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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.
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
Stories are divided into Acts, Acts into Sequences, Sequences into Scenes, and Scenes into Beats. Robert McKee uses the word "beat" differently than it is 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."  Here is an example from Wes Anderson's Rushmore (script is edited to reflect the original script and final film version)
INT. MISS CROSS' CLASSROOM. DAY Max is staring at Miss Cross in a trance from a desk opposite hers in the empty classroom. She looks up at him. He continues to stare at her as if she were a statue. Miss Cross rubs her eyes and sighs. She sets down her red pen. She looks back to Max. He is still staring at her. [BEAT 1--Miss Cross tries to deter Max] MISS CROSS Max? MAX Uh-huh? MISS CROSS Can I ask you something? MAX Sure. MISS CROSS Has it ever crossed your mind that you're far too young for me? Max looks up. Miss Cross smiles faintly. Silence. MAX It's crossed my mind that you might consider that a possibility, yes. MISS CROSS Quite apart from the fact that you're a student— [BEAT 2--Max puts her on the defensive] MAX I'm not trying to pressure you into anything, Miss Cross. I'm surprised you brought it up so bluntly. MISS CROSS I just want to make sure— MAX We've become friends haven't we? MISS CROSS Yes. MAX Good. Max thinks for a second, then presses on: [BEAT 3--Max presses on] MAX And, um, the truth is neither one of us has the slightest idea where this relationship is going. We can't predict the future. MISS CROSS We don't have a relationship, Max. MAX But we're friends. MISS CROSS Yes. And that's all we're going to be. MAX That's what I mean by relationship. You want me to grab a dictionary? MISS CROSS I just want to make sure we understand each other. MAX (defeated) I understand. You're not attracted to me. C'est la vie. MISS CROSS Max. You're fifteen-years old. Attraction doesn't enter into it. [BEAT 4--Miss Cross softens] MAX If you say so. Look, all I'm getting at is I've never met anyone like you. So you can take that for whatever it's worth. She thinks about this for a minute. MISS CROSS I think I can safely say I've never met anyone like you either. MAX You haven't, have you? MISS CROSS (shakes her head) [BEAT 5--Max wins] MAX (quietly) You want to shake hands? She puts out her hand and they shake hands across the desk. But they don't let go. They just look at each other. MAX I'm glad we had this conversation. MISS CROSS So am I. They finally let go of each other's hands. Miss Cross looks away. She's not exactly sure what they just decided.
This scene is created with 5 beats; Miss Cross tries to deter Max from pursuing her. Max turns the tables, putting her on the defensive. She backs down a tad, and he presses on. She softens, compliments him. Max wins, practically getting her to hold hands, and the relationship moves to another stage.
- McKee, pgs 35-38
- Id. at 38.
- Rushmore, Dir. Wes Anderson, 1998, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0128445/