Screenwriting 101: Making the Scene with the Beats


“I love reading your blog, Mr. Todd Alcott, and learning about storytelling for the sake of increasing my enjoyment of movies. But I get pretty lost when you start talking about beats. Beats are probably a very obvious concept for writers, like but could you please explain for media consumers like myself what beats are and how to identify them in a story.”

Beats are simply self-contained sections of a narrative, like steps rising up a flight of stairs. The narrative climbs up these beats until it reaches the landing, and that’s the act climax.

You don’t call them scenes because a beat can be made up of many scenes, and sometimes there can be more than one beat in a scene. They’re like sequences, but “sequence” generally refers to the finished filmic product, not to the script itself and usually refers to a larger narrative concept.

“Daniel Plainview mines for silver” would be a “beat” from the first act of There Will Be Blood. That “beat” is made up of several “scenes”: Plainview hacks at the walls of his mine, Plainview crouches by the fire, Plainview sets a dynamite charge, Plainview hoists his materials up from the mine as the dynamite goes off, Plainview falls in the hole, Plainview wakes up in pain, Plainview examines the rocks around him, finds silver. Those are all scenes, serving the beat “Daniel Plainview mines for silver.”

Now then: scenes are also made up of beats. The opening beat of Jaws, “Chrissie Watkins gets eaten by a shark,” is made up of several scenes, and those scenes are made up of beats. The very first scene, “Kids around the campfire,” has three beats: kids play guitars and smoke pot, one of the boys smiles at Chrissie, Chrissie gets up and runs away, and the boy follows. The following scene, “Chrissie leads the boy across the beach,” is made up of a few beats as Chrissie takes off her clothes and the boy gets increasing excited about the encounter to come, ending with Chrissie diving into the surf and the boy collapsing on the beach. The next scene, “Chrissie gets eaten,” is made up of separate beats of Chrissie being attacked while the boy lolls drunkenly on the beach.hitcounter


One Response to “Screenwriting 101: Making the Scene with the Beats”
  1. juozasg says:

    Thanks for the explanation. I think I have semi-consciously tried to pick out beats (without knowing what they were) while re-watching movies I’m already very familiar with. Also, when retelling stories I unconsciously identify and recall the beats, but I make up or ignore other details. I expect that most people do the same. It’s very cool to know that there is a name for such a basic and unconscious human capability. It reminds me of the intro to linguistics class I’m taking right now, where we learn the rules humans employ unconsciously and effortlessly when using language.

    Anyway, thanks again. I embarrassed to say I’ve never seen Jaws, but now I have a very powerful reason to watch it.