Filmmakers and playwrights use the term "beat"
to describe moments in the screenplay that should evoke particular emotional reactions
in the audience. Although derived from musical beats
, this term is less about timing and much more about pacing
— specifically about keeping the audience emotionally engaged throughout the whole story. Narrative beats therefore don't have any specific duration, and can, in fact, be found as often as at every line of dialogue or as rarely as at the key turning points of the plot. In movies, beats tend to be spaced apart regularly; a string of scenes between two beats is known as a "sequence"
Narrative beats are not the same as Beats
and Beat Panels
, which are presentation techniques of pausing the dialogue/action to let something important sink in with the audience (although that "something" is often an underlying narrative beat).
Each narrative beat can resolve either positively, i.e. towards hope (that The Protagonist
reaches their goal, does the right thing, resolves their internal strife, or simply looks awesome), or negatively, i.e. towards fear (that the protagonist fails, succumbs to their demons, makes a bad call, etc.). A plot with too many positive resolutions often Tastes Like Diabetes
, while too many negative ones can lead to Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy
The trick to keeping the audiences on the edge of their seats throughout the whole story is a varied progression that generally slopes downward (towards fear) but intersperses negative beat resolutions with hopeful ones at just the right times. Not all beats have to resolve positively or negatively, however: neutral or ambiguous resolutions can be used effectively to maintain tension, but too many of them result in indecisive and forgettable narratives.
Particularly powerful resolutions of key narrative beats have good chances of going down in collective memory as Crowning Moments
of one sort or another.
in Hamlet's Hit Points
identifies two elementary and seven special types of narrative beats (without claiming this model to be complete or universal):
- Procedural beats revolve around the protagonist's external or practical goals and evoke a sense of suspense, advancing the overall plot with little personal investment from the characters. For example, the hero may be giving chase to the villain to stop his nefarious plans: in a positive resolution, he is able to intercept the bad guy; in a negative one, he loses track of him.
- Dramatic beats are the opposite of Procedural ones: instead of moving the external plot along, they concern personal aspirations and relationships between characters. For example, the hero may seek his father figure's approval for his actions: in a positive resolution, his father supports him; in a negative one, he is not impressed at all.
- Commentary beats inject the author's own voice into the narrative, e.g. as Greek Chorus or as Author Filibuster, and are often (but not always) a sign of bad writing.
- Anticipation beats create expectation of incoming awesomeness. Any "Hell, Yes!" Moment is essentially this. They resolve positively by definition.
- Gratification beats consist of various forms of Fanservice (not necessarily sexual, e.g. a Continuity Nod) and/or Author Appeal and serve to resolve positively without adding anything meaningful to the story.
- Bringdown beats are Gratification's Evil Twin, rubbing salt into the wounds without technically making the situation any worse—for instance, an Empathy Doll Shot. Naturally, they always resolve negatively.
- Pipe beats lay subtle Foreshadowing groundwork for upcoming events or reveals. Well-written pipes resolve neutrally, as the audience doesn't normally register them as important.
- Question beats pique the audience's curiosity about something that's happening or already happened. Because no one likes being kept in the dark, they usually resolve negatively.
- Reveal beats do just that: cash in the suspense built up by earlier Question and Pipe beats by revealing something surprising or important. They typically resolve positively.
Procedural and Dramatic beats are the two main workhorses of fiction: 80% of any narrative consists of them, with the exact ratio between the two determining its place on the Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters
. Pipe, Question, and Reveal are collectively known as "informational beats". The Question-Reveal combo is a particular darling of Lit Fic
, whose authors use it to maintain narrative suspense in lieu of jeopardy-inducing Procedural beats preferred by adventure fiction.