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 — the cyclic shifts in emotional direction and intensity that keep the audience engaged with the 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).
ResolutionEach 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 results in Sweetness Aversion, while too many negative ones can lead to Too Bleak, Stopped Caring.
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.
TypesRobin Laws in Hamlet's Hit Points identifies two elementary and seven specialized 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 a Greek Chorus or as an 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 is also a form of fanservice) and/or Author Appeal and serve to resolve positively without adding anything of consequence 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 and genre fiction.