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Film & TV

What Is a Beat in Screenwriting?

Written by MasterClass

Jan 17, 2019 • 5 min read

Stories are made up of moments that build upon each other to create a cohesive whole. In any given scene, there are a number of individual ‘beats,’ where one emotion shifts to another, and the dramatic action shifts in response.

What are beats, and how can you add them to your screenplay?

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What Is a Beat?

A beat in a screenplay is a moment that propels the story forward and compels the viewer to take stock of what could happen next. Each scene is comprised of many beats, some subtle and others overt.

Types of Beats

Beats can refer to a variety of moments, or plot points. These include:

  • Events. From milestone birthday parties to graduations, proms, charity auctions, and work functions, large social gatherings and events offer many opportunities for characters to express their views or desires, and interact with secondary characters for plot developments outside the main story.
  • Realizations. Realizations are often small, subtle, and quiet moments that occur after some buildup. Often, a character will witness a gesture or a glance that may solidify a betrayal, or notice that perhaps there’s a reason she keeps getting passed up for promotions. Realization beats help characters make decisions based on the information they feel they finally have.
  • Resolutions. Resolution beats tend to come early in the story; they stem from a character’s desire to change the status quo, or to conduct an experiment. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is a clear example of how a simple resolution made early on in the film impacts the entire plot.
  • Interactions. Throughout the course of a character’s journey, she must meet allies and antagonists, characters who provide additional conflict and dimension to the story. The notable interactions, for instance a hero facing off with the villain in the final battle, are important beats that shape the plot. Conversations fall under this category as well; simple dialogue, like a teenager and her father arguing over curfew, can shape the outcome of the rest of the story.

What Is a Beat Sheet?

A beat sheet is the precursor to an outline. It lays out the important moments in an episode, and what needs to happen in each of your acts. An outline stems from your beat sheet, and details the specific scenes you are going to write for each act. An outline gives you a guide that you can follow when you begin writing your script

There are a variety of methods you can use:

  • Dividing a sheet of paper into five sections (to represent your acts)
  • Using a whiteboard
  • Pinning up index cards
  • Using a computer program like Final Draft

Feature-length screenplays have around 15 beats that occur throughout. Typically, comedies are frequently around 90 pages while dramas tend to be around 120 pages. Divide the number of beats by pages to get a good sense of your story’s pacing.

How to Create a Beat Sheet in 12 Steps

Every screenwriter approaches their beat sheet a bit differently, however the goal is to separate your story into either three or five acts, and move the story through those acts with beats.

1. Opening image. A short description of the very first thing people will see. Strive for an exciting opening that makes people lean in.
2. Introduction. The characters and setting come into clear focus. Who is the main character? What does she want? What is holding her back from getting it?
3. Statement of theme. What is your film about? This is the opportunity to show the audience.
4. Catalyst. This is the moment in which the main character either actively sets out to achieve her goals, or is forced to go down the path plotted for her. Think of the most extreme thing that can happen to your characters, make it happen, and go from there.
5. Debate. However, even great characters have their doubts. The main character might need to confer with other characters, or do some soul-searching, before embarking on her journey.
6. B-Plot. The best time to introduce a secondary plot is roughly towards the end of the first act. The audience will now be familiar with the main character, her world, and her plight, and therefore should be more invested in the other goings-on that may affect the story. The B-Plot often carries the first act through to the second act.
7. Character exposition. As the main character goes through the story, she will likely meet other characters who help or hurt her. This opportunity for character exposition towards the first half of the second act allows a writer to create conflict and increase tension in the narrative.
8. Midpoint. Exactly halfway through your story. The characters have made their decisions, and now reality sets in.
9. No turning back. As the main character seems to get just within reach of her goal, a sense of despair or confusion may set in.
10. Climax. This is the big moment in which the action spikes and everything that you’ve set up until now comes to a head. These are the big chase scenes in traditional action films, but can be any type of scene that show the main character just within reach of her goal.
11. Beginning of the end. Once the main character has gotten her goal, the story begins to wind down. The B-plots start coming to a close.
12. Finale. The final scene viewers will see.

You can format your beat sheet in the way you choose and include as much description as you’d like, but it’s typical to keep it concise and clearly labeled. For instance, the first few beats of a beat sheet might look something like this:

  • Opening Image: Page 1. Wide shot of Chicago zooms into Esther, a 35-year-old woman, walking into a studio apartment. She casually picks up a phone call from someone listed as “Sis In Law”. Esther begins to silently sob.
  • Introduction: Pages 3-4. Esther is out of the office and her assistant can’t keep up with the workload.
  • Catalyst: Pages 6-8. Funeral at a rundown cemetery. Esther’s sister has mysteriously died. Esther must decide if she will move back home to help take care of her nieces and find out what happened to her sister, or continue her life as a CEO in Chicago.

A final beat sheet should give the complete rundown of a story. It is not the time to tease information or leave any questions unanswered. For instance, while creating your beat sheet, instead of writing, “Midpoint: Betty faces a tough decision about her future. What will she do?” you could say, “Midpoint: Betty decides to give up her opportunity to attend ballet school so that she can care for her sick mother.”

The Differences Between Beats and Pauses

Occasionally you may hear the words “beat” and “pause” used interchangeably.

  • In the context of the timing of a film, a beat refers to a pause, in either dialogue or action.
  • In the context of a screenplay, however, a beat is a moment that moves the story forward.

To minimize confusion, most screenwriters opt to write “pause” instead of “beat,” when they want a quiet moment in the screenplay.