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Connective Tissue: Finding the Mirror Beats in Your Story

By on August 30, 2019 in About the Beats, Tips and Tactics, Tools with 6 Comments
Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan.

Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan.

As writers, we all know the perils of “Act Two”—whether you’re writing a screenplay or a novel, that patch of narrative real estate is an arduous piece of land to navigate. Whenever I approach Act Two, I always think of that scene in Lawrence of Arabia when the deadly Nefud Desert must be traversed to spring a surprise attack on an enemy base on the shores of Aqaba. That perilous journey isn’t much different—long and arduous.

However, there’s certainly help, especially in the beat sheet phase of putting your story together. Whenever I’m putting either a novel or a screenplay idea together in beat sheet form, I take a look at how these mirror beats from Act One and Act Two line up; then I look at other movies and scripts, and more often than not, I find that there’s a symmetry that’s happening within the story’s framework.

Blake Snyder first wrote about this in his final book, Save the Cat!® Strikes Back. Those of you who have that book may have read the following information on page 58, but for those of you in the cheap seats, I can relay it.

Just look at how these sets of plot points line up:

Catalyst and All Is Lost are both points where something is done to the hero. In Catalyst, it’s innocent, an invitation, a telephone call, the discovery of news that starts the adventure. The All Is Lost is also done to the hero, but it’s more serious: This is where he’s evicted, fired, loses his significant other, or someone dies. It’s a different tone, but the same function.

Debate and Dark Night of the Soul are also alike. It’s… hesitation. Having received an invitation or, later, when the stakes are more serious, and having experienced a death, jail, or exile… now what? Again, the difference is that early on the consequences are few; later, more serious. But the functions are the same: Given a life-altering jolt, what will the hero do next?

Break into Two and Break into Three is the response. Both are proactive moves on the part of the hero that take him to the next level. Having been hit with something, and thought about it, the hero now acts. Here again, the stakes are more serious later on as we are about to face “the final test.”

To put Blake’s writing into action, I’ve included some examples where you can see the mirror beats in action. Perhaps these examples can help you with “road apples” along your narrative journey to tell a breath-taking, awe-inspiring story.

I’m choosing three films that couldn’t be more opposite—The Descent, Saving Private Ryan, and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas—to show how these mirroring beats cross stories and genres.

First, we’ll begin with my favorite STC! genre, Monster in the House, and one of my best beat sheet breakdowns for Neil Marshall’s horror classic, The Descent. (A side note, this is the only beat sheet I’ve written that’s had the approval of the writer/director and Shauna Macdonald, who plays the ill-fated character, Sarah Carter).

The Descent is the story about a weekend trip gone wrong. After Sarah loses her husband and child in a car accident, she’s invited to a weekend getaway with the girls to do some spelunking in some remote caves. All goes bad when the group becomes lost in the caverns and discovers a race of carnivorous cave dwellers that crave fresh meat.

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Catalyst: A year later, Sarah Carter’s closest friends, led by Juno, invite her on a weekend of spelunking in the mysterious Appalachian Mountain caves.

Sarah and her friends before their fateful journey.

Sarah and her friends before their fateful journey.

All Is Lost: One of the members of the group, Holly, is violently killed. What was supposed to be a pleasant and exciting weekend outing among some friends has now turned fatal. The whiff of death is present.

Death awaits in the labyrinthian caves.

Death awaits in the labyrinthian caves.

Debate: Sarah has a frightening dream of the accident that claimed the life of her husband and child; she’s having difficulty dealing with this new reality. Will anxious Sarah be OK on this spelunking trip? Is it too much to handle?

Will Sarah survive the trip?

Will Sarah survive the trip?

Dark Night of the Soul: Sarah finds herself alone. Her friends have fled. Another member of the party, Beth, is also dying. Sarah has to kill her to end Beth’s suffering. Sarah learns the lesson of self-reliance when Beth tells her in her dying breath not to trust Juno, the leader of the group. Learning to live again, literally, is what Sarah must learn to survive. She also has to pay for Juno’s sin of taking them down there and getting them lost with blind, predatory creatures.

Sarah in the bloody muck of the second half of Act Two.

Sarah in the bloody muck of the second half of Act Two.

Break into Two: Sarah decides to follow her friends down into the cave. She’s fragile and vulnerable, but she’s trying to cope the best she can.

Sarah and her friends descent into the upside-down world below.

Sarah and her friends descend into the upside-down world below.

Break into Three: Sarah, covered in blood and gore (not her own), goes completely primal, killing many cave creatures. She’s transformed. She’s not the fragile Sarah we saw at the Break into Two.

Sarah has crossed over into full primal mode.

Sarah has crossed over into full primal mode.

Read The Descent Beat Sheet.

One of my favorite mirror beat examples can be found in Blake’s second book, Save the Cat!® Goes to the Movies. It’s for the Academy Award®-winning Saving Private Ryan, written by Robert Rodat and directed by Steven Spielberg. The STC! Genre is Golden Fleece (Epic Fleece). It’s the story of a team of WWII Army Rangers lead by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), who are given the mission to locate 101st Airborne paratrooper Private Ryan after all of his other brothers were killed in action.

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Catalyst: Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is given the mission to find Private Ryan.

The mission: save Private Ryan.

The mission: save Private Ryan.

All Is Lost: The squad finds Private Ryan (Matt Damon). But Ryan refuses to go home. He doesn’t want to leave his team. The “road apple” is… the death of the mission.

Private Ryan refuses to go with his rescuers.

Private Ryan refuses to go with his rescuers.

Debate: Should Miller’s squad go on the mission? What are the dangers?

What are the hazards of saving Private Ryan?

What are the hazards of saving Private Ryan?

Dark Night of the Soul: With Ryan refusing to be saved, Captain Miller and the remaining members of his squad wonder what to do. Another debate with higher stakes.

What do you do when the mission refuses to be saved?

What do you do when the mission refuses to be saved?

Break into Two: Captain Miller and his squad embark on the mission to save Private Ryan. Not all will survive the journey.

Captain Miller and his team on their mission.

Captain Miller and his team on their mission.

Break into Three: Captain Miller and his squad dig in with Private Ryan’s unit to defend a bridge. The only way to save him now is to try to keep him alive as the German army advances.

Shoulder to shoulder, Miller and Ryan prepare to live (or die) together.

Shoulder to shoulder, Miller and Ryan prepare to live (or die) together.

Find the Saving Private Ryan Beat Sheet in Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies.

The final mirror beat example is the timeless Out of the Bottle story, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s the Oscar®-nominated fable about Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween, being so bored with his holiday that he decides to take over Christmas with disastrous results. The film was written by Caroline Thompson, Michael McDowell, and Tim Burton, and directed by Henry Selick.

MV5BNWE4OTNiM2ItMjY4Ni00ZTViLWFiZmEtZGEyNGY2ZmNlMzIyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDU5NDcxNw@@._V1_Catalyst: Jack Skellington discovers doors to every holiday deep in the forest. He selects the entry with the Christmas Tree. He tumbles down the magic portal into Christmas Town.

Jack discovers doors to every holiday in the forest.

Jack discovers doors to every holiday in the forest.

All Is Lost: Jack Skellington’s sleigh is shot down by humans. Santa is nearly lost at the mitts of super creep, Oogie Boogie. Not only has Halloween lost their Pumpkin King, but Christmas Town is about to lose their king—in one night, two holidays will be destroyed forever.

Jack’s “fatal” fall from the sky.

Jack’s “fatal” fall from the sky.

Debate: “What’s This? What’s This?” The debate question is a catchy tune as Jack Skellington investigates this strange new world filled with snow, colorful lights, and “Sandy Claws.”

“What’s this?” The common Debate question.

“What’s this?” The common Debate question.

Dark Night of the Soul: In a cemetery, Jack learns his lesson. (In an Out of Bottle story) the theme is the lesson. He’s the king of Halloween only. And he’s messed everything up. Now that he’s seen the error of his ways, does he still have time to set things right?

Jack has learned his lesson.

Jack has learned his lesson.

Break into Two: Jack Skellington returns from Christmas Town and calls a town meeting. He tries to explain the joy he felt in the new place, but the folks of Halloween Town don’t understand the “Christmas feeling” Jack is trying to relay.

Jack attempts to convey the joys of Christmas to Halloweeners.

Jack attempts to convey the joys of Christmas to Halloweeners.

Break into Three: Jack Skellington, finally realizing his true purpose, decides he is the one and only Pumpkin King and that he can’t wait for next Halloween (as he’ll “really make ‘em scream”). He must return “Sandy Claws” back to his world.

Jack has realized his true purpose once again—as The Pumpkin King!

Jack has realized his true purpose once again—as The Pumpkin King!

Read Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas Beat Sheet.

Hopefully, if you’re putting a novel or screenplay idea together, recognizing these mirror beats from Act One and Act Two may help you to create a symmetry to your story’s framework that turns it into a rock-solid structure—that connective tissue—that makes your story resonate with audiences.

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If you enjoyed reading this article on beat sheets—comment below and share it. Also, let me know what other topics, or Monster in the House movies, that you would like me to cover.

 

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Don Roff

About the Author

About the Author: Award-winning author Don Roff has written nearly 20 books, primarily scary, for children and adults. His bestselling books include Werewolf Tales, Terrifying Tales, Ghost Hauntings: America’s Most Haunted Places published by Scholastic, and Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection published by Chronicle Books/Simon & Schuster UK, and Snowblind from Brambleberry Books (in pre-production for an adapted film). His book, Clare at 16, will be available in late 2019; the adapted film will star Madelaine Petsch (Riverdale) as the eponymous Clare. He has won several awards for his screenwriting, including the 2006 PNWA Zola Award for Screenwriting. He first discovered Save the Cat! in 2008 when he wrote Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection, which he attributes to its ongoing success. Roff served in the 3rd Ranger Battalion in Fort Benning, Georgia. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. His darkly humorous and suspenseful radio anthology, Darkside Drive, is available as a podcast on iTunes. Visit him on his website, on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook — and buy Snowblind on Amazon. .

There Are 6 Comments

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  1. tobias says:

    Hi, Although a book ,not a movie, I think Kelly Barnhill’s “The Girl Who drank the moon may have a uniquest structure; with some of the best “Bookend Images” It would be both useful and interesting to hear your take on it. Thanks.

  2. Bec says:

    Fantastic article! Thanks!

  3. Gord says:

    Don, I am so thankful for people like you, who care enough about the rest of us that you would take the time to do this sort of work. Blessings to you my friend and to all those who have come before you and all who will come after.

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