Posted by: steveonfilm | March 28, 2011

Just Beat It

In the comments section today John asked:

“I’ve heard the term beats used, but don’t really know what it technically means.”

This is something that I see a lot of people having trouble getting their mind around. I think one of the reasons is because there is no exact definition of what “beat” means in regard to screenwriting and a screenplay.

Spookymilk’s reply to John sort of sums this up:

“Beats” is one of those terms that seems to mean something different to everyone in the business.

I remember the first time I encountered the term “beat.” It was in my Intermediate Video Production class at SCAD. The class was split into five or six groups, and we all had to shoot the same 5 page scene. On the script I saw the term “beat” a few times in the dialog. I had no idea what it meant. So I asked my professor.

Evidently, I wasn’t the only person to bring it up because shortly after breaking the class up, and me asking the question, he stopped class and started to talk a bit about it. I’m going to try to recreate what he said as best as my memory serves.

“So what’s a beat? Other than a funny little word that sticks out on the page? I like to relate it to music, because I love music. So I’m going to do that. A song has beats. A rhythm. It could be a four count. A three count. A six count. But it’s there, you can feel it no matter what the song is. Sometimes the beats speed up. Sometimes they slow down. Sometimes they stop. But there’s no rule that decides what beats go when and where.

A script is the same way. There’s a rhythm to a scene. To a movie. There’s big beats… like act one, two, and three. There’s medium beats, like a few action sequences. And there’s small beats… all the little segments you shoot that you edit together into a scene. They’re all beats.

Look at a race. There’s three big beats, the start of the race, the pit stops, and the end of the race. Each lap is it’s own beat. Each car is it’s own beat. Every engine is it’s own beat. Each piston is it’s own beat. The compression and exhaust movements are their own beats. A beat is a moment… big or small.

I got up and came to work today. I’m teaching this class. I’ve got two more. Then I’ll go home. Eat. Head to bed. Those are all beats. But you can break it down further… getting up and coming to work isn’t one thing, it’s a bunch of things.

My alarm went off. I threw back the covers. Stumbled over to the bathroom. Stepped on one of my kids toys on the way. Shaved. Showered. Ate breakfast. Watched some Sportscenter. Got in my car. Started the engine. Drove my car. Parked it. Walked into the building. Each one of those events is a beat. A moment.

Your scene might be a conversation between two lovers. In the whole this scene is one beat. But within the scene there are little beats. Actions. Dialog. Sometimes thing sputter, change pace… a pause before someone speaks. That’s a beat.”

What my professor tried to do, and I think most of us got it, was realize that “beat” was a term used to describe a unit. It’s like the unit of measurement for a movie, or script. Instead of having millimeters, centimeters, meters, and kilometers, we have one term that means all four of those. It’s a unit, big or small, that is specific to what it’s describing.

My scripts typically have 56 major beats. Each of those major beats might be composed of 2 or 3 smaller scenes which are each their own beat. Those scenes might have 15 or 16 beats to them, action lines or dialog, or pauses. You can drill down and up to an almost infinite degree. But it’s still a unit of measurement. And it’s up to the writer to make sure it all adds up to what it needs to be.

Hopefully that helps… but if not, at least I tried.

Until next time, keep writing!
-Steve

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Responses

  1. Try indeed you did 🙂 Alas I’m still a bit clueless. The definition of beat seems to be that there is not a true set definition as to duration. I am familiar with the concept in music. However in music I’m given a time signature to tell me how many beats in a particular measure (tempo?). As your professors example points out if you define an event as a beat then you have to consider that each event contains more beats. So apparently in script writing a beat is not where you have reached a point that can’t be divided any further.

    Movies/Stories would seem to defy that type of usage to me. You might paint some actions with a broad stroke and fill others with minutiae, so it would seem to me that a script could speed up and slow down as life seems to sometimes. Allowing the writer to focus on particular events and discard those that do not carry the story.

    However I’m a noob, and bow before those who know, and in no way mean that as that I disagree with your explanation or the critique.

    • This is why I don’t use the word “beat” in my scripts…ever. I don’t want the reader to wonder what the hell I mean. They’re an extremely useful tool for a screenwriter getting his scenes in order for the purposes of pacing, however. That process has a lot of names, but I always refer to it as “beating out my script.”

      • I don’t use the term in my scripts either. If I want a pause, I just say “Amy pauses, careful to choose her words” or whatnot. However, when talking ABOUT a script I use the term beat left and right.

  2. That’s probably the best description of a beat that I’ve ever read. The analogy of a unit of measurement is spot-on. Although depending on how close you are, the unit size is always changing.

    I like to think of beats as the ‘things’ people explain when they describe the movie they just saw. The high points. The major things that happens. The distinguishing moments.


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