Beat (filmmaking)

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A beat is the timing and movement of a film or play. It is an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal. It is a unit of script analysis representing the smallest defined action in a play script, typically an exchange of behaviour between characters in a script. It usually takes the form of action-reaction. Each scene of the story progresses beat by beat, with the characters advancing the action in this, the smallest element of story structure.

A beat is also a pause in dialogue written as [beat] in a screenplay.

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.

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.


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 first defines a scene not as action occurring in one place but as action "that turns the value-charged condition of a character's life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance". He describes the Beat as "the smallest element of structure...(Not to be confused 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".[1] He further describes beats as "distinctively different behaviors, . . . clear changes of action/reaction." [2]

Beats as pauses in dialogue[edit]

A beat is also a short pause, written as [beat], within a column of dialogue in a script.[3]


  1. ^ McKee, pgs 35-38
  2. ^ Id. at 38.
  3. ^ Id. at 37.


  • Decker, Dan, Anatomy of A Screenplay, 1988, ISBN 0-9665732-0-X
  • McKee, Robert, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, 1997, New York, Harper Collins, ISBN 0-06-039168-5

Further reading[edit]