This structure occurs when two (or more, e.g. ψ-loop) segments of a polypeptide chain overlap one another and form a row of hydrogen bonds with each other. This can happen in a parallel arrangement:
Or in anti-parallel arrangement:
Parallel and anti-parallel arrangement is the direct consequence of the directionality of the polypeptide chain. In anti-parallel arrangement, the C-terminus end of one segment is on the same side as the N-terminus end of the other segment. In parallel arrangement, the C-terminus end and the N-terminus end are on the same sides for both segments. The "pleat" occurs because of the alternating planes of the peptide bonds between amino acids; the aligned amino and carbonyl group of each opposite segment alternate their orientation from facing towards each other to facing opposite directions.
The parallel arrangement is less stable because the geometry of the individual amino acid molecules forces the hydrogen bonds to occur at an angle, making them longer and thus weaker. Contrarily, in the anti-parallel arrangement the hydrogen bonds are aligned directly opposite each other, making for stronger and more stable bonds.
Commonly, an anti-parallel beta-pleated sheet forms when a polypeptide chain sharply reverses direction. This can occur in the presence of two consecutive proline residues, which create an angled kink in the polypeptide chain and bend it back upon itself. This is not necessary for distant segments of a polypeptide chain to form beta-pleated sheets, but for proximal segments it is a definite requirement. For short distances, the two segments of a beta-pleated sheet are separated by 4+2n amino acid residues, with 4 being the minimum number of residues.