Writing

What are Beats in screenwriting?

The smallest unit of a story is a beat. The story is divided into multiple sequences and each of these sequences has 1, 2, or 3 beats. The scenes in a story, a play or a movie are made up of momentary acting units which are called beats.

The primary function of a beat in screenwriting is to propel the story forward and leave within the audience a curiosity to guess what could happen next in the story. Overall, a beat in screenwriting is the the smallest unit that pursues the simplest objective.

The term ‘beat’ could hold different meanings when used in different contexts. It could either mean a pause when we talk about a dialogue in screenwriting. But in theatrical terms, saying just a pause is not very descriptive. A pause could be combined with any emotion or gesture or situation. So, any kind of gesture or a facial expression that is a part of the script which in a way indicates a pause, indirectly, is a beat.

Types of beat in screenwriting

As we just saw a beat could have different meaning in different perspectives. So, to make it a little easier, here we have a list of types of beats or examples of beats that one may usually find in a screenwriting.

  1. Realizations – These are the moments in a story where the character expresses a brief subtle moment of realizing what has happened. With the help of the information they have, upon realizing, the character does a beat or you can say a small pause to indicate making a decision based on the incident.
  1. Events – A story has a plot line which offers various situations of different kinds or events to a character. The character then has to react accordingly to make sense of that event. He or she expresses their views, desires and feelings with the help of beats in such events. Sometimes, such beats are enough to interact with the secondary characters or to advance the plot line further.
  1. Resolutions – These beats of resolutions come up much early in a story and tend to decide the plot line. These stem from a character’s internal desire to change his status or try something different. For example, ‘How to make friends in a week’ is a desire or a resolution made in the beginning of a story which determines the entire plot. Such resolution beats are also small gestures and pauses which impact the screenwriting.
  1. Interactions – This is another type of a beat in screenwriting that arises out of interactions in a story. As throughout the course of a plot, a character encounters several antagonists and allies which add a new dimension and direction to the story. Even a minor dialogue exchange impacts the story greatly. These interactions have the power to even change the outcome of the rest if the story.

Beat Sheet in a screenplay

A beat sheet is kind of an outlining that authors and screenwriters use for their story. It is short and concise with bullet points instead of long sentences. These bullet points are the beats that add the emotion points and other pivotal points in the screenplay.

Basically, a beat sheet is a list of all the actions and emotions, pauses and gestures that have to be performed in the scenes of a screenplay.

It is not very difficult to create a beat sheet. You could either divide a sheet of paper as per the number of scenes or use a whiteboard and put your beats in the form of a diagram or you could even use outlining tools on your computer to arrange your beats.

Read more: Types of Screenwriting Structures for Screenwriters

How can we create a beat sheet?

Every story might be different but the same process can be followed to create your beat sheet. Divide the story into three or five parts or acts and move the story through these acts with the help of beats. Lets look at some of the story beats which can be a part of your screenwriting as well.

  1. Opening Image: It is a short scene that the people will first see. Make it interesting and exciting as only this will make the audience stick till the end.
  2. Introduction: Use 1-3 beats to clearly depict who your main character is and what she wants. Set the focus on what people can expect from the plot.
  3. Catalyst: This sets the tone for the entire movie or the character. The extremes are defined here. Either the character is set out to achieve everything or nothing at all at this very point in a beat sheet.
  4. Debate: It is not very practical for a character to find a path and start moving on it. There has to be some debate, some getting lost in way, some finding the purpose or what is needed.
  5. B-Plot: Just like ‘Plan B’ in life, we could introduce a secondary plot once the first act is over. As at this point the audience knows the character, the story, his journey. So, it would be a great time to introduce other things that will somehow affect his path.
  6. Climax: Every story has a climax which is the most interesting and exciting part of the screenplay. Everything seems to make sense and connected at this point and now the story is at a point where the character is getting an outcome or close to it.

These are some of the beats that must be included in a beat sheet to make screenwriting easier and better.

Conclusion

So, whether you aspire to be a famous director or an independent film-maker, good knowledge of beats and beat sheet in screenwriting is a must have and should never be undermined. Beats are the building blocks in screenwriting as they add up to scenes, which become acts that become stories. Even though their meaning could change in reference to context and timing, their practical application stays the same. Beats have the power to turn a scene upside down, make it emotional, aggressive, painful or incredibly happy. It needs practice and a wide imagination along with a sense of perfect ending to successfully incorporate beats in screenwriting.

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