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.
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.