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.

McKee[edit]

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 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".[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]

Notes[edit]

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

References[edit]

  • 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]