Film Courage: Dan, on your website I think you have a beat sheet that you offer (a PDF)?
Daniel Calvisi, movie studio reader, screenwriter and private screenplay consultant: When people buy my book I offer a worksheet (a Story Map worksheet) that they can use to map out their own pilot for example. And what makes my book unique (STORY MAPS TV DRAMA: The Structure of the One-Hour Television Pilot) is that it offers the first detailed beat sheet for television. There have been a lot of books about feature screenwriting which offer that paradigm (that Syd Field paradigm) the one who really started it. No one had yet done it for TV and I kept getting clients asking me Well do you have a story map for TV? And I went out there and looked and there wasn’t one. And so I decided to make one. But I decided to make one from watching great pilots, great shows and from reading produced pilots (even some that didn’t make it to series), stuff that was going around Hollywood where I could get my hands on it and it actually sold.
I developed this beat sheet. It’s broken down into acts, it’s broken down into page ranges. I give you examples of the page ranges of many pilots, like the BREAKING BAD pilot, if you read the actual script the teaser was two pages. Act 1 was 8 pages, Act 3 was six pages (just something hypothetically) and I break down where in those acts were those specific beats with things like the first trial or the first casualty or the end of Act 1 turn or the Midpoint, or the Assumption of Power. And I’m getting a lot of people saying that they love it for that reason that this was the first time they found a beat sheet for television. So it’s giving them a roadmap to write their script, it’s giving them that chassis of the car to put their details inside.
And I’ve started actually getting produced writers telling me that they are using it as well. I just had a producer from HBO Latino who is in Mexico City call me and say that they are using it now for their show that is in their fourth season on HBO Latino. And that was really cool and exciting to hear. So people are really using my beat sheet and my paradigm.
Film Courage: Excellent. Can you share one or two other tips from the beat sheet?
Dan: It’s up to the writer how to break it down. You may do a teaser plus 4-Act structure. You may do a teaser plus 5-Act structure. If you’re writing a 30 minute script, you may do 4 acts, you may do a teaser plus 2-Acts. It really depends on you. The best way to know how you should structure your script and how you should break down the page ranges (the timing basically) is to watch shows that are similar to yours. They tell the story in the same way that you’re going to tell your TV series. And so outline those shows as you watch them and see how they break up the acts. If it’s a commercial driven network like a broadcast network that has commercials, a lot of those act breaks are going to correspond to commercial breaks, but not always. And not always in the script. So if you can get your hands on the actual screenplays for pilots, that’s great as well.
Film Courage: How can someone get that?
Dan: If you just do Google searches you will find those. There is a site named The Tracking Board where they have a number of downloads. For features around Academy Award time each studio has their Academy Award nominated scripts or nominated for WGA awards and such. For awards consideration you can download those PDFs. TV is a little bit harder to find but they are out there if you maybe go to forum sites, maybe like The Blacklist site for example, you will find people who will have these scripts and they can send you pilots.
Film Courage: The beat sheet, is it for the pilot or the entire season?
Dan: It’s up to you. That’s actually a good question, there is a different between a premise pilot and a third episode pilot. A premise pilot is a pilot that takes the entire length of the script to set up and it’s more of an origin story of that character. So we are starting more at the beginning.
For example, if is was SCANDAL (if it was a premise pilot) we would start with Olivia Pope like in law school or in college and then we would follow her over the years to the point where she opened her own firm or maybe you would wait until the end of season one for her to open her own firm.
But what they actually do is a third episode pilot which is the structure of the pilot uses the same structure that (for example) the third episode of the series would use. So it uses the same structure as every episode going forward and that’s your decision as a writer. But in the example of SCANDAL, she is already a Washington, D.C. fixer. She’s already really successful. She already owns her own company and she has her own team, she even knows The President at this point. So they decided to start the series late in her life (you know, she’s not that old) but late in her professional life to the point where she’s already on the ground running and a seasoned professional. And that was a specific choice the Shonda Rhimes made for that series.
You can use the beat sheet to structure your pilot very specifically. You can define the signpost beats, you can define the core elements that make your character and your series unique and you can plot them out in the act structure that you are going to use. And you should have a template show, an inspirational show that you’re using that uses the same structure that you would like to use. So for example if you are using a show that has a teaser plus five act structure, on the beat sheet, it’s broken down in teaser and five acts. So you will use that as an outline template to beat out your particular pilot. It’s up to you if you feel that your series should use this same structure in ensuring episodes or the pilot should stand on its own as a premise pilot as its own story that’s not quite going to use the same structure.
These days in the industry they like more the third episode pilot where the pilot is written like subsequent episodes of the series. So that’s kind of the thing they like to see more so they know what it is. They give you that question Well, what is this series? What are we going to watch week-to-week? Well, you could say the pilot is written in the same structure that each episode will be written in week-to-week.
BUY THE BOOK – STORY MAPS: How To Write A GREAT Screenplay
BUY THE BOOK – STORY MAPS: TV Drama: The Structure of the One-Hour Television Pilot (Volume 4)