Are you looking to craft an engaging screenplay that captures the attention of your audience? Understanding the concept of story beats is essential in achieving this goal. In this blog post, we’ll dive into the world of story beats, their purpose, and how to effectively use them to create captivating narratives and memorable characters.
Let’s embark on this exciting journey together!
- Understanding story beats to create captivating narratives
- How to distinguish between dialogue beats and story beats
- How to use beat sheets to organize your story
- The role of story beats in character development
- Examples for popular films
Understanding Story Beats: Definition and Purpose
Let’s answer the question: what is a story beat?
A story beat is an essential structural element of a narrative, marking deliberate changes in tone or the advancement of the story. You can think of story beats as the blueprint for the plot. Writers use them to map out character arcs and plotlines before they start writing. . Story beats can be:
- Emotional turns Confrontations
Essentially, story beats are moments that help move the story forward. Every scene should have at the very least one story beat. Most scenes will have multiple.
The Difference Between Story Beats and “A Beat” in Dialogue
Not all beats are the same.
While story beats focus on narrative progression, beats in dialogue are moments within a conversation where there is an intriguing shift in the interaction between two characters.
These types of beats are usually written directly into the script like this:
Typically, these beats are read as a pause. They’re notes for the actors and production team on the tone of the scene or an important emotional shift for the characters. But unlike story beats they aren’t related to the story structure.
How to Identify and Create Effective Story Beats
A thorough understanding of plot structure is necessary to identify and create effective story beats.
Without an underlying structure it can be hard to string your beats together into a compelling narrative. To get a better understanding of story structure there are a ton of great screenwriting books you can read — like the classic Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder or Story by Robert McKee. You can also read other screenplays to study the structure they use. After reading a few screenplays you should start to notice patterns in terms of structure.
The Role of Story Beats in Character Development
Character development heavily relies on story beats, as they showcase emotional shifts, realizations, and incidents contributing to a character’s growth. They can be used to shape the narrative and influence the emotional arcs of the characters, providing more depth to their journey. Not all beats in a screenplay have to be high-stakes or action-packed. Some story beats can be subtle emotional turns or quiet moments of realization that still contribute to the overall narrative and character development.
For instance, in an action-packed screenplay, a story beat might be used to create tension between the protagonist and the bad guys, propelling the plot forward and keeping the audience engaged. Creating a captivating narrative that resonates with your audience necessitates the incorporation of story beats that test characters’ relationships, challenge their beliefs, and stimulate their growth.
Story Beat Examples from Popular Movies
Reading scenes from your favorite screenplays and breaking them out into beats is a great way to practice identifying beats. When you’re identifying beats, look for moments that shift or propel the narrative forward. Let’s look at a few examples below.
Example #1 Sully Cheats in the Scare Games
From Monsters University
At this point in the story, Sully and Mike are forced to confront the reality of their relationship when it’s revealed that Sully tampered with the Scarer Machine. This scene (and the subsequent story beats within it) play an important role in the character arcs for both Mike and Sully. Let’s break it down into beats.
Beat #1 – Sully and the team celebrate. Mike is in disbelief that he’s won the Scare Games. He’s excited to finally become a Scarer.
Beat #2 – Mike accidentally triggers the Scarer Machine. Sully tries to play it off and convince Mike to leave.
Beat #3 – Mike investigates the Scarer Machine and realizes it’s been tampered with. Sully tries to convince Mike to leave. Mike confronts Sully. Sully admits he tampered with the machine.
Beat #4 – Mike realizes Sully didn’t believe in him. Mike and Sully argue. Mike storms off. The team also leaves looking disappointed in Sully, leaving the trophy on the field.
Example #2 – The Disruptors Arrive in Greece
From Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
This scene is a critical first glance into the dynamics of the group. It’s a fun way to give the audience some much needed insight into each character before they try to figure out whodunnit. Let’s break it down into beats.
Beat #1 – Benoit sits alone on the pier. Lionel joins him. A car arrives and Claire gets out greeting Lionel happily.
Beat #2 – A tuk-tuk speeds toward the pier, Birdie Jay screams with joy. She greets Claire and Lionel as her assistant struggles with luggage. She notices Benoit. The group realizes who Benoit is.
Beat #3 – Multiple gun shots. Duke and Whiskey arrive on a motorcycle. Their arrival is slightly more tense. Everyone wonders why Benoit is there. He reveals Miles invited him.
Beat #5 – A horn honks and the boat pulls up to the pier. Then a car honks and the butler arrives on the pier with disinfectant shots.
Beat # 6 – Everyone starts to board when there is one final car horn. Andy arrives. Everyone is surprised to see her.
The Beat Sheet: Organizing Your Screenplay’s Story Beats
As you start to write out your story beats, you’ll need somewhere to put them. This is where a beat sheet comes in.
A beat sheet is an invaluable tool for plot outliningIt allows you to capture your story in a few words or phrases. And it can help you outline and structure your story so that it flows seamlessly, ensuring that you don’t miss any crucial points in the script.
One popular method of organizing a screenplay’s story beats is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! structure, which breaks down the story into 15 distinct beats. This structure encourages you to give your protagonist something to do and a reason for the audience to root for them on their journey.
Utilizing a beat sheet helps you overlay your beats onto the story structure you’re using. . This will not only help you stay organized but also make it easier for you to craft a compelling narrative that captivates your audience.
Tips for Writing Compelling Story Beats
There are three main types of story beats: exposition, confrontation, and reaction beats.
An exposition beat provides the audience background information about a character or context for an upcoming event. The beats we looked at in the Glass Onion scene above are all good examples of exposition beats. In each beat, Rian Johnson gives us important background information about the characters and their relationships.
A confrontation beat adds conflict to the story. Typically in this beat an obstacle is presented for the protagonist to overcome. Finally, a reaction beat describes emotional changes experienced by characters. The beats we looked at in the Monsters University scene above are good examples of a reaction.
Alternatives to Traditional Story Structures
Exploring alternative story structures, such as unconventional plotlines or non-linear narratives, can offer unique storytelling opportunities and challenge traditional screenwriting norms. Especially when working with a non-linear narrative, it’s crucial to have a solid beat sheet. We recommend mapping your story points out in chronological order to ensure there aren’t plot holes before you start playing with the timing of your beats.
Regardless of what story structure formula you are using, understanding your story beats (and mapping them out on a beat sheet) can help you stay organized and keep you focused while writing.
In conclusion, story beats play a crucial role in crafting engaging and emotionally resonant screenplays. By understanding your story beats and utilizing the beat sheet to organize your screenplay, you can create captivating narratives that resonate with audiences.
Don’t be afraid to explore alternative story beat structures and challenge traditional screenwriting norms. By pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, you can unlock new storytelling opportunities and create unforgettable stories that captivate audiences and leave a lasting impression.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a story beat and a scene?
Scenes and story beats are both units by which we can measure screenplays. Story beats are the smallest unit of measurement, and they mark a shift in the narrative.
Scenes on the other hand are marked by changes in time, location, or storyline. A scene will often have many beats.
What is a beat sheet?
A beat sheet is a list of all the beats that happen in your story. They help you organize your ideas and map your beats onto your chosen story structure formula.
How do story beats contribute to character development?
Story beats are essential for character development, allowing readers to witness emotional changes, realizations, and other defining moments that shape the characters.