Q&A: On Screenplay Beats: Examples of Beats in Scenes

Dennis L. writes:
I’m a screenwriting neophyte and if you could, please, give an example of a scene outline? I think I’m over-thinking what constitutes how a “beat” should read in a scene.

This comment is in reference to my article on the types of screenplay beats.

Monica says:
Okay, so let’s discuss how a “beat,” or emotional reversal, works within a scene.

A beat within a scene is something simple: There is a change of emotion. The character believes the scene is going one way, but then something happens or information is exposed that changes how the character feels within the scene.

Let’s take this (fictional) example: I enter a room to give a pitch having information that the exec is going to buy my pitch – I’m excited and over-confident. However, when I arrive, a different exec is taking the pitch. Not a good sign. I realize I might have been given bad information, which makes me concerned. Half way through the pitch, the exec zones out. I then realize that not only am I not going to sell this pitch, I understand that this exec thinks my writing sucks.

This scene starts with the character feeling confident and excited, and within a few minutes the character’s hopes have been dashed and she is devastated. That’s the emotional beat of this scene.

Another example: I’m thinking back to The Ring Two, which I saw recently. In essence, the mother’s son is possessed by the spirit of the evil girl from the well. The mom has been out trying to figure out a way to save her son, whom she believes is in danger of being murdered by the evil spirit – but then when she arrives home to tell her son what she’s been doing to try to protect him, he does something totally out of character, and she then understands that it’s not her son at all but her son’s body has been possessed by the spirit. She’s been trying to emotionally hold it together and then she realizes she’s already lost. She goes into her bedroom, collapses to the floor and cries.

To be clear, when I outline a whole screenplay, I would “beat out” that script in a comprehensive outline, or “beat sheet.” Main story beats would incorporate story points, such as “Sally goes to the market and meets Reynaldo, her new lover” or “The captain makes a kamikaze move and runs his spaceship into the enemy craft (thus enabling his crew to escape in pods).”

The emotional beats are the emotional shifts that happen within the scenes themselves. So, with that second example of the captain, as in Star Trek’s opening sequence, he believes at first that he, too, can escape in a pod – but then with a technical malfunction, he realizes that he must sacrifice himself in order to save his wife and newborn baby. The emotional beat is the moment he realizes that he must essentially kill himself to save his newborn son. This then perfectly sets up the world into which this kid was born, his stock, and we’re fascinated to meet Captain Kirk.

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5 Responses to Q&A: On Screenplay Beats: Examples of Beats in Scenes

  1. Melissa J White February 6, 2010 at 9:34 pm #

    Thanks for the clarity and examples, Monica. When you beat out a feature, how many pages do you find it turns out to be, generally?

  2. Monica February 6, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    Melissa, I’m posting an article next week on scenes in a screenplay and will write a follow-up article on the basics of outlining.

    Of course, I would say it’s all genre dependent, however when I write a treatment (prose outline of the story), I try to make it no shorter than 12 pages, with 15 to 20 pages being ideal. I have found that if I have less than 12 pages in my treatment, I will be short on material in the script.

    If I take that treatment and break it into a beat sheet (a scene-by-scene outline of the script, generally written in Final Draft or the screenwriting software of your preference), which for me includes scene headings, I usually then go to the page with at least 20-25 pages of material. So, that way, in a first draft, when I actually start writing out the scenes, I actually have a ton of material already there that I’m working from.

  3. Hec May 5, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    Dear Monica,

    Explain the following differences and at time they would be used:

    Outline

    Beat sheet

    Synopsis

    Treatment

    Which ones of the above would contain nuances that explain or hint at motovation, and which ones would not? Can I assume that they are industry standard practice so that when producer “A” or producer “B” asks for a beat sheet or a synopsis they all expect the same thing?

    Thanks,

    Hec

  4. Monica May 13, 2010 at 12:17 am #

    Hec, I’ll try to write more about this, but people joke about many of these terms being used by professionals interchangeably – so the best thing to do is just to ask someone, very specifically, what they want you to deliver.

    In very general terms:

    A beat sheet is a scene-by-scene outline of the screenplay. Usually to include scene headings and then a very short paragraph (or few sentences) explaining the critical story and character beats of the scenes. It is an outlining tool for the writer.

    A synopsis is generally a prose paragraph, one page, three page, five page (or other) shorthand of your story. It should include the major story markers (major story beats), identify in prose what happens in each part of your story (act 1, 2, 3), and capture the spirit of your protagonist (and other major characters) and his/her character arc. A synopsis is generally read by someone who is unfamiliar with your story so they can get a grasp on what story you’re telling.

    A treatment is a very detailed synopsis, the length of which will depend on who has requested it and how much detail they need. Treatments can be ten pages or thirty, depending. They are also prose and are sort of a mini-novella of the script. They should contain a lot more information about your story, plot, characters, location, etc., than would be in the synopsis, but probably wouldn’t include every single beat.

    An outline is a general term that may include components of a synopsis or treatment.

    I’m not sure every producer uses all of these terms to indicate something specific. Producer “A” might ask for a “treatment,” and Producer “B” might ask for an “outline,” but they both might want essentially the same thing. In any case, I would ask that producer very specifically what they want and how many pages they’re expecting.

    However, in each one, your character arc should be clear and your basic story should also be very clear. Your protag’s motivation and character arc should be just as obvious in a synopsis as it would be in a treatment or beat sheet.

  5. clee March 26, 2011 at 10:08 am #

    Very nicely explained and very, very, useful. I don’t know if I light just went off or you just wrote it very clearly. But I do know, wam! I love what you said so clearly.