What Is a Story Beat?
Volume, length, mass, time — just like everything else in the world, the story can be measured. And when it comes to screenplays, the smallest unit of the story is the beat.
Thankfully, with a story, there’s no need to convert to the metric system.
Let’s uncover what you need to know about story beats and examples from popular movies.
The Units of Screenplay
Everything that can be measured can be broken down into several increments, and screenwriting is no different.
Whether you’re writing a movie or television episode, the largest unit of a script is the act. Features are typically structured into three acts, while the number of acts for television episodes varies depending on length, genre, and distribution platform.
The next smallest unit of the screenplay would be the scene. Differentiated by slug lines and changes in time, location, or storyline, scenes are the backbone of a screenplay.
But even smaller than a scene is the story beat.
Read More: How To Write a Screenplay: A 10-Step Guide
All About Story Beats
A story beat is a shift in the narrative. Story beats can be emotional turns, incidents or events, actions, and reactions, or realizations. They can even be small shifts in narrative tone or a character’s emotional arc.
Essentially, beats are small moments that move the story forward. Scenes are made up of many beats. Some may be obvious, while others are much more subtle. Unlike volume or mass measurements, story beats are not an exact science.
But if your scene only has one beat, you need to be seriously questioning the purpose of the scene in the overall story. After all, if nothing is changing — if the story isn’t moving forward — what is the point of the scene?
Story Beat, Not a Beat of Dialogue
While story beats are an essential element of narrative structure, they are not explicitly written into a script like a slugline or act break.
“BEAT” or “A BEAT” in a script should not be confused with a story beat. When a screenwriter explicitly writes “beat,” they intend it to be a pause in the action or dialogue, not calling your attention to a beat in the story.
It’s a note for the actors and production team and has nothing to do with the story structure.
Now that we’ve discussed what a story beat is, let’s look at some examples using scenes from 2023 Oscar-nominated movies.
Read More: What Can We Learn From the 2023 Oscar-Nominated Shorts?
Examples of Story Beats in Movie Scenes
Example #1: The Disruptors Arrive in Greece
From Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
This Act One scene is important for setting up the dynamics between the group of characters in this multi-layered murder mystery.
If we break the scene down into story beats, it looks like this:
- Benoit sits alone on the pier. Lionel walks up. A car horn sounds, and Claire arrives. She greets Lionel happily.
- The beep-beep of a tuk-tuk! Birdie Jay arrives in all of her wide-pant-legged, floppy glory. Her assistant Peg is there too. They notice Benoit.
- OMG a gunshot! Duke and Whiskey arrive on a motorcycle.
- Everyone greets one another, and they wonder aloud why Benoit is there. He says that Miles invited him.
- Another horn! The ship is here! And a car horn! Miles’ Butler arrives with disinfectant shots. Benoit asks Claire about their group and their yearly trips.
- Everyone begins to board the boat when there is one final car horn. Andy arrives, to everyone’s surprise.
While Rian Johnson could have had everyone arrive simultaneously, it would’ve been a far less interesting scene and wouldn’t have told us nearly as much about the characters.
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Example #2: Meet Jobu Tupaki
From Everything Everywhere All At Once
Broken down into story beats, this pivotal scene in Everything Everywhere All At Once looks like this:
- The freight elevator opens, and Jobu Tupaki walks out with a pig on a leash. Evelyn recognizes her as her daughter, Joy.
- Jobu confronts the police officer, and he puts her in handcuffs. But she breaks the cuffs and makes the officer explode into confetti.
- Jobu takes out two other police officers, manipulating reality as she does. Evelyn flees in horror.
- The third officer shoots Jobu, and Evelyn screams, thinking her daughter has been shot. Jobu reveals that the blood is only ketchup.
- Jobu takes out the third officer, and Evelyn finally realizes that Jobu is not her daughter, Joy; she’s the evil antagonist trying to destroy the universe.
By exaggerating the moment when the antagonist is fully introduced, Daniels is able to effectively highlight the emotional realizations and show just how dangerous and powerful Jobu Tupaki really is.
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Example #3: Sammy Meets His Hero
From The Fabelmans
While this is quite a long scene (four-and-a-half minutes!), there aren’t actually that many story beats:
- Sammy looks around in awe at the film posters on the office wall. John Ford walks in and ignores Sammy. The secretary goes after him with tissues. The secretary returns, tells Sammy he has five minutes — probably one — and advises him to get rid of his tie. Sammy goes into Ford’s office and waits as Ford lights a pipe. Finally, Ford asks why he wants to take pictures.
- Ford asks what Sammy knows about art, then tells him to look at one of the paintings on the wall and describe it. Sammy describes it, but Ford says: “NO. NO.”
- He asks where the horizon is, and Sammy answers. Ford has him look at another painting and asks again about the horizon. Sammy answers. Ford gives him advice: “When the horizon’s at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s at the top, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s in the middle, it’s boring as shit.” Then he tells him good luck and get the fuck out.
- Sammy leaves but immediately returns and says a hurried but gracious thank you.
By slowing down the turns in action, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner manipulate the audience’s experience to mimic Sammy’s.
Understanding story beats is a critical piece of becoming a great screenwriter. By breaking down the story into its component parts, writers can ensure that their narrative is cohesive, engaging, and effective. Whether you're working on a feature film, television series, or any other type of screenwriting project, mastering the art of story beats is essential to creating compelling and successful stories.