Beat It: How to Develop the Story Beats in Your Screenplay

On the surface, directing doesn’t seem to require any tangible skills.

Think about it: Editors create timelines in Avid or Final Cut Pro; cinematographers hold cameras and point them at things; writers print out paper with words on them; production designers build sets. But directors? What do directors do? This lack of a tangible product is precisely the reason why many people think they can direct, even if they can’t tell you exactly what a director does.

But of course directing a movie requires concrete skills. And perhaps one of the most tangible parts of directing is the process of breaking down the script’s dramatic building blocks: the beats.

What is a beat? A beat is a division within a scene in which the action takes a different turn, the momentum shifts, and one or more characters adapt to, or change, because of this shift. The end of one beat and the beginning of another marks the moment that the actor must reevaluate how to portray the character. It’s a point when the character must choose a different approach, or tactic, on the way towards reaching his or her objective. As the word implies, the beat is the pulse of the film—it’s what drives the story forward. As directors, it’s imperative that we determine what the beats are, before we even think about directing the film. As directors, we shoot the beats. In my experience, there are approximately four to seven beats per scene, or about three beats per page.

Beats are the smallest parts of the story. The beat chart is a contingency plan in which each and every detail is explored, at arm’s length from the director, during production. When they’re all put together—when performed, filmed, and edited—they should add up to the following:

  1. The main character wants something.
  2. There is an obstacle that stands in the way of the character getting what he wants.
  3. Each time the character tries to avoid the obstacle, he gets pushed farther away from what he wants—until the end when he risks it all, rising above his circumstances and finally getting what he wants (or not getting what he wants, but his life is forever changed because he tried).

Following each page of the script in my director’s binder (basically, my bible to directing a film), I create a two-page chart with my analysis of the beats on that page. I print out this chart and fill it in as I break down the script. It includes everything that I need to know in order to direct an actor properly in the scene. The chart is broken down into several columns: Beat, Subject, Circumstance, What Happened the Moment Before, Objective, Obstacle, Verbs, Adjustments, and Senses…

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