Scenes and Story Beats

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What is a Story Beat?

In a nutshell, a story beat — as opposed to an acting beat or a parenthetical beat used in dialogue — is a single scene.  In other words, a story beat is single unit of dramatic action.

The dramatic action of every scene begins with a character who has a clear want.  Someone or something wants to prevent that character from achieving his or her goal.  And the outcome of the scene is that the main character of the scene — the one who drives the action, who has to accomplish a goal –either does or does not accomplish that goal.

Before doing a full blown outline of your story it can be helpful to break down your movie into the beats of the plot and subplot to see how your story paces out and whether there is too little or too much plot in your story.  To do that, we use a beat sheet.

Beatsheets

A beat sheet is a list of each scene in the plot of a movie.  It is used to check the pacing and development of both story and character.

It should relay only the dramatic action of the scene, which is the action that is necessary to propel the plot — story and character growth — forward.

If you figure that, on average, scenes run about 2-1/2 pages, a movie should have between 35-50 scenes in a beatsheet. Of course, this is just a suggestion.  The actual number of scenes can very, depending on how you tell yours story.

In general, fewer usually means your story is too thin.  Not enough is being developed in terms of character and plot.  (A lot of action movies fall into this category.)

Too many scenes may mean that your story is too long, has too many characters and or subplots.  Look for scenes that seem redundant or do not advance the characters growth and/or the plot.

Scenes

Scene — or story beats — can take many forms.  We’ve discussed how to write scenes in the previous articles.  Here is a quick recap of types of scenes you might want to use and what to consider when breaking down your story:

Types
Monologues
Duologues
Chase Scenes
French Scenes (two person scenes that start/stop when a new person interjects)
Group Scenes

Functions
Opening Scenes
Expositional Scenes
Climactic Scenes

Story Questions
Dramatic Action vs. Activity
Character Development
– Revelations & Reveals
– Exposition

Elements
Character Wants
Unifying Conflict (Opposition)
Attacking a scene (Beginning, Middle, End)
Comedy vs. Drama
Suspense vs. Surprise

Dialogue
Language Choices
Speaking  Rhythm
Talking vs. Silence
Text vs. Subtext

Story Checklist

A good thing to do in preparation for doing a beatsheet of your movie is to find movies that are similar to yours in genre and style and break them down beat by beat.  While this isn’t a list of everything to look for, this list below will help you identify some of the most important points.

Act One:

Opening Scene:  _______________________________________________

Main Character:  ______________________________________________

Inciting Incident:  ______________________________________________

Unexpected Event:  _____________________________________________

Clear Want:  __________________________________________________

Action Choice: ________________________________________________

Act Two:

Antagonist:  ___________________________________________________

Allies:  ________________________________________________________

Wanted Object:  ________________________________________________

Complication:   _________________________________________________

Midpoint: ______________________________________________________

Act Three:

Action Plan: ____________________________________________________

Complication: ___________________________________________________

Rising Tension: __________________________________________________

Lowest Moment: _________________________________________________

Act Four:

Action Plan: ____________________________________________________

Complication:  ___________________________________________________

Climax:________________________________________________________

Resolution/Change: ______________________________________________

 


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