Beat (filmmaking)

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A beat is the timing and movement of a film or play. In the context of a screenplay, it usually represents a pause in dialogue. In the context of the timing of a film, a beat refers to an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal.

Beats as pacing elements[edit]

Beats are specific, measured, and spaced to create a pace that moves the progress of the story forward. Audiences feel uneven or erratic beats. Uneven beats are the most forgettable or sometimes tedious parts of a film. Erratic beats jolt the audience unnecessarily. Every cinematic genre has a beat that is specific to its development. Action film has significantly more beats (usually events); drama has fewer beats (usually protagonist decisions or discovery). Between each beat a sequence occurs. This sequence is often a series of scenes that relates to the last beat and leads up to the next beat.

In most American films the beat falls approximately every five minutes. Following is a beat example from The Shawshank Redemption:

  • At 25 minutes: Andy talks to Red and asks for rock hammer. - Decision
  • At 30 minutes: Andy gets rock hammer. - Event
  • At 35 minutes: Andy risks his life to offer financial advice to Mr. Hadley. - Decision
  • At 40 minutes: Andy notes ease of carving his name in the wall. - Discovery

After each beat listed above, a significant series of results takes place in the form of the sequence, but what most people remember are the beats, the moment something takes place with the protagonist.

Beats in a screenplay[edit]

In screenplays, a beat is also a pause in dialogue. The pause shows readers of the script that a moment passes without any character speaking. For example, this scene from the American film Fargo:

               Things have changed.  Circumstances,
               Jerry.  Beyond the, uh ... acts of
               God, force majeure...
               What the - how's Jean?
               A beat.
               ...  Who's Jean?
               My wife!  What the - how's -