• James Stranahan

The Importance of Beats in a Script

Even after all these years in the movie world, I still am sometimes amazed by how simple words on paper can translate into an incredible story on the big screen. Seriously, have you ever looked at a script? You’ll see the names of characters, their lines, directions for actions, and other industry jargon, but in the end, none of it will get its power until the director, actors, crew, and producer do their magic.

That magic, of course, comes largely from the actors, who become their characters and explore their emotions, decisions, and motivations in front of the camera. Any actor knows that being able to play their part goes far beyond mere memorization of lines. Instead, it takes a thorough understanding of the script, including all parts their character is not involved in, to really bring the story to life.

What Is a Beat, and Why Is It Important?

A beat, as you may already know, is a change of thought, tone or energy of a scene. Think of The Walking Dead, when the Whisperers killed Enid, Tara, Henry, and others in the barn. For a while, the characters believed that the fight was going well, but then suddenly, Alpha and her followers walked in, signaling that this was not going to have a happy ending. That entrance marked a beat: a change from defiance to hopelessness.

Being able to see these beats means that you will have greater nuance as an actor and be able to deliver your own lines in a way that will make the story more compelling for viewers.

How to Spot Beats in a Script

One of the most useful things you can do as an actor is to first read the script multiple times so that you can cement the story in your mind. Once you have it, you can then dive deeper and really begin to analyze it scene by scene. This is when you begin to look for beats, those subtle, or not so subtle, changes that can be pivotal to a character or to the plot.

Think of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which has two pivotal beats near the end: when Harry is about to be killed by Lucius Malfoy but the Order shows up just in time, and when Voldemort is about to kill Harry (that guy has the worst life!) but is saved by the sudden appearance of Dumbledore. Both of these are beats: dramatic changes in tone and energy that signal a shift in the plot.

As you go through your script and watch for beats, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there anything changing from the beginning of a scene to its end?

  • Has the audience been led to the edge of one feeling and is now confronted with a new one?

  • Have any relationships changed?

  • What does the introduction of a new character mean for the other characters?

Remember that beats can happen anytime in the scene: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Be on the watch for those subtle shifts that can only be spotted through multiple readings of the scene.

Be Open to Beats Spotted by Other Actors.

Interpretation really is a matter of opinion, and it’s very possible that your co-stars will see something in a script that you missed. Being open to their opinion on a beat is what can make you an even better actor. It can lead to further opportunities to develop the story and earn you a reputation as being someone who is easy to work with, a good thing to have in this industry.

I hope this helps!

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