The Art of Story Beats


 Now what are story beats and how do we use them in screenwriting? Well, I’m glad you asked! The overall definition of a story beat is a structural element of a narrative that’s used to mark a deliberate change in tone.  Think of it as a turning point in the story - where the audience suspects something is about to shift and makes them wonder what will happen next. 

Today we’re going to touch on three types of beats. A story beat in terms of plot, an emotional beat in terms of character arch and an emotional beat within a scene. I know you’re probably overwhelmed by the amount of times I’ve said beat but stay with me here... I promise you’ll get this! 

Let’s tackle a story beat in terms of plot. Now, this is probably the easiest to understand because as a writer, you’ve already done this without even knowing. This is in terms of an event. From a graduation to a baby being born - a destination wedding to a street fight in a dark alleyway - events are like action points. They build up your story. You can also identify story beats in terms of if/then statements. For example, if there was never a meteor shower, then Jonathan and Martha Kent would have never found Clark.

To drive this home, let’s investigate My Best Friend’s Wedding. The actual inciting incident (1st major story beat) for Julianne Potter in the A story is when she finds out her best friend is getting married. Now, this sucks because they had a marriage pact and now she’s going to be single forever. She realizes she’s in love with the dashing Michael O'Neal and decides to stop his wedding before it’s too late. However, when she is hailed as a ‘maid of honor’, things get complicated. It is ultimately this goal of getting Michael back that drives her choices throughout the story – if she doesn’t continue on with her scheming, she won’t reach that goal. Despite the fact she can’t stop true love from winning in the end. 

So, once you begin to outline your story beats, you can create a beat sheet which will help you identify all your story beats. Alright, so let's talk about our next point: an emotional beat in terms of character arch. An example for this is when the depressed woman rekindles her love for baking or the pessimistic hiker becomes kind. This can also come through how your character has a sudden realization. It can be subtle or they can occur after a buildup. 

Maybe a child finds out through a glance that her parents are getting divorced or that there’s a reason they didn’t get chosen for varsity football. Realizations are powerful ways you can implement an emotional story beat through character arch.  

Going back to My Best Friend’s Wedding, the emotional beat inciting incident scene comes when Julianne’s best friend, George tells her to be honest to Michael about her feelings. However, instead of taking George’s advice, she literally makes George her fiancé in an attempt to get Michael jealous. Yeah, that’s the way to get the love of your life back. The moment we get this scene, we know this story on the emotional level is going to be about her Julianne trying to break up a wedding. 

So, our last point is an emotional beat within a scene. This can be interactions your characters have with each other or a specific moment when you want to provide emphasis in a scene where there’s emotional reversal. An example of this is when you write BEAT in an action line or in a parenthetical, emphasizing that your character is pausing for emotional effect. While this is common, there are other ways you can create an emotional beat within a scene without actually writing the word BEAT. 

For example, in terms of our movie example, a good example of this kind of beat is when Julianne professes her love to Michael after years of holding it in. However, once Kimberly catches them kissing, she runs off, leaving Michael running after Kimberly and Julianne running after Michael. A lot of people are running in this scene. Anyway, It’s a tough moment, because although Julianne loves him, Michael chooses whom he loves by running after Kimberly... not Julianne. However, that is a major emotional beat within the scene. Will Julianne face the fact that she’s too late or will she end up ruining a great relationship because of her own selfishness? It’s a great emotional moment for this character.

Now, after you have successfully added the three primary beats, there is one thing left: The resolution beats. Now, resolution beats are just that. How does this story end?  Well, if we’re going with our movie of choice here, it ends with Julianne finally accepting that Michael is not the man for her and sharing a goodbye as they both finally move on. You can do this through any of the beats we’ve covered today. Maybe Michael shares a knowing glance with Julianne. Maybe Julianne flat out tells Michael she’s okay with them remaining friends. Or maybe it’s both - you’re the writer! 

Now, don’t worry if you’re still a little worried you might not have this down. The best way to perfect story beats is to practice! Down below, you’ll find practical tools and movie examples of beat sheets for your enjoyment. 

Today we learned about the art of story beats. I hope you learned something today. If you want to help us, please leave a comment on what videos you’d like to see next and make sure to like, share and subscribe for more videos like these! And remember, knowledge is power… the more you know, the better you’ll be. Peace.