You’ve Got the Beat

What’s a story beat? If you’re a writer then it’s safe to say you’ve heard the term, Beat Sheet but what exactly is it? Within a screenplay the writer uses the word ‘BEAT’ to ensure the actor takes a momentary pause before delivering his next line.

                                         MELISSA
                    Why do you think I would be the least bit interested?
                                    (beat)
                    And another thing, I wouldn't be so sure about that
                    plan of yours.

Here the word beat in brackets ensures that Melissa takes a moment to think, as if recalling some forgotten piece of information. Yet as I’ve recently discovered the word beat has a much more important meaning to the screenwriter. For years I’ve created index cards when preparing my screenplay. In a recent blog I spoke about the uses of index cards and I will discuss them again in the April edition of the Workshop, but for now I will say that these index cards are just another way of creating a BEAT SHEET.

Keeping the Beat

Your screenplay is made up of scenes and each scene shows something happening to the characters. Each of these scenes and sequences are the beats of the story. A beat sheet is simply a list of the beats in your screenplay. There can be literally dozens of beats in your story and each beat has the ability to be ‘zoomed in’ for a closer look. Let’s start at the very high level. Each screenplay should have three acts. Each of these acts are a beat.

BOY MEETS GIRL
BOY STRUGGLES TO KEEP GIRL
BOY LOOSES GIRL

Each beat tells of the general action happening within that single act but there’s not a lot of detail. How does the boy meet the girl? We then zoom in on the first act and break it down in to smaller beats

BOY PREPARES FOR PARTY
BOY DRIVES TO PARTY
BOY ARRIVES AT PARTY
BOY GETS DRUNK
BOY MEETS GIRL
BOY DOESN'T GET GIRLS NAME
BOY PASSES OUT
BOY WAKES UP AND GIRL IS GONE

Not a great list of scenes but it does illustrate the how and where the boy meets the girl. You could start writing the screenplay right from this point. The general idea is present, but some of the beats could be zoomed in even further to gather more details. We’ll take a moment and zoom in Boy Gets Drunk.

BOY MEETS UP WITH FRIEND
FRIEND HANDS BOY A BEER
BOY GULPS DOWN BEER BEFORE REACHING LIVING ROOM
BOY AND FRIENDS ARE DOWNING SHOOTERS
BOY TAKES A MOUTHFUL FROM A PASSING RUM BOTTLE

The scene shows the wild, party nature of the boy. This can be used later as the boy tries to change his ways in order to win the heart of the girl who he needs to spend the second half of act one finding. Since act two is listed as Boy struggles to Keep Girl, then the boy will need to find who the girl is and ask her on a date before the end of the first act.

With the beats you can zoom into your story to a very detailed level where you can examine your story and characters. You can review your beats before digging into the writing to ensure that there is enough desire and conflict in your screenplay. Writing your beats out on index cards allows you to add or remove beats or even rearrange them if you need to.

Writing by the Cards

When it comes time to write your screenplay you can review your index cards and line your beats up on the desk and use them to guide you through the writing. When you review the series of beats about the boy getting drunk at the party, you can very quickly see how the screenplay would shape up.

INT. HOUSE PARTY - FRONT DOOR

The BOY enters the house and finds the place packed with teenagers drinking, laughing
and dancing. The music is so loud that the art on the walls are bouncing. The boy
takes a half-full beer bottle from another teen and starts to drink deeply as he
walks through the front hall.

His friend, PHIL rushes up to the boy with another beer. Finishing the first beer,
the boy takes the second bottle from his friend.

                                  BOY
            Yo. Thanks Phil!

                                  PHIL
            Hurry up with that. We're starting with the shooters.

And the screenplay would continue through the different beats. Next time your preparing to write you next screenplay take the time to write out the beats of your story and you’ll find the scene come together much easier.

See you next time, Steve

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