You have to eat your beats!

I’ve been trying to focus for the last week to write a whole new post but my brain has been so ADD! Today I’m going to focus though… at least for the next twenty minutes I spend writing this. 🙂

When I was in college the very first thing they taught us was what “beats” are. A BEAT is an ACTION and a REACTION. Example: Person A pulls a gun and Person B screams. That’s one beat. If Person B is silent and patient, that’s an equally palpable beat. Even if it is not a palpable reaction, by not screaming or moving and instead remaining calm, the second person is revealing that they either knew that it was going to happen, or that they hold up well under pressure. By not making a noise or motion, the second character maintains the power whereas in the first scenario, the screamer quickly gives up their power.

Before we were allowed to move onto outlining we had to look at our structure and determine the beats for each individual act. It was a massive pain in the ass. We watched movies and television shows as examples and had to write down what we thought were the beats in the sequence and I’m pretty sure that we all failed. I specifically remember watching SHREK and writing down all the beats in the first ten minutes and I must have had thirty and when time was up the teacher said we only needed to have ten… clearly getting a grasp of it was going to take time but you have to do it.

As a senior class project, we all worked on a pseudo-reality series called BEAT BY BEAT that followed all the seniors placed into groups while creating a pilot script and an series pitch. It was a lot of fun to make and I will never forget the episode we focused on “beats.” When each senior was asked in their camera one-on-ones what the definition was, only two people could correctly define it. A few got the initial definition but then when they explained it with examples they fell flat on their face. My favorite moment was when my best friend and roommate attempted to make an analogy of why beats are important by comparing it to eating your vegetables and finally stating you have to “eat your beats.” You have to do it, same as every writer before you. As you gain a stronger grasp of writing you can have your own methods and many people often combine beats and outlining and that’s fine. Some production companies will even ask for a Beat Sheet before the outline or instead of it all together. Do what is best for you, but when you are first starting out make sure you have these loosely structured moments down before you begin your draft so your writing doesn’t meander.

This week as I break down scripts for you, I am going to look at specific sequences and their important beats. How many beats in a first act on a procedural? If comedies are filled with jokes does that lessen the number of beats? Once you see it a few times in the shows you watch it will hopefully be easier to apply as you watch things more critically in preparing for writing your own spec.

Happy Writing!

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