What is a 'beat' in Scriptwriting?

by John Finnegan |

Beat in a screenplay

We've all seen this from time to time in screenplays. The so-called 'beat' on the page. It's one of the most overused techniques in my book when it comes to writing screenplays and there is sometimes debate as to how acceptable it's usage is in screenwriting practice. Because it's so frequently found in reputable industry scripts, it's led to a lot of confusion. So, let's get to the bottom of this.


Examples of 'beat' used in screenplays


If you don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to 'beat' then it's a sure sign you aren't reading enough scripts. Almost every major industry screenplay you come across will have at least one 'beat' included. Just check out these excerpts from Argo:


Figure 1:

Argo Script

Figure 2:

Argo Script

In figures 1 & 2, we can see the term 'beat' used to describe a moment of time or a pause. In Figure 1, the writer is essentially saying 'after a moment' and in Figure 2, where the character Mendez is debating with his CIA colleagues, the term 'beat' could be swapped out for the word 'pause' instead.


Let's look at how the term 'beat' is used in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy:


Figure 3:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Script

Figure 4:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Script

Like before, we can see 'beat' used as a synonym for 'pause' to dictate the delivery of the dialogue in these two scenes.




'Beat' explained


So why use the word 'beat' instead of 'pause'? Well, this is because a screenplay is a representation of action as it might play out on screen. Screenwriting is a performative document, whether that performance is by an actor bringing a character to life or a cinematographer catching the action through their camera lens. Everything on the page, whether dialogue or movement is in some form, an action.


This is tied to the fact that screenplay pages are formatted to, at least in theory, equate to a minute of screen time. So, not only are we writing with action in mind, but we're also writing with the pacing of that action in mind as well.


At a certain point, the lines of action or dialogue on the page become no different than musical notation. With this in mind, it can be helpful to think of your movement and speech as rhythmic beats in a scene to get a better sense of pacing across to the reader.


Should you write 'beat'?


In a word, no.


Sure, the industry veterans who wrote Argo, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and so many other countless scripts heavily rely on 'beat' as a technique in their writing. So why can't you? The answer is simple; it's lazy.


'Beat' suggests that the action is pausing, or the character is taking a moment to compose themselves or think on an issue in the scene. But here's the thing; the movie itself isn't actually pausing. The character is actually doing something in that moment - so write what they're doing. Are they distracted? Are they hesitating? These are all far more revealing and informative than a vague and unhelpful term like 'beat'.


Don't just take the short cut and kick the can down the road for the actor or director to figure out later.


Conclusion


The term 'beat' has become ubiquitous with Hollywood screenwriting but I wouldn't be writing this article if the question of if it's acceptance wasn't such a common one among amateur screenwriters.


You'll never lose a gig for writing 'beat' in a script, but use it too much and it will quickly look like you've got nothing much to say at all.

John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247