For a writer, it’s exciting to hatch a new idea. Maybe you even have a rockstar logline.
But it’s all too easy to take that idea and run, only to stumble at page 30 without a clue of where to go.
Don’t worry – this is avoidable.
You just need a firm grasp on how to map out your idea. With the right tools, you can see if your idea has the “legs” to deliver a feature-length film to the finish line.
How do you do that?
In today’s post, we’ll examine how with Blake Snyder’s famous Save the Cat beat sheet template that revolutionized the industry.
Get ready to chart out your idea over 15 unique beats to see if it holds up!
Freebie: Save the Cat Beat Sheet Template
Grab your free film beat sheet template by entering your email address below.
What is a beat?
In film development terms, a “beat” refers to a single story event which transforms the character and story at a critical juncture.
Think of beats as “checkpoints” along the story circle method of charting out film structure
In his book “Save the Cat,” screenwriter Blake Snyder boiled film plot structure down to fifteen beats.
He also includes the suggested page number each beat should should occur on. We included those on our Save the Cat beat sheet template.
You can even use a beat sheet calculator if you know your expected page count. This also comes in handy if you want to write a short film beat sheet.
Story and character are two halves of the same coin. Inevitably, your protagonist will attract characters and scenarios that will teach the valuable lesson of the story (i.e. the “arc”).
In a screenplay beat sheet, treat plot and character as one to balance plot structure
So give your character a strong and clear need. After all, their desire will dictate the story of their lives, and drive them toward the irreversible change of your finale.
We will use the great beat sheet example found in The Matrix to illustrate the effectiveness of Blake Snyder’s creation.
An analysis of the plot structure The Matrix (1999)
Let's dive in.
1. Opening Image [Page 1]
Start strong with an image that catapults your audience into the look and feel of your story. Blake Snyder suggests knocking this out on your first page.
Look no further than Instagram account @Finalscreens to see how much story can be conveyed in the first and final images of a film.
Film structure can be summarized in strong opening and final images.
Let’s use the act breakdown of The Matrix to show the power of the Save the Cat beat sheet template at work.
To start, The Matrix boasts a strong opening image: a blinking command line cursor.
The Save the Cat beat sheet template calls for an opening image that speaks volumes, The Matrix (1999)
The film is about a hacker named Neo (Keanu Reeves) who realizes his life is a computer-simulated reality (The Matrix).
Seeing this blinking cursor predicts “how deep the rabbit hole” of technology will go for him.
Over the image we hear Trinity and Cypher, on the “other end” of the cursor. They’re liberated from The Matrix, and looking for their savior (Neo).
2. Theme Stated [Page 5]
Film structure requires that the theme of the film is communicated by someone fairly early on.
Commonly, this is dialogue spoken to the protagonist that he doesn’t quite grasp yet.
In The Matrix, Neo moonlights as a creator of illegal software. One of his customers tells him that he looks like he “needs to unplug for awhile.”
This very subtly suggests that Neo will learn to unplug from his computer simulated reality, and how to fight those who were keeping him there.
3. Set-up [Pages 1-10]
Use your first ten pages wisely. Here, you’ll need to establish your story scope (and “look and feel”) for the audience.
First, show your character in their “old world.” Let the audience know what the status quo is for them, then hint at the adventure that will follow.
Second, establish all characters who will factor into your main story beats. This may take some creativity.
Sometimes, for story reasons, you will just have to hint at those characters.The Matrix cleverly begins with an action sequence to establish how there are people in Neo’s world (Trinity, the Agents) who seem like they’re from another place. They defy the laws of physics, and seem to come and go as they please.
We also meet Neo, and learn that he senses this other world, but it’s just beyond his grasp.
4. Catalyst [Page 12]
Sometimes called the “inciting incident,” the catalyst is the event that disrupts your protagonist’s status quo. But they’re not ready to make the choice that catapults them into the story just yet.
In The Matrix, this happens when Neo meets Trinity in a club. She tells him that he’s in danger.
5. Debate [Page 12-25]
This is where the protagonist is in doubt about setting out on their perilous journey.
Think about it like the major stressor of moving to a new place. You may know it’s bigger, or closer to work, but making the choice to pack your things and do it is still rough.
How does this beat manifest in The Marix?
After talking to Trinity, Neo finds himself hunted by sunglasses-wearing “suits” (the Agents). Thankfully, he’s on the phone with Morpheus - the leader of the rebellion Trinity represents.
However, Neo’s not strong enough follow through on Morpheus’ orders to escape his office building.
In Joseph Campbell this is called the refusal of the call.
6. Break into Two [Page 25]
Inevitably, your protagonist will overcome his or her doubt and make a choice to set out on their adventure.
This choice is what sets the plot in motion.
From here on out, your Save the Cat beat sheet template will be filled with obstacles and twists resulting from making this choice.
In The Matrix?
You guessed it: this is where Neo takes the Blue Pill (to unplug from The Matrix) over the red pill (to resume status quo).
7. B Story [Page 30]
The A story revolves around the choice your protagonist made as Act 1 breaks into Act 2.
But another subplot ensues, commonly a love story. Blake Snyder suggests this at around Page 30, and that it illustrates the theme of your film.
The Matrix does not conform to this succinctly (remember, the Save the Cat beat sheet template only gives you suggested page counts).
The B Story is the blossoming romance between Neo and Trinity. It starts when they meet in the club, and blossoms once Neo has left the Matrix and is aboard the Nebuchadnezzar with Morpheus and his crew.
Trinity gives Neo strength to believe that he’s their savior (AKA “The One”).
8. Fun and Games [Page 30-35]
Thankfully, the Save the Cat beat sheet template is not “all work and no play.”
Your plot structure requires a stretch where your protagonist wields their new power, and does cool stuff with it.
In The Matrix, Neo enters a virtual program (The Construct), where Morpheus teaches him all kinds of fun stuff.
Here he starts to hone martial arts skills and how to jump really high.
9. Midpoint [Page 55]
At some point, your protagonist will either get what they’re after... or not. But there will be consequences either way.
Neo takes the blue pill to see if he’s truly the humanity’s savior. But, at the midpoint, he goes to the clairvoyant Oracle to see if this is true.
She give him a once-over and, tragically, tells him it's not true.
Intermission: How to use the Save The Cat beat sheet template
Before we finish off the steps of the Save the Cat beat sheet template, let’s go over some quick pointers on filling it out.
First, know that you won’t hit the suggested page count perfectly.
That’s why it’s 'suggested!’
It’s there to guide your arc.
If you know your page count will be longer than Blake Snyder’s set 110 pages, find a handy beat sheet calculator to recalibrate.
Finally, keep the story circle in mind as you chart out each beat. Approach story and character as though they’re the same thing.
If you get confused, write tandem beats where both character and plot are parallel, to better see why the beat needs to happen.
10. Bad Guys Close In [Pages 55-75]
After your protagonist gets what they want, or not, there will be consequences. These forces will tighten their grasp, and throw the protagonist off balance.
These forces don’t necessarily have to be bad guys. It can also be infighting within the protagonist’s circle, for example.
Back to The Matrix. This is the section where Cypher betrays the team and allows the Agents to capture Morpheus. This thwarts the team’s relative control amongst chaos.
11. All Is Lost [Page 75]
In film structure, the dire circumstances your protagonist endures will lead to an inevitable loss.
This is usually a character, and classically the “mentor” (think Obi-Wan, Gandalf and Morpheus).
Whatever the loss, it’s felt deeply because this item (or person) gave the protagonist their bearings.
In The Matrix, this is where Morpheus is kidnapped, and the location of Zion -- humanity’s last save haven -- is compromised.
12. Dark Night of the Soul [Pages 75-85]
This is the most dire circumstance your character reaches. At this point of the Save the Cat beat sheet template, your protagonist has lost hope.
In The Matrix, this is where Neo and his team come to the tragic realization that they have to pull the plug on Morpheus.
Otherwise, the Agents might thwart humanity forever.
13. Break into Three [Page 85]
Like a forest fire, loss and misery are followed by new life.
In plot structure, this is where your protagonist claws around in the darkness, only to find or remember something useful.
In The Matrix, Neo is reminded of some crucial information he gleaned from the Oracle. This gives him the confidence to take arms and save Morpheus from The Agents, against impossible odds. Trinity goes with him.
The Matrix (1999) beat sheet example: The Break into Three where Neo and Trinity take on the Agents
14. Finale [Pages 85-110]
Treat the finale as the Act 3 summary. The Save the Cat beat sheet template is at its end, so it’s time for the protagonist to take on their foes.
Armed with new tools and self-discoveries, the protagonist often synthesizes what they've learned (in Act 2) with values they've always had (Act 1).
In The Matrix, Neo and Trinity put their training to the ultimate test to take on the Agents and liberate Morpheus.
Eventually, Neo has to face the lead Agent by himself. He channels a feeling he always had, even when inside The Matrix.
He “unplugs” from the Oracle’s logic and follows these feelings, which give him godlike powers in The Matrix.
He’s indeed The One, and subdues The Agents.
15. Final Image [Page 110]
Along with the opening image, the final image creates the bookend that encapsulates the journey.
It’s the last thing the audience sees, and should cement the theme of the film, as well as represent what happened and changed over the course of this journey.
The Matrix, closes on Neo. We hear his voiceover talk about the next steps of liberating these humans stuck in The Matrix.
Then he takes flight! Being The One has endowed him with superhero qualities in The Matrix, which he will now put to use.
Use a good "Save the Cat" beat sheet example
It’s helpful to find a good beat sheet example before you get started on your Save the Cat beat sheet template.
To find one, look no further than the Save the Cat website itself, which offers a trove of completed beat sheet templates from movies you know.
Thumb through this list and find films with genres and structures that most closely mirror your own idea.
Seeing how another film nailed their plot structure can get you thinking about your own in a different way.
Also check out this completed beat sheet template PDF by John August, for his “Charlie’s Angels” screenplay. It employs a unique style which might be useful for your script.
It’s crucial to think about film structure after you hatch a new idea. But you also want to avoid over-analyzing the structure too.
The Save the Cat beat sheet template is only a guide. The suggested page count for each beat doesn’t have to be exact. Every script is different, and structure should serve the change that your character makes during the events of the story.
Once you “break” your story into these fifteen beats, consider writing a film treatment to flesh it out further.
This will keep you even more organized, and give you materials to pitch your idea.
And, as always, let us know in the comments below what methods you like to use to develop your ideas!
Like this post? Share it!
"The Ultimate Film Beat Sheet [FREE Save the Chat Beat Sheet Template]." #screenwriting #screenwriters