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Understanding Story Beats in Screenwriting

In the world of screenwriting, where the battle for the audience’s attention is fierce, understanding the concept of story beats is akin to wielding a powerful tool. These beats are the heart and soul of a screenplay, dictating its rhythm, pacing, and emotional flow. But what exactly are story beats, and how can you, as a screenwriter, utilize them to craft narratives that not only tell a story but tell it compellingly? Let’s unravel these questions together.

What Are Story Beats?

At its core, a story beat is a significant moment in a narrative that propels the story forward. Think of them as the stepping stones across the river of your screenplay, guiding the audience through the journey of your characters and the evolution of your plot. Each beat is a marker of change, whether it’s an action taken, a decision made, or a revelation realized, that collectively ensures the narrative progresses in a meaningful way.

Why Do They Matter?

In the realm of screenwriting, story beats are indispensable. They serve multiple purposes:

  • Structure: They provide a skeleton for your screenplay, helping to organize your narrative into a coherent, engaging story.
  • Pacing: Properly placed beats keep the narrative moving at the right pace, ensuring that the story unfolds neither too quickly nor too sluggishly.
  • Emotional Engagement: Beats are pivotal in creating emotional highs and lows, making the audience feel connected to the characters and invested in their journeys.

What are the different types of beats?

Now, not all beats are created equally, but they all add up in the end. We’ll be talking about beats in a scene, beats in dialogue, and beats in a structural act.

The Terminator aiming a gun in the club from the movie scene

Scene Beats

Alright, let’s let’s break down the iconic police station scene from “The Terminator.” Here’s how the beats play out within that scene, using our flavorful ingredients metaphor:

  1. The scene begins with the Terminator entering the police station under the guise of asking about Sarah Connor. This moment sets the stage, serving as the appetizer that teases the intensity to come. This is the first beat of the scene: the appetizer.
  2. The next beat in the scene quickly escalates the tension, and the Terminator’s true intentions become clear. This beat is akin to adding spices to a dish, intensifying the flavor. The Terminator hits us with his famous line, “I’ll be back,” and a few moments later, he crashes through the door with a car, turning the heat up to max.
    Now we’re ready for the main course.
  3. This next beat is where the action really kicks off. The Terminator goes full beast mode at the police station, and it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of chaos. Imagine this as the best part of your meal, where every bite is more intense than the last.
  4. The next beat in the scene focuses on Kyle Reese doing his best to protect Sarah in the middle of this mess, showing off what he’s made of. Sarah is starting to realize that this night is way more than she bargained for. These moments are like perfectly seasoned side dishes that add depth to the meal, making the main course even better.
  5. Our final beat for this scene is the climax. Just when it feels like our heroes are about to be killed, they manage to slip away. It’s the moment that leaves you leaning back in your chair, full and satisfied but somehow already looking forward to leftovers. The immediate danger’s over, but you just know Sarah and Kyle have a long way to go.

Beats in Dialogue

A dialogue beat is like the secret sauce that gives a conversation flavor. It’s not just about the words being said; it’s about the pauses, actions, and unspoken emotions that happen between the lines.

Imagine two friends catching up over coffee, and one of them suddenly goes quiet, looks down at their cup, and lets out a sigh. That sigh? That’s a beat. It tells you there’s something more going on, something deeper than the casual chat suggests.

In screenwriting, dialogue beats play a big role in adding depth to the characters and moving the story forward without directly spelling everything out. They’re the moments that make you lean in a little closer because you know something important is being communicated, even if it’s not through words. These beats can show hesitation, realization, a change in thought, or an emotional shift, all contributing to the richness of the interaction.

Structural Story Beats

Structural beats in screenwriting, or any narrative form, are like the framework of a house. They are the key points or events within a story that guide the narrative from beginning to end, making sure everything progresses logically, maintains pace, and delivers a satisfying ending to the audience.

You can do this by just using a three-act or five-act structure in your story or creating what’s called a “beat sheet.” Both approaches will give you a roadmap of your story from beginning to end.

In a three-act structure, you’ll have something as simple as the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. Here’s what that looks like:

Act 1: Setup

  • Introduce the world and characters.
  • Present the catalyst or inciting incident.
  • Lead the protagonist to decide to face the challenge.

Act 2: Confrontation

  • Dive into the protagonist’s struggle against obstacles.
  • Midpoint reveals a major twist or deepens the conflict.
  • Things take a turn for the worst.

Act 3: Resolution

  • The protagonist finds a solution or makes a final effort to resolve the main conflict.
  • Climax where the outcome is decided.
  • Show the aftermath and how the characters have changed.

If we were to apply this to the movie The Terminator, it’d look something like this:

Act 1: Setup

  • World and Characters: Los Angeles, 1984. Sarah Connor’s ordinary life is about to change when a relentless killing machine from the future begins hunting her.
  • Catalyst or inciting incident: Sarah is attacked by the Terminator and is almost killed.
  • Decision: Kyle Reese, a soldier from the future, finds Sarah and convinces her of the danger she’s in. She decides to flee with him.

Act 2: Confrontation

  • Struggle: Sarah and Kyle are on the run, facing obstacles and escaping the Terminator whenever he appears.
  • Midpoint: Sarah learns she will be the mother of John Connor, the future resistance leader. She accepts her role in this larger narrative.
  • There’s a low point: The Terminator kills Kyle, and Sarah is left alone to fight.

Act 3: Resolution

  • Solution/Final Effort: Sarah lures the Terminator into a factory.
  • Climax: In a final showdown, Sarah crushes the Terminator in a hydraulic press. She has now survived the impossible and secured the future of her unborn son.
  • Aftermath: Sarah, now pregnant and forever changed, records messages for John, prepared for the future and her role as the mother of humanity’s hope.

A beat sheet would be a little bit more granular in spelling everything out. Two popular methods for creating a beat sheet are Save the Cat and Dan Harmon’s story circle.

Blake Snyder wrote Save the Cat, and this method is broken down into 15 specific beats. It is similar to what we just went over but a little more extensive.

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle adapts Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey into a more cyclical 8-point structure, emphasizing the protagonist’s transformation through a series of steps that mirror human psychology. The story starts with the character in their comfort zone. Then they want something, step into the unknown, struggle a bit, get what they want but at a cost, and finally come back home changed.

More on Structural Story Beats

To give you another example of how beats can be used on a story structure level, let’s consider a classic film, “The Godfather.” The screenplay masterfully utilizes story beats to create a compelling narrative:

Inciting Incident

Vito Corleone’s refusal to enter the drug business with Sollozzo sets the entire story in motion.

Midpoint

The assassination attempt on Vito Corleone drastically changes the direction of the story, shifting Michael’s path toward becoming the new Godfather.

Climax

The climax is Michael’s simultaneous execution of the heads of the five families and his consolidation of power, which resolves the core conflict.

How many story beats should a screenplay have?

The number of story beats can vary depending on the story’s complexity. However, it is crucial to understand and incorporate key structural beats like the inciting incident, midpoint, and climax.

Can a screenplay have too many story beats?

Yes, overloading a screenplay with too many significant moments can overwhelm the audience and dilute each beat’s impact. Balance is key.

Mastering Story Beats: A Screenwriter’s Toolbox

To harness the full potential of story beats, consider the following strategies:

  • Identify the Key Beats: Familiarize yourself with the major beats that are common in successful screenplays, such as the inciting incident, midpoint, climax, and resolution. Understanding these key moments can help you craft a well-structured story.
  • Map Out Your Beats: Before diving deep into writing, outline your screenplay’s major beats. This roadmap will guide your storytelling, ensuring that each scene contributes to the narrative progression.
  • Use Beats to Build Tension and Release: Strategically place your beats to build suspense and then provide relief. This ebb and flow keeps the audience engaged and emotionally invested.
  • Make Every Beat Count: Ensure that each beat serves a purpose, whether it reveals a character, advances the plot, or both. Consider reconsidering superfluous scenes that don’t serve the story’s progression or the characters’ development.
  • Be Flexible: While beats are essential, they’re not set in stone. Be open to rearranging, adding, or cutting beats as your story evolves. The scriptwriting process is dynamic, and sometimes, the best moments are those that surprise even the writer.

Crafting Your Masterpiece

As you embark on your screenwriting journey, remember that understanding and effectively utilizing story beats is foundational to crafting a narrative that resonates with audiences. Each beat is an opportunity to deepen the audience’s connection to your story, surprise them, move them, and leave them wanting more. Your screenplay is not just a story; it’s an experience guided by the beats you lay down, inviting the audience into the world you’ve created.

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Jay Carver

Jay Carver is a screenwriter, director and producer. Through his production company J-Style Films, he has done work for companies such as Turner Broadcasting. In the past, he has worked with Hollywood actor Omari Hardwick and won several film festivals including "Best Director".

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