The Beat Sheet, Act I
Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Blake Snyder begins his beat sheet with a single image. “The very first impression of what a movie is — its tone, its mood, the type and scope of the film — are all found in the opening image.”4 Writers can use the opening to establish the environment or to center the protagonist, or to illuminate some other aspect of the protagonist’s world. Whatever element the writer chooses to focus on should be something integral to either the story or the theme. This sets the audience’s expectations, and the rest of the story follows from the opening naturally.
The opening image of The Last of Us focuses on Sarah, the adolescent daughter of the protagonist, Joel. When the scene begins, the camera is focused on Sarah as she sleeps on the couch. Once her position and state are established, the camera pans to Joel, who is in the middle of a terse phone conversation about a job he can’t afford to lose. This shot lays the groundwork for both the story and the relationship between Joel and Sarah, which forms the core of Joel’s character. As things stand in the opening, Joel is stressed by the complexities of a busy job, but Sarah is still willing to wait up for him. They are the only two characters present; they are each other’s world.
Snyder’s second beat is the Statement of the Theme. “Whether you’re writing a comedy, a drama, or a sci-fi monster picture,” he states, “a good movie has to be “about something.” And the place to stick what your movie is about is right up front.”5 Sometimes, this is accomplished through dialogue; other times, it is accomplished by symbolic imagery. Regardless of how the idea is conveyed, it should occur throughout the narrative repeatedly, contextualizing the events within a greater question.
The Last of Us touches on several themes, including the importance of companionship and the needs of the group versus the needs of the individual, but one of the most pervasive themes is the inevitable passage of time. As the characters are impacted by traumas, they refuse to acknowledge their pain, but the passage of time inevitably forces them to confront their wounds. This theme is introduced in the opening scene when Sarah gives Joel a watch for his birthday. Joel’s joke that the watch is stuck foreshadows his own emotional state later in the narrative when he is stuck in his own past. From this point forward, the watch will continue to be an important symbol throughout the narrative as it reinforces the motif of time and the theme of its inevitable passage.
The Set-Up encompasses the series of scenes that establish the protagonist, their world, and their needs. According to Snyder, “…[This] is the make-or-break section where you have to grab me or risk losing my interest…And when there’s something that our hero wants or is lacking, this is the place to stick [it].”6 Like the Need step in Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, this is the essential plot point that establishes not only the protagonist’s world but what is missing from it.
In The Last of Us, the Set-Up phase encompasses the sequence of scenes from the initial disease outbreak to the dismal aftermath twenty years in the future. Each scene in the sequence is necessary to demonstrate what Joel’s world was before the outbreak, how it changed, and what he lost. On a global level, Joel suffers through the outbreak of a zombifying fungus and the resulting collapse of society; on a personal level, he loses his daughter. During the initial outbreak, Joel attempted to flee his hometown with Sarah and his brother, Tommy, but their attempt failed when border guards shot Sarah in Joel’s arms. Twenty years after her death, Joel has been unable to move on. Tommy has left Joel behind to join a government resistance group known as the Fireflies, and Joel refuses to get attached to anyone else. He is a man alone, one whose only goal is to survive from one day to the next. The only way he’s willing to acknowledge his late daughter is by wearing the watch she gave him all those years ago, but time has been cruel: the watch has broken, leaving it stuck.
Snyder’s Catalyst beat is the moment when an outside force throws the protagonist’s ordinary world into upheaval. It is analogous to the Three-Act Structure’s Inciting Incident and the Story Circle’s Go step. Snyder elaborates on the relationship between the Set-Up and the Catalyst by saying: “In the set-up you, the screenwriter, have told us what the world is like and now in the catalyst moment you knock it all down. Boom!”7 The Catalyst beat can take many forms, like the return of an old friend or the introduction of a new enemy, but the many manifestations all have at least one thing in common: they force the protagonist out of their comfort zone and into a new situation.
When The Last of Us begins its Catalyst beat, Joel has formed an uneasy alliance with another outbreak survivor named Tess. Together, they’ve been buying and selling weapons in the Boston Quarantine Zone, but their most recent shipment has gone missing. When they learn that the weapons have fallen into the hands of the Fireflies, they strike a deal with the chapter’s leader, Marlene. To get their weapons back, Joel and Tess must smuggle a young girl named Ellie out of the Quarantine Zone and bring her to the Capitol Building, where other members of the Fireflies will be waiting. Those weapons are essential to Joel and Tess’s continued survival, which means they don’t have a choice. To get back what he has lost, Joel must take a risk and step outside of his comfort zone.
The Debate beat is the plot point where the protagonist is given an opportunity to turn back. Sometimes, the protagonist airs their own doubts; other times, their allies are the ones to raise the objections. In Snyder’s view, “It’s the last chance for the hero to say: This is crazy. And we need him or her to realize that.”8 He further distills the beat down to its core by saying the Debate “must ask a question of some kind.” Typically,9 the question has two parts: ‘What will happen if I stay?’ and ‘What will happen if I go?’ These two opposing answers form the core of the Debate, and choosing a side gives the protagonist the necessary resolve to progress into Act Two.
In The Last of Us, the Debate beat occurs after Joel and Tess agree to take Ellie to the Capitol. When Joel, Tess, and Ellie are confronted by Quarantine Zone guards, a routine scan reveals that Ellie has been infected with the zombifying fungus. Joel is furious, believing he’s been deceived, but then Ellie reveals that she was infected over three weeks ago, well past the point where she should have turned. This miraculous immunity represents much-needed hope for humanity, and the only way to realize that hope is to bring Ellie to the Capitol. While Joel doesn’t believe Ellie’s story, he’s still confronted with two important questions: “What will happen if I believe her?” and “What will happen if I don’t?” Tess resolves the debate by pointing out that they’ve already come this far, so they might as well go all the way. Joel begrudgingly agrees, which gives him the resolve he needs to continue on his journey.
Break Into Two
Like the Three-Act Structure’s First Turning Point, Snyder’s Break Into Two represents the crossing of the threshold between Acts One and Two. Snyder describes this point by referring back to previous beats, saying: “As discussed [in Catalyst and Debate], the act break is the moment where we leave the old world, the thesis statement, behind and proceed into a world that is the upside-down version of that, its antithesis. But because these two worlds are so distinct, the act of actually stepping into Act Two must be definite.”10 This definite step represents a point of no return for the protagonist; even if he is physically able to return to his home, he has already changed too much to resume the life he once knew.
In The Last of Us, the Break Into Two occurs when Joel and Tess reach the Capitol with Ellie to find that the Fireflies stationed there have moved on. Joel is ready to turn back, but Tess wants to head out west, where Tommy is hiding out with another chapter of the Fireflies. When Joel protests, Tess reveals she’s been infected and has limited time before the sickness sets in. Rather than become a zombie, she volunteers to hold off the approaching guards, effectively committing suicide while buying Joel and Ellie time to escape. With the guards advancing and nothing left at home, Joel and Ellie agree to continue west, crossing the threshold between the old and the new.
4 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 72). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
5 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 74). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
6 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 75). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
7 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 76). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
8 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 77). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
9 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 77). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
10 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat (p. 79). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Run: GameCin. The LAST OF US 1 REMASTERED Full Movie All Cutscenes Story [4K-60FPS]. YouTube, 2019.
** Reference Script: The Last of Us Wiki. The Last of Us script. FANDOM Games Community, 2021.