Thursday, February 16, 2012

Screenwriting: The Story Beat

People keep emailing to ask me what a 'story beat' is.

It's a word I use all the time, and it's a word that people in the industry in the UK use all the time, and it's a word that can be a little bit slippery. It's very simple. A beat means 'Something That Happens'. But, a little like a fractal, a beat can be made up of other, smaller beats. Each of these smaller beats can be made up of other, even smaller beats, then on and on down, seemingly forever.

For example.

"Grow, story! Grow!"
You could call each of these big story events a beat: 

1. John is all alone. 
2. John meets Jane.
3. John loses Jane.
4. John wins Jane back. 
5. Wedding.

These are the main plot point making the story. You'd definitely talk at that level of detail when you are
sketching out the overall shape of a story. Later on, when you're happy that that part of your story definitely
runs along those lines, you'd break those five down into more detail.

Look at beat 4. John wins Jane back. Let's break that down, into a component set of possible beats:

1. On his way to the match, John runs into Jane. She offers him a lift. Desperate to talk, he calls his friends, says he'll meet them later, and hops into Jane's car. 
2. They row over his football obsession and she kicks him out of the car. 
3. He's stranded. Middle of nowhere, no cabs to be seen.
4. He calls his friends - they're already inside the ground. He's going to have to make his own way there. 
5. Desperate to get to the match, he flags down a passing bus. 
6. But the bus is full of supporters of the opposing team. They see his team shirt, and close in on him to teach him a lesson.
7. He wakes up in bed in hospital - to find Jane there. She has been waiting by the bedside, terrified she will lose him. 
8. He takes his chance, she proposes. The shock has shown her she can't live without him, and she accepts gladly.

And of course, to get to what you'd see on screen, you'd break each of those beats down even further, to yet another, even more detailed set of beats.

Look at beat 3, "He's stranded", and break it down into yet another set of beats:

1. John falls out the car, Jane zooms off. 
2. He tries to flag down a passing car. No luck. 
3. He realises there is a bus stop over the road. He runs - misses the bus, which zooms off without him.
4. John does a war dance of anger and stress.
5. He looks round. No more traffic in either direction.
6. He starts to walk.

So really, what's contained in a beat depends entirely on the level at which you are currently thinking about the story. The way I write involves a great deal of playing around with beats like this, working and reworking a master list of beats I call a beat sheet or more simple 'a scene by scene story outline'. Creating one allows you to visualize the story in sequence and play the whole story out in your head. Then move to writing the actual scenes and dialogue. 

The reason for this more abstract work is that once I've committed to dialogue in a scene I tend to fall in love with the scene, and it becomes much harder to cut, reshape and generally chop the story around - all of which is essential if you're going to find the best possible version of your story.

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