A writer friend of mine emailed asking me to better describe what is a screenwriting “beat.” Here’s the skinny.
This is actually a point of confusion for many people, and I recall it was very confusing to me when I started at film school because there are actually three kinds of beats, but people just use the word, “beat.” You are supposed to know which kind of beat they’re referring to from the context.
My understanding is when people say “beat,” they are referring to one of three types of beats:
1. Story Beat (Plotting)
2. Emotional Beat (Character Arc)
3. Reversal (Emotional Beat Within a Scene)
Let’s investigate these more closely.
1. Story Beat (Plotting)
Story beats are the points of action upon which you hang your basic story. When you connect the actual individual action points, they build up to story, like a puzzle.
These are the story moments that are the X happens, and then Y happens… and then Z happens… and on. For example, X character kills Y character’s mother. It is only natural that Y character would need to take revenge, and so this is the basis of your story. It is the basic ‘if, then’ equation. If this happens, then that happens. Action and reaction.
Since I’ve beated it out for you already, let’s investigate The Wedding Planner. The actual inciting incident (1st major story beat) for Mary in the A story is when she declares she wants to become partner. It is ultimately this goal that drives her choices throughout the story – if she doesn’t continue on with the wedding, she won’t reach that goal. Despite the fact she falls in love with the groom.
When you start to outline your story beats and then create a beat sheet (scene-by-scene outline) of your story, you should start by identifying the six major beats, and work in and out from there:
Act 1 Break (Plot Point 1)
Midpoint (Mid-Point of the Act 2, which takes us into the second half of Act 2)
Act 2 Break (Plot Point 2)
Some people talk of the critical seven and/or eight beats. That might include at the end an Aftermath, which is the newly established normal world. The Aftermath is important, but I think once you hit the Climax, the Aftermath (while necessary to write in) is pretty much self-explanatory.
2. Emotional Beat (Character Arc)
The physical action of story creates an emotional reaction within your character, and these are the emotional beats. The moments of emotional reaction that then show us what motivates the next action within the character. When you connect all of the emotional beats within the story, you can clearly outline the character arc (or, loveless woman finds love; materialistic jerk becomes kind-hearted, etc.).
For example (totally making this up), if an inciting incident is that Joe was expecting he was going to get the promotion at his corporate high-powered job, and he instead gets fired, and while walking home he’s struck by lightning and should have died but doesn’t (that’s the plot), the emotional beat is him feeling that he didn’t die for a reason – and that reason is so he can become a Televangelist and spread God’s word. So, then, the rest of the story would be about him becoming a Televangelist – which, because he’s such a materialistic douche, might start out as more of a money scheme, but then it will evolve into something where he really intimately works with and helps people. It is the particular circumstance of that individual character that would choose that emotional outcome from that situation. One character might feel they should have died, another might feel they were saved by God, and yet another might decide to live their life in service of others.
Going back to The Wedding Planner, the emotional beat inciting incident scene (in the romantic comedy this is the B love story) comes when her own Father tells her he’s “found somebody who’s agreed to marry her.” Of course, she’s horrified and literally runs out of the room. But, the minute we get this scene, we know this story on the emotional level is going to be about her finding a husband whom she loves.
3. Reversal (emotional beat within a scene)
This is the beat that is used within a scene (so, a specific moment within a scene) when there is an emotional reversal.
Sometimes writers (although I find this lazy) simply write on the page, “beat,” within the scene to indicate there is a significant emotional turning point. I don’t recommend it. This is where you should insert a well-placed action line into the dialogue, so we know there is a beat there. In most cases, unless there is a specific reversal beat within the scene, you do not need to break up the dialogue with action lines (unless there is a lot of physical action within the scene). Although, I have read scripts where this is the style/voice of the writer, and in some cases, it has worked.
An example: (again, totally making shit up here) character Y feels one way about the fact that character X killed his Mother (something akin to “Die, Motherfucker!”). However, within one confrontation (say scene where Y holds a gun to X and is about to blow his brains out), character X might inform character Y that the Mother had, years before, blown up his village and that Y is really X’s brother (silly, but bear with me). When Y learns that X is his own brother – and that the Mother had been corrupt – this is a major emotional turning point within the scene, and will likely make Y rethink his motivations (and not kill X). It is specifically that moment wherein Y rethinks everything, everything is in a new light, that is the beat (reversal) within this scene.
If we look at The Wedding Planner, a good example of this kind of beat (although I am quite sure the writers did not write “beat” on the page) was when all of a sudden Steve professes his love for Mary after they ran into her ex-fiancé and she got wasted. It’s a bittersweet moment, because although she knows and we know she loves him, he’s getting married to another woman. She could reciprocate – but instead she closes the door in his face. However, that is a major emotional beat/turning point within the scene – will she reciprocate? It’s a great emotional moment for this character.
Don’t forget, ideally every scene should both contain a story beat and a character beat (the behavior choice/action will expose character). In some instances, the main thrust of the scene will be the emotional beat underscored with a nice story beat (i.e., Mary running away from the father’s groom choice. The primary thrust of this storyline is her emotional condition, whereas in the A story, the primary thrust is her accomplishing the goal). And any major six beat scene (except perhaps the Normal World and/or Aftermath) should have some kind of reversal within the scene, which spins the plotting into a new direction.