Dramatic Scene Beats & Directing Film

– Posted in: Directing Performance Directing Story

Have you ever heard of “dramatic scene beats”, sometimes simply called “beats”?

If you haven’t, you’ll want to read on because these little things are packed full of power.

In this post, I’m going to help you understand:

  • What constitutes a dramatic beat.
  • How to identify and breakout beats.
  • How to use dramatic beats to enhance your story.

Question

Why does a director need to break a scene into dramatic scene beats if the script already supplies all the dialogue and stage directions?

Answer

Well, the best and simplest answer is that an entire scene is just too big a chunk to manage. A single scene can contain multiple emotional and dramatic arcs and changes. We call these changes “dramatic beats” or simply just “beats”.

What is a beat?

  • A beat is a defined moment in time – it could be 10 seconds, it could be 90.
  • It has a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • It’s a small unit of measure in a screenplay.

A beat is a measurable chunk of time that defines a change.  Because a beat can be measured, it can be isolated, talked about and acted upon.

Different kinds of beats

Some say “a character sitting down and picking up a pencil” is two separate scene beats. It’s probably best to call these action beats. Identifying these types of action beats can be especially helpful when tracking physical changes. The word “beat” has also been used to reflect the moment when an actor takes a mid-sentence pause. This is a pause beat and is used for timing or punctuation purposes. Both the “action beat” and the “pause beat” are helpful directing tools, but they’re not nearly as powerful as the dramatic beat when it comes to directing a story. We will not be dealing with action beats or pause beats in this post. I only brought them up to help clarify differences.

For our purposes, it’s most helpful to think of a dramatic beat as a subject change, initiated by a person or a new event. 

I created this simple scene below to help us do a mini-directing workshop.

Read the scene and decide whether you agree or disagree with what I’ve indicated as being the scene’s beats. I’ve purposely left out stage directions and the screenwriter’s interpretation of what the characters are feeling.*

If I were directing this scene and the stage directions indicated feeling, I would immediately cross them out and start fresh. At this phase, it’s the director’s job to interpret the script. Even if I’m also the writer, I want to cultivate “beginner’s mind”.

*I’ll write more about this in another post. 

___________________
Interior Mechanics Garage – Day

Joe walks into the garage where Ed is already at work on a car. (Beat 1)

JOE
Hey man
ED
What is this?  – (Beat 2)

Pointing at a motor cycle

JOE
What is this?
ED
Yeah
JOE
This?
ED
“This – Yes”
Walking closer to the Motorcycle
JOE
It’s a motorcycle of course
ED
Whose is it?  (Beat 3)
_______________________

As long as they continue to focus on the question “what is this?”, the beat doesn’t change because the subject they’re discussing doesn’t change.

Beat 1 – Joe enters

Beat 2 – Ed asking “What is this?”

In this scene, both characters and the audience know what a motorcycle is. We all know that’s not the real question. But, unless the subject of the conversation changes or a rock comes crashing through the window, the beat remains “What is this?” The beat ultimately changes when Ed asks “Whose is it?”

Breaking the scene into beats based on subjects provides clear manageable points of change.

In this scene, the second beat is about a power dance. It could be comedic or could be a serious confrontation. Each character is avoiding the real issue. Ed asking “Whose is it?” provides the change and a shift in power.

A director will use dramatic beats to share a point of view or to change the degree of intimacy between characters.
A beat can be used to:

  • Change the flow of a heated conversation or show a character’s change in confidence
  • Strengthen the viewer’s empathy for a character
  • Align the audience with a new point of view
  • Create intimacy or more distance between characters
  • Add subtext
  • Increase tension
  • Release tension
  • Change the degree of intimacy between characters
  • Change the degree of intimacy between a character and the audience

The key is to work in manageable chunks. These chunks can be analyzed as events from both an isolated and a connected context.

“Beat two” could be directed as if the two were having a standoff or power struggle.

It could be layered with sarcasm, comedy or as a straight-up confrontation. They both know what “it” is, but each wants the other to give in.

With tensions rising, Joe finally breaks and says “it’s a motorcycle,” but instead of losing power in the standoff, he gains power by saying “of course.” Notice that a new opportunity exists with “of course.”

The subject has now changed to “it’s a motorcycle.” The subtext becomes “is this a problem?”

A new beat exists.

Boom – you’ve released energy and created new tension in one sentence.  You could even break this down into smaller beats motivated by subtext.  As you’ve likely recognized, beats can become very small. Don’t break the scene into tiny beats during the script analysis process, this will happen naturally during rehearsal.

While people are complex, relationships are even more complex. Keeping an eye and an ear on drama dynamics is more easily done in small, defined chunks.

Read the scene as if you are the director and ask yourself:

  • What’s changing at the beat transition?
  • What’s already happened off-screen?
  • What’s not being said?
  • What’s the subtext?

Leave your answers in the comment section. If you engage in this process, you’ll be surprised by how much power each of the beats has. Many of us will see it differently and that’s a beautiful thing!

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