kind of writer who likes to “eat my dessert first.” I’ll write my favorite sequence of the movie, then my second and so on. By the time I get to my least favorite scene, I’m skiing downhill. I can see the characters better and I know what exciting and entertaining things they’re capable of.
QUESTION 4) Why go to 31? Why not just stick with the 15 I had before and start writing from that? Can I please start writing already!?
No. Two reasons. The first is that you have to look at Spitballing, creating Beat Sheets and making Writers Guides as three separate steps. When we’re Spitballing, we just want to know if the idea works and if there’s enough meat there to call it a movie. Beat Sheets are structural. Can you come up with enough dynamics to sustain an audience through two hours of this? Writers Guides are what propel you through the actual writing process. Three very different processes.
The second is that we all want to rush to screenplay. To start writing at 3AM as soon as inspiration strikes. I share that temptation and I’ve found myself deep into drafts that go nowhere. Then I’ve had to sit down and re-break the story and throw away brilliant sequences and colorful characters because they no longer fit the story I should have been telling all along. It’s heartbreaking and I try to avoid it whenever I can. Go step-by-step. Make sure your baby can walk before you sign it up for a marathon.
QUESTION 5) I’m still on the fence. What else have you got?
Looking at the “Table of Contents” on your 31 Sequence Breakdown will be the first chance you’ll get to see how your movie is paced. If you figure each sequence at 3 minutes, your INCITING INCIDENT will come at sequence 4. Act Two will start at 10. Your MIDPOINT will be 20 and so on. Now you can take a step back and see if your movie has too much action clumped up in Act One or too many scenes of people sitting and talking in Act Two A. Whatever it is, you’ll see it right in front of you. Maybe two characters can buy a car and argue about grandma in the same scene. Your script will zip along and, if it doesn’t, you can take a look at your 31 beats and instantly know why.
Now, George Lucas, let’s get back to that paper that you’ve numbered from 1 – 31. Let’s start filling it in with the beats we know, the “corners” and what I call the “shiny story candy”. Your sheet should look like this.
3 – Intro bad guy
4 – INC/INC
5 – Meet Mentor (Obi)
8 – Aunt & Uncle Die, Farm burns down
9 – Intro Hanz
10 – ACT TWO: New world
11 – Dangers of the new world
12 – “Fun and Games”
13 – Antagonist closes in
20 – MIDPOINT – Alderaan explodes
26 – EA2: Obi dies
27 – ACT THREE: The ramp up to the FINAL BATTLE
28 – The Battle Royal
29 – SB: The guns don’t work
30 – SUPERFREAK!!!: Luke uses the force. Blows up the Death Star
31 – Epilogue: The awards ceremony
You’ve only got 13 more sequences to fill in. You know your tent poles, now you can hang wonderful tapestries of storytelling between them… next week.
Until then, let me know if you’re hitting any stumbling blocks. This stuff isn’t easy. At Disney / Pixar it takes us years to get it right. Post your problems below. Chances are you’re not alone and we can work through it together.