Thursday, July 31, 2008

What's a Beat?

I apologize for jumping around a bit with my blogging. One week I'm dwelling on my own fairly esoteric musings, then switching over to very basic stuff the next. I'm sure I'm boring the working screenwriters and confusing the beginners. So, apologies to all.

Today's a day for the beginners with maybe a warm fuzzy moment of recognition for the more advanced readers as well.

What's a beat? Virtually anyone new to dramatic writing asks this question. And there are many answers. A beat is first and foremost a unit of drama. It's a pearl in the necklace. It's a step forward.

It's scalable. When talking about structure, screenwriters are talking about 'big' beats -- your act breaks and midpoint and low point and so on. When you're deep in scene work, a beat means the same thing it does to an actor. It's a shift in action, objective, or circumstance. It's the moment to moment shifts, the step by step modulations that make a scene work or fall flat.

A beat is universal. Everyone involved in drama talks about beats. It's a way of connecting your work to other people's efforts. You learn to find the beats very quickly. You know a beat when you see one.

It's a beat, as in music. Beats have to line up correctly. Beats define pacing. Beats create tension or excitement. Beats invite the audience into the song of your story.

A beat might be a line of dialogue. A beat can be a new shot. A beat can be action, or a simple, intuitive shift in a character's objective. A beat is what makes the story make sense moment to moment.

It's the hard stuff. Beats will always call bulls*** on what seemed like a good idea when you were working out your synopsis. Beats are what sell or sink your scene. If the reader just doesn't believe what's going on (or even if she isn't particularly engaged), there's usually a problem with the beats.

What's that problem? Usually the writer is forgetting (or ignoring) something that's perfectly obvious a beat or two before. A character is on the verge of starvation one moment, then chatting amicably about Augustine's use of Aristotle the next. Or a character's bent on wooing a beautiful girl one moment, then when given the perfect opportunity a few beats later, steals a car instead. We've all done it. It's inevitable. Reality is slippery. Stories are slippery. It's always more complex than we know starting out.

For me, screenwriting is about working out the big beats first -- in a careful synopsis I write and rewrite until I'm happy. Then I move down into smaller beats: getting each 'big' beat to work. And after I'm happy at that level, I'll get into the really tiny beats that make a script sing. It takes a lot of work. But it keeps you focused on where the audience is. It keeps you locked into a couple absolutely central issues that are too easily forgotten.

CHARACTER. Who is the character? How does he or she react? What's his misbehavior? Her overall goal?

RELATIONSHIP. What's the power dynamic between the characters? What's really going on beneath the words on the page? How well do they know each other? How do I communicate this to an audience?

OBJECTIVE. In almost every good scene, the characters' objectives are in conflict. Frequently one character doesn't understand the other character's objective. But you do. Write to make it clear.

WHERE. Where are they? Do you REALLY know where they are? What's going on? Work hard to make that space less cloudy. Make some good choices. You'll find the beats you're looking for in the comforts and obstacles inherent in the location. And you'll be grounding the audience in the space too. They'll feel it. They'll buy it. And that'll do more to sell your script than you expect.

You've no doubt heard a million times that a winning script reads quickly. Readers will read the entire thing in a couple houra. They'll eat it up, take it in, absorb it, and remember everything. Yeah, you need a brilliant idea to start. But you also need to get everything working beat to beat.

You can lose a reader in a moment. There's always a distraction. The moment something doesn't ring true they'll be up checking their email or putting on the stereo. The moment the action feels guided by the writer's objectives rather than the characters', the reader's thinking about their aching back, or the fact that they haven't been to the gym all week. One beat out of tune can do that.

And the moment they're thinking about that stuff, you're sunk.

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