Breaking Story: The Six Major Beats

Generally, when people begin the outline process or look more specifically at the structure of any given script, they look closely at the six beats. In film school, it was explained to us that these are the major “tent pole” story points – the major points of story upon which you hang the rest of your story (or tent). These are the big, important ones, and usually indicate major reversals that both keep the action going and keep the reader turning the page. They coincide with page count, like markers.

The six beats include the following:

1. Normal World
2. Inciting Incident
3. Act 1 Break (Plot Point 1)
4. Midpoint (Mid-Point of the Act 2, which takes us into the second half of Act 2)
5. Act 2 Break (Plot Point 2)
6. Climax (Resolution)

Let’s explore each of the six beats in detail (working on a 100 page scale):

1. Normal World
* Pages 1 until Inciting Incident (not to exceed page 10)
The before. The “day in the life” before your character undergoes change. It is important in screenplay to see this because this is the benchmark to set the beginning of the character arc (where they will grow from). However, look to specific genre conventions to see how thoroughly this needs to be established (a couple of scenes vs. 10 pages).

2. Inciting Incident
* Around page 10, can come sooner
This is the real beginning of your story. The incident that spins the protagonist out of the normal world and begins the story. In The Wedding Planner, for Mary, it was two fold: her wanting the promotion to partner (the external goal) and her father announcing that he’d “found someone who agreed to marry her” in the Italian man (the love story).

3. Act 1 Break (Plot Point 1)
* To fall close to page 25
This is where the protagonist makes clear choices to further raise dramatic stakes that push him even further on his journey. He should be well within the new world post inciting incident. This spins the story in a direction whereupon the protagonist makes concrete choices to pursue the new goal.

4. Midpoint (Mid-Point of the Act 2, which takes us into the second half of Act 2)
* To fall close to page 50
A major story beat that again raises the dramatic stakes and pushes the hero to a new height within the journey.

5. Act 2 Break (Plot Point 2)
* To fall close to page 75
The point of no return. The lowest moment for your protagonist – the moment where he feels like a failure, like he won’t achieve his goal. All is lost.

6. Climax (Resolution)
* Usually a sequence; To fall within Act 3 between pages 85-95
The final confrontation, obstacle or conflict your protagonist must overcome in order to fulfill the goal to reach the end of the journey.

And, just as we have the normal world, it is nice always to include a couple of scenes in the New World, or the Aftermath, just to reinforce the character arc and put a button on the story (pages 90 to 100 or less).

A note about page count. I know many readers are sticklers for hitting the exact page count within any given section of story, but I personally don’t care so much if one hits the inciting incident on page 10 so much as knowing that this particular story beat is present and timely. If you hit the inciting incident after page ten, I will be wondering what your story is (and likely if there is any story at all). However, if you hit the inciting incident on page 2, then, alright, let’s roll. However, if by page 25 I don’t see the act 1 break, then I will be wondering what’s going on and why the author hasn’t raised the stakes. It depends on each individual case, but it is more about increasing the dramatic stakes and keeping the story moving forward with an exciting pace. A good story is a good story – but most well-written screenplays will hit these markers and I won’t even consciously think about it during the read.

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2 Responses to Breaking Story: The Six Major Beats

  1. pat August 26, 2010 at 11:13 am #

    What are your thoughts on structuring a short film – say 10 to 15 minutes long? Would you break it down into the basic three act, or work from this?

  2. Monica August 28, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    I’ll write something longer on the short film, but I personally think shorts work best when focused on one incident that either is life changing or has significant impact in the characters’ lives. It should have a beginning, middle and end. So, this would work out to the normal world, the changing event, and the aftermath/resolution. In a short, you don’t have the time to cover the same arc of material you would in a longer piece, so it works best to have that one incident be something quite shocking with specific dramatic stakes.