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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
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.
- 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
Stories are divided into Acts, Acts into Sequences, Sequences into Scenes, and Scenes into Beats. Robert McKee uses the word "beat" differently from that described above. He describes the Beat as "the smallest element of structure...(Not to be confused with...an indication...meaning 'short pause')". He defines a Beat as: "an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. Beat by Beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene." Specifically, a scene will contain multiple beats, the clashes in the conflict, which build a scene to eventually turn the values of a character's life, called a "Story Event". He further describes beats as "distinctively different behaviors, . . . clear changes of action/reaction." 
- McKee, pgs 35-38
- Id. at 38.