You’ve probably heard “beat” used a different way every time you hear it. Is it used for dramatic pacing, for any new action, or is it just a pause? It differs for each writer depending on their experience. Like they always say, once you learn the rules, you can break them.
The first step to bend them is to really understand them.
Writing is an art, but there is a science to it. Think about a beat as a unit of measurement. It’s not as precise as a second, but it’s not really a measurement of time, but of action.
“With the speed, grace, and precision of athletes, Fox and Mrs. Fox: dart through a hole under a painted fence, race along a thin trail next to a garage, crawl beneath a window, creep past a doghouse, and shimmy over a doorway. They dart into a drain-pipe and come out in front of a wooden shed. Fox lifts a loose board. They duck inside. Silence.
Fox and Mrs. Fox come out. Each holds a dead, bloody pigeon in his/her teeth. They start to run away. Fox looks up above them. He stops. He frowns. “
- Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009
There’s a lot of action to unpack here. A good way to discern where the beats are is to create a beat sheet. This isn’t something necessary to do for every scene, but it’s good to know how to do in order to understand a beat.
A beat sheet is a list of the action beats in order, removing description and any other “unnecessary” details added onto the action.
- They (Fox and Mrs. Fox) dart through a hole
- They race along a trail
- They crawl under a window
- They creep past a doghouse
- They shimmy over a doorway
- They dart into a drain-pipe
- They emerge in front of a wooden shed
- Fox lifts a loose board
- They duck inside
Let’s stop here. Isn’t “Silence” technically inaction? After such an action-heavy scene, this “silence” comes as a pause. A moment for the audience to catch up. It also helps with the scene change.
Fox and Mrs. Fox just entered a squab house where they will catch pigeons for dinner. This “Silence” is in place of a probably graphic moment of the foxes catching the birds and killing them.
This is how “beat” gets the reputation for pauses. Screenwriters know not to write inaction, so writing “silence” can be seen as bad form. A “beat”, however, is a unit of action and therefore works for those moments where technically “nothing” happens. Negative space is necessary for all things, including writing.
If it went straight from them entering the squab house to exiting with the birds, it would be an awkward jump of time for the audience to grasp and it would break the experience for them.
Beats have lots of uses.
One last one to discuss is when beats are used in dialogue. A beat is a unit of action, right? What’s it doing in dialogue?
The thing is, it should be used sparingly. Want a pause in your dialogue? Think of the actor, if you wrote the character well enough, they should be able to understand how to deliver the lines. That means you’re just making more work for yourself and for the readers.
You may think this beat is super important and it needs to be there. Try this first: create an actual action. Have them set their drink down or a very common one: inhale from a cigarette. It adds some dramatic tension to their next line. Adding action, if you can, is always preferable to adding a “beat” in dialogue.
If you can’t think of anything, place a beat and try to correct it later in editing whether by just removing it or by adding an action. If you think it’s absolutely necessary, keep it. But there are other options to consider.
As you write, you will be able to control beats and have a better sense of where to put them to pace your story in order to guide your audience. The most important thing is to never stop writing. That’s the only way you can get better.
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting graduate from Drexel University. She loves all visual writing mediums and has experience in writing plays, comic books, screenplays, TV sitcoms, and video games. World building is her favorite and she obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her spare time, you may find her trying to get over her fear of heights at a rock wall or adopting yet another plant because she can’t afford an actual pet.