How do beats in a story work?

I read so much about beats in a story but don’t grasp it. What excactly is a beat, is it a part of a scene or is it a short event? And how does it compare to a scene itself? I believe that it is the smallest element in a story, right? Maybe compared with music, it is a motive, being the smallest element?
Someone knows more about this?


This may help:

No, this is not what I mean. The beats I talk about are something like a short event, like a reaction and action between 2 characters. I don’t get a good grip on it though and was hoping that someone else could explain it clearer.


The usual meaning of “beat” is an accented rhythmic unit (music, poetry), or a silence denoting a pause or hesitation. So a character speaks, and there may follow a beat of 2-3 seconds before someone responds. Harold Pinter’s plays are full of such silences. Ibsen and Chekhov, too.

Film writers often use the term to describe segments of action. I guess it could apply to fiction as well, but there the structures and forms are usually less formulaic.

As used (sometimes) in the theatre and in short fiction, a beat is, roughly, the briefest meaningful segment of action or dialogue which – from the artist’s point of view – can be studied or worked on. Directors have actors rehearse scenes, or French scenes (from a character’s entrance to his or another character’s exit), or beats: the chunks of drama long enough to be worked on individually. A beat in that sense can be a simple exchange, or extended dialogue. A beat in fiction usually begins (and ends) with a change of direction or focus. In this sense, a beat is accented, but is not itself the accent. It might be, in Harold Pinter, only a word or two. Or no words at all. In Eugene O’Neil, it might go on for pages.

It is, in sum, the sort of thing about which academics worry a great deal because they want to explicate the shit out of everything. Writers – good ones – usually don’t think about it any more than they do about punctuation or subject-predicate agreement.


I think the best modern reference on beats (as they apply to screenplays) is Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder.

Beats can also be a “direction” or line of events laid out in a familiar path or pattern. Sometimes used to describe a small area or area of focus.

Ever hear the term " a cop walked his beat".

I think maybe André was hoping to not have to buy the book. :open_mouth:

I strongly recommend all screenwriters and aspiring screenwriters buy this book Screenwriting - The Sequence Approach by Paul Joseph Gulino … 839&sr=8-1

I’ve read most of the major screenwriting books and I’d place this in the top five. It’s a lot more spartan than most, consists mostly of careful story breakdowns and doesn’t spin off into theory much.

Using specific solid examples rather than confounding you with theories I think this is as practical a guide to writing a screenplay as you’re going to find. I’d also recommend (for your Amazon wishlist) Lajos Egri … d_sim_b_36

of course you should also read Vogler … pd_sim_b_1 because everyone else does and it’ll be embarrassing at some point in your future if you haven’t. But don’t get caught up in thinking it represents all story types because it doesn’t.

Frankly, I think it’ll be more embarrassing when someone asks me about Vogler and I begin foaming at the mouth with bug-eyed rage…


I usually restrain myself to smiling through gritted teeth, or at worst a slight patronising sigh.

I’ve often been caught trying to make sense of a movie, and then it comes to me.

It’s been “Voglered.”


I’ve blogged about scenes and beats. See also the articles and books I link to there.