What Is A Beat In Screenwriting?

A 90-120 minute movie breaks down like a 5-episode season of a sitcom, which you can see examples of in my movie break downs and my basic Hollywood movie plot outline template. Each Act is an episode that revolves around the hero accomplishing a goal that’s a condition of his final goal. Each episode/Act can be further broken down into smaller self-contained, goal-accomplishing cycles. These mini action cycles are called beats.

My definition of a “beat” is, everything that happens between the time the hero enacts a plan to achieve an immediate goal and fails or succeeds to accomplish it.

Beats tend to be 1-3 minutes long and last 1-5 scenes, though most beats are only 1 scene long. This way, each scene opens to a new action sequence and ends with the hero succeeding or failing to accomplish a goal. The only time a beat lasts 4-5 scenes is during a montage, chase or fight scene. The longer the movie, the longer the beats tend to be. In Avatar, an unusually long movie, each beat is about 2 minutes long. In Inception, an equally long movie, each beat lasts a minute or less, making it much more fast paced.

Regardless of the length of movie, the first Act tends to always have 8-12 beats, with the average being 10. The final act almost always has 3 beats. The exception is when you have multiple characters who all need a dedicated denouement for their story line. Every other Act tends to be 10-20 beats long, usually closer to 10 than 20. Movies that are 90 minutes long tend to have 40-100 beats. 120+ minute long movies tend to have upwards of 180 beats. You can find examples of beat break downs in famous movies in the list of links at the bottom of this page. They show there’s not an exact number of beats a movie should have.

STEPS OF A BEAT

Beats tend to follow the same 9 steps, which are listed below, though for short, fast beats, you can eliminate steps 6 and/or 7.

  1. Opening image:

Each beat begins with the hero approaching a problem he needs to solve in order to accomplish a goal that will help him achieve his ultimate goal. This establishes where the camera will start rolling. So it needs to include the location and what the protagonist is doing when the director shouts, “Action.” Describe how the hero arrives or is found at the scene. The most common opening image is the hero walking through a door into a room where needs to do something.

  1. Hero’s opening action:

Once the hero’s presence is established on the scene, he needs to do what he came there to do. He already has a goal and a plan in mind. This is the first thing he does to engage the environment in pursuit of his goal.

  1. Opponent with a conflict of interest or opportunity:

There is always something standing between the hero and his immediate goal. It’s usually a person who has a conflict of interest with the hero. However, the “opponent” can be an ally of the hero, and the opponent’s ultimate goals can align with the hero’s. There still needs to be a source of conflict standing between them. In those cases, the conflict is the hero doesn’t want to the opportunity.

  1. Hero’s response:

After the hero encounters his opponent, he must logically react to it. The hero can only act in his character. The only way the audience can know the hero’s character is by watching him demonstrate his values and skills, of which he has 5-10 he reuses in every beat.

  1. Opponent’s response:

After the hero responds to the conflict in character, the opponent will counteract the hero’s action. Their action is usually a worst-case scenario that minimizes the hero’s chance of success. If the opponent has been seen before, they will use responses that were introduced in their first one or two appearances.

  1. Hero’s escalated response:

After the hero is hit with the opponent’s response, he will counteract the opponent’s move. This move will be more dramatic than his first response.

  1. Opponent’s escalated response:

The opponent will get at least one more chance to counter the hero. If the hero is destined to lose the conflict, this will be the deciding blow that neutralizes the hero and prevents him from achieving his goal. If the hero is destined to win the conflict, he would get another chance to respond with action after the opponent’s turn is over.

The beat can go on longer by having the hero respond again, and the opponent can respond again after that. In an action movie where the hero is physically fighting an enemy, the tit-for-tat can go on for five minutes in a single beat. Most conflicts are conversations where two people parse words briefly and then reap the consequences.

  1. Final outcome:

The final outcome is whether or not the hero won or lost the conflict.

  1. Hero’s closing image:

The closing image is what the camera sees right before the director shouts, “Cut.” This shows the immediate aftermath of the encounter and either implies or states how the outcome affects the hero’s progress towards his ultimate goal. If the hero wins, he may be doing a victory dance. If the hero loses, he may be laying in a gutter bleeding.

EXAMPLES FROM “AVATAR”

The clip includes the first two beats from “Avatar.” The first beat ends, and the second begins, at minute 1:30. The conflict in the first beat is general malaise. The conflict in the second is a basic physical fight. Both are a metaphor for the hero’s life:

Here are another two beats from Avatar. The first ends, and the second begins at minute 1:42. The conflict in the first beat is Jake wanting to use his Avatar body before he’s ready. The conflict in the second is the challenge of using his Avatar body in the training grounds.

This an example of a fight scene beat with multiple escalations within a single conflict:

This is an example of a beat from Avatar with multiple scenes. The central conflict is to climb a mountain, but it takes several steps. Technically, you could consider each step its own short beat. Sometimes beats can be subjective and open to interpretation.

Click here to see a complete break down of all the beats in Avatar.

 

 

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