In the film industry, the word beat gets thrown around all the time, and it doesn’t always mean the same thing. Beat holds various meanings when you’re talking about it in context of the screenplay, versus in context of the timing of a film. Confusing! Never fear, our breakdown is here.

What is a beat in a screenplay?

A beat in dialogue usually means the screenwriter wants to indicate a pause. It’s a theatrical term that you shouldn’t really use outright in your screenplay, because its seen as instruction to the actor and/or director. And actors and directors don’t always like being told what to do! What’s more, just adding (beat) to your script doesn’t add any characterization. The character is pausing, but is she pausing to cry? To sneeze? To glare? If you must include a pause, find a more descriptive way to show not tell. It could be a small gesture or a facial expression that you describe instead, indicating a pause without saying it. Use sparingly.

What is a beat in a film?

Beats of action are the dramatic structure of your scene and are used to move your story forward with measured pace. Think “pop song” as opposed to “jazz music” when you’re timing out your beats. There’s typically a certain number of beats in various genres of feature-length scripts, 40 on average.

In Robert McKee’s book “Story,” he describes a beat as “an exchange of behavior in action/reaction.” This exchange can be due to an event, or an emotion, that forces one or more of the characters to change/adapt or causes your scene to shift.

A beat sheet is a bullet point outline of all these main action/reactions in your story. Once your beat sheet is complete, you can expand the action with scene description and dialogue.

To expand upon a beat, ask yourself some of these key questions:

  • What is this scene’s purpose?
  • Which character does this scene belong to?
  • What does the character want?
  • What’s obstacles are stopping the character?
  • How does the character react?
  • How does the scene turn or end?

Some well-known beat sheet templates are available online, which can help you with your story’s structure on the outset, or help you refine the structure once you have a draft script.  

Want to see beats in action? Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat website breaks down beat sheets for well-known films.  Screenwriter John August also shares his beat sheet from Charlie’s Angels on his blog.

Beats build scenes, scenes become sequences, and sequences add up to acts. Before you know it, you’re writing a screenplay!

Happy writing,

Courtney Meznarich, Director of Community Outreach

@Courtonthecoast