And now that I have mentioned Blake Snyder, I am obligated to mention “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet” or “BS2”.
Blake Snyder was a Hollywood script writer who suddenly died at age 51, one year younger than I am now. In his instructional book on screen writing Save the Cat he proposes a plotting plan based on 15 plot elements (beats) which is very useful and complete. When I was a young aspiring writer, I had to discover something like this on my own, which was far less complete and amateurish. His method has spawned a “Save the Cat” computer software and his “Save the Cat” website is still up and operating. They have a list of movies whose scripts have been reverse engineered using the beat sheet.
I have little to add to this so if you are an aspiring writer, you should explore and learn from the website yourself as much as possible.
With that caveat, let me examine the beat sheet of Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece JAWS. Why this movie? Because I am an old fart, and because this is a great movie that does not fit the beat sheet very well. It is a good case study on what you might do when your story does not fit the template.
Here is how “Save the Cat” website tries to fit the movie to the template.
Set-Up: A relaxed beach bonfire party segues to a couple sneaking off to skinny-dip… but during the jaunt the young woman goes missing. The next day we meet Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) and follow along as he is called to the site of the girl’s disappearance. There, the girl’s body is discovered washed up on shore and, though we don’t see it, the reactions of the officers convey how gruesome the sight. Back at the office Brody fills out a report on the incident, typing in “Shark Attack” as the cause.
Theme Stated: As Brody heads off to work his wife tells him to be careful and he laughs it off, replying, “In this town?” It seems danger can infiltrate even the sleepiest of small communities if we’re not vigilant.
If you are familiar with the movie, you should know that the scene where Brody heads off to work (“In this town?”) is after the woman is attacked by the shark and before the body is found. So “theme stated” is in the middle of “set-up”. Also, “Set-up” is supposed to be the description of how normal life would continue forever if the “catalyst” did not send the protagonist on a journey. (Luke Skywalker bored and frustrated on a desert planet is a “set-up”.) “Theme stated” is supposed to be an ominous statement that explains the moral/meat of the story. (“Money isn’t everything”, “(what could happen) In this town?”, “You must learn the Force too, Luke, if you are to travel with me to Alderaan” etc.)
So the structure is actually:
Opening Image – Underwater scene
Corpse on the first page– woman attacked by shark
Set up – family of New York cops in a peaceful New England town.
Theme stated – “What could happen in this town?”
Catalyst – dead woman found
Reaction 1 – “Beaches closed till further notice”
Counter Reaction 1 – Mayer Vaughn et al pressure Brody. “Don’t rush to cry shark.” (note: In the original book, Brody is a New England local. In the movie, he is an alien transplanted from New York city in search of a more peaceful life. Here, Brody is at a disadvantage because he is deemed an alien who does not understand the needs of the locals. Our hero has a weakness.)
Debate 1 – Brody broods. “That’s some bad hat, Harry.”
Catalyst 2 – A local boy is killed.
Reaction 2 – “Let’s go kill the shark!” Soon a dead tiger shark is brought ashore. Ding dong! The witch is dead!
Counter Reaction 2 – Brody is not convinced. Neither is Hooper the shark specialist.
Debate 2 – Brody and Hooper cuts open the tiger shark. It’s not the right shark. Hooper finds a shark tooth. It’s not the same shark. They try to convince the mayor. They fail.
Catalyst 3 – In spite of the coast guard protection, another victim is killed and Brody’s son almost dies.
Since this is a movie about Brody, Hooper and Quint going out to sea to kill a shark, half the movie is the build up to actually setting out on the hunt. Trying to fit this script on the BS2 feels forced because Spielberg’s script has a more rhythmical structure of Catalyst-Reaction-Counter Reaction-Debate-Catalyst-Reaction-Counter Reaction-Debate.
Debate 2 is longer than Debate 1 and Catalyst 1, 2 and 3 have sequentially longer, more elaborate buildups. In “Reaction/Counter Reaction” 1 and 2, Brody team and mayor team switch sides. Brody provides Reaction 1, mayor team provides Counter Reaction 1. Mayor team provides Reaction 2, Brody team provides Counter Reaction 2. Note that in both cases the Reaction is “Boom! Bang!” and Counter Reaction is more cautious. Reaction has BGM and/or sound effects. Counter reaction has sound of wind or waves in the background.
Catalyst 3 leads to the capitulation of the mayor team. The mayor finally admits he was wrong and allows the beaches closed and Brody to go on a hunt with Quint.
A similar pattern can be seen on many voyage movies where someone needs to be convinced before the protagonist is allowed to set sail.
My point here is, if your story does not quite fit on the template of BS2 or any other plot template, try doing a refrain of the plot elements, or beats. These elements are called “beats” for a reason. They are supposed to be the beat of the story.