How To Combine Beats Into Beat Chains When Writing A Screenplay

In my post, “12 steps fictional characters must follow to accomplish a goal,” I explain how movie plots revolve around a hero fulfilling a plan to accomplish a goal that fills a need. In order to make his quest believable, his actions must follow the same 12 steps humans follow when accomplishing real life goals:

 

The hero doesn’t accomplish all of these steps in a single scene. To fill 90-120 minutes of screen time, you must spread them across self-contained actions sequences called “beats,” which I explain in more depth my post, “What is a beat in screenwriting.”

Beats are usually 1-3 minutes long scenes. However, training montages, fight scenes, travel scenes and chase scenes can span 2-4 scenes before resolving the central conflict of the beat. Every beat tends to follow the same 7-9 steps, which you can read more about in the post about beats I just mentioned.

Acts in movies tend to last 8-20 beats, with the average being 10. This means it’s usually mathematically impossible to devote a full beat to every step of the 12 step goal accomplishment cycle. It’s even more impossible to fit 3 story lines into a 10-beat Act. The solution to this problem is to insert multiple steps into a single beat.

The more steps you combine in a single beat, the faster the story will move, which is good for action sequences and action movies in general. The fewer steps you combine in a single beat, the slower the plot progresses, which is good for dramatic sequences and dramatic movies in general. It’s best to only combine 2-4 steps in a single beat. Any more than that, and your story will start getting jumbled and start to narrate itself.

THE 12 STEPS DIVIDED INTO FOUR TYPES OF BEATS

Quest introduction beats:

Steps 1-5 revolve around the hero’s internal thought process. It begins with him identifying a need and ends when he enacts a plan to get it.

Step 1: State the hero’s need.

Step 2: State the stakes of completing/failing to fulfill the need.

Step 3: State the condition of fulfilling the need.

Step 4: State the hero’s decision to fulfill the conditions.

Step 5: State the hero’s plan to achieve his ultimate goal.

Action beats:

Steps 6-9 revolve around the hero’s external actions. It begins with him taking action and ends with him succeeding or failing to achieve a major goal.

Step 6: The hero enacts his plan to meet the condition.

Step 7: The hero encounters an obstacle or complication.

Step 8: The hero reacts and adapts to the obstacle or complication

Step 9: The hero fulfills the condition of the need.

Outcome beats

Steps 10-12 revolve around the hero getting the incentive that fulfills his need. They begin after he has neutralized all obstacles between him and the incentive.

Step 10: The hero attains the incentive.

Step 11: The repercussion

Step 12: The sunset

Listed below are some common combinations of steps you can pool into a single beat:

  • You can combine any combination of the first 7 steps into a single beat
  • 6, 7, 8
  • 7, 8, 9
  • 8, 9, 10
  • 9, 10, 11
  • 10, 11, 12
  • 6, 9
  • 6, 9, 10
  • 10, 11,
  • 11, 12

Step combinations have to be logical. It wouldn’t make sense to put steps 3, 8 and 12 into one beat, because the result would be a scene in which the hero states a condition of filling his goal, reacts to to an obstacle that doesn’t exist and then walks off into the sunset without accomplishing his goal or fulfilling his need.

 

 

CONDENSING THE FIRST FOUR STEPS

The purpose of the first 4 “quest introduction” steps are to introduce information that sets up the hero’s quest. It would be tedious and unnecessary for the hero to spend an entire beat on each of those steps in every Act, especially if/when the information has already been stated, or is implied or obvious. So they are often condensed into 1-3 beats to free up more.

EXAMPLE 1:

Beat 1: The hero states his goal, the stakes, conditions and his plan.

EXAMPLE 2:

Beat 1: The hero states his ultimate goal and the stakes of completing the goal.

Beat 2: The hero states the conditions of completing his goal and his plan to meet the conditions.

EXAMPLE 3:

Beat 1: The hero states his goal, stakes, and conditions.

Beat 2: The hero enacts his unspoken plan to meet the conditions.

In the clip below, the second beat begins at minute 1:30.

EXAMPLE 4:

Beat 1: The hero states his goal and the conditions.

Beat 2: The hero states the stakes and his plan to meet the conditions.

Option 5:

Beat 1: The hero states his goal.

Beat 2: The hero states the stakes.

The hero states the conditions and his plan to meet the conditions.

Option 6:

Beat 1: The hero states his goal and stakes.

Beat 2: The hero states the conditions, reiterates the stakes and decides to commit to the quest.

In the clip below, the second beat begins at 33 seconds and ends at 2:30 .

Note: At any point, in any beat, you can reiterate and escalate the stakes, like in the scene from “Snatch” when Micky suddenly tells Turkish all the amenities he wants his mother’s caravan to have, if Turkish loses their bet.

HOW TO EXTEND BEAT CHAINS

If you condense the first 4 introductory steps down to one or two beats, you can use the beats you freed up to expand on your introduction with more forward-moving action and tension, or the hero can proceed to enact his plan to fulfill the condition/s of his goal.

Listed below are ways to increase the number of beats it takes the hero to accomplish a goal:

  • Assign multiple conditions to completing a goal
  • Assign multiple steps to fulfilling a condition at the beginning of a quest
  • The hero doesn’t know the condition to achieving a goal and must discover it
  • New conditions are created or revealed along the way
  • The hero encounters multiple unexpected obstacles and opponents
  • The hero wins a mid-beat conflict, but it’s a false victory.
  • The hero fails a mid-beat conflict.

The last option on the list needs to be elaborated on. In every beat, the hero has an immediate goal he’s trying to accomplish, which he must encounter/overcome an opponent to complete. At any step of the way, the hero can fail to achieve his goal, and since he still needs to accomplish his goal, he’ll have to spend another beat trying something different.

Alternately, he could step away from the quest/story line and spend the next beat working towards a different story line goal and return to his failed quest under different circumstances.

Listed below are common reasons why the hero may fail a mid-beat conflict:

  • The hero runs out of time.
  • The hero is weakened from a previous event.
  • There’s an unexpected, catastrophic complication while executing the plan.
  • The hero has insufficient/missing skills, resources or allies
  • The hero uses a flawed/cursed skill, resource, character trait, ally or plan
  • The opponent’s skills, strategies, resources or allies trump the hero’s
  • The opponent is an impassable force
  • The hero doesn’t/can’t know the condition to win until he tries and fails

Listed below are common ways the consequence of failure extends the hero’s quest:

  • Changes the condition of passing the opponent
  • Changes the condition of achieving the ultimate goal
  • Changes the conditions of achieving another storyline’s goal
  • Adds a new condition of passing the opponent
  • Adds a new condition of achieving the ultimate goal
  • Eliminates/nullifies the hero’s skills, resources or plan
  • Increases or improves the antagonist’s skills, resources, strategy or allies
  • Nothing changes. The hero must simply have a rematch with the opponent and do better next time

Sometimes you only need to extend a beat chain by one beat. Listed below are multiple ways the hero can accomplish a failed goal in the next beat:

  • The hero immediately returns to the opponent and uses a different skill, resource, strategy or ally
  • The hero immediately returns to the opponent prepared to fulfill the condition of passing the opponent.
  • The hero immediately circumvents the opponent

If you want to extend the hero’s quest further, you can plan to have the hero spend multiple beats on a side-quest before he attempts to fulfill the condition of his goal again.

Listed below are common activities the hero can spend one or more full beats doing before attempting the original goal again.

  • The hero tries to abandon the quest but is reminded of the stakes and returns willingly, he’s forced to return, or the problem follows him
  • The hero creates a new plan to overcome or circumvent the opponent using information learned from the conflict
  • The hero trains/learns a new skill
  • The hero fixes a psychological flaw
  • The hero fixes a physical flaw/weakness/injury.
  • The hero fixes a flawed/cursed resource
  • The hero retrieves the resource required to fulfill the condition of passing the opponent
  • The hero performs the task required to fulfill the condition of passing the opponent
  • The hero seeks out and learns the condition of passing or circumventing the opponent
  • The hero journeys somewhere else where he will need to accomplish a goal
  • The hero seeks/gathers new or old allies
  • The hero reconciles with an estranged ally or allies
  • The hero builds, assembles, stages, sets up or prepares a resource or situation

You can further extend any beat chain by having the hero fail steps or by adding more expected or unexpected steps, conditions, obstacles, opponents, setbacks and complications to his quests. Listed below are some common beat chains:

EXAMPLES OF COMMON BEAT CHAINS

TWO-BEAT CHAIN

1 condition

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, 1 condition and plan.

Beat 2: The hero enacts the plan and fulfills the condition.

THREE-BEAT CHAINS

1 condition with 1 failure

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, 1 condition and plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero enacts Plan-A and fails.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero enacts Plan-B and fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 planning beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, and 1 condition.

Beat 2: Introduce the plan.

Beat 3: The hero enacts the plan and fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 debate beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition.

Beat 2: The hero debates whether he can/should enact his plan.

Beat 3: The hero enacts the plan and fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 traveling beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, 1 condition.

Beat 2: Step 1: Travel to the location of the condition.

Beat 3:Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition

1 condition with 1 expected conditional quest

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero fulfills the conditional quest.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 unexpected condition

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero enacts the plan and fulfills the condition but learns there’s another condition.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the second condition.

1 condition with 1 missing skill and 1 training beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires a skill the hero doesn’t have.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero trains to fulfill the condition.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 missing resource and 1 resource gathering beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires a resource the hero doesn’t have.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero attains the missing resource.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 resource building beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires a resource to be built.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero builds the missing resource.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 resource preparation beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires the hero to deploy resources before he can enact the plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero deploys his resources.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 resource fixing beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires the hero to fix a resource before he can enact the plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero fixes his resources.

Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 missing ally and 1 recruitment beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires an ally the hero doesn’t have.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero recruits the missing ally.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 estranged ally and 1 unification beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, plan and 1 condition that requires an ally the hero is estranged with.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero unifies the estranged ally.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 unknown condition

Beat 1: Introduce the goal and stakes. State that the condition is unknown and the plan to learn the unknown condition

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero enacts his plan and learns the condition of the goal

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition of the goal.

2 conditions

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, 2 conditions and a 2-step plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero fulfills condition 1.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills condition 2.

1 condition with 1 escalation beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, conditions and plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The problem gets worse, and the stakes escalate.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 refusal beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, and condition.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero refuses to enact the plan and learns he must accomplish his goal.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 conflicting internal flaw

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, condition that conflicts with the hero’s internal flaw.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero fixes his internal flaw.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 conflicting physical flaw

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, condition that conflicts with the hero’s physical flaw.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero fixes his physical flaw.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 defense beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, condition and plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero is attacked and defends himself.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 chase beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, condition and plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The condition or opponent flees, and the hero gives chase.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

1 condition with 1 escape beat

Beat 1: Introduce the goal, stakes, condition and plan.

Beat 2: Step 1: The hero is attacked and flees.

Beat 3: Step 2: The hero fulfills the condition.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

 

Formula Plot Templates
Screenwriting for Movies
Screenwriting for TV
Short Stories
Erotica
Choose Your Own Adventure
Movie plot break downs
TV plot break downs
Free story prompts
Writing tips
Blogging
Art

 

Liked it? Help spread wisdom. Support The Wise Sloth on Patreon.

Leave a Reply