What is a Story Beat? Meaning & Examples From Screenplays


Definition: A story beat is a fundamental storytelling unit, marking an event, decision, or discovery that propels the narrative forward. It’s akin to a heartbeat in a story’s structure, rhythmically punctuating the flow to maintain engagement. Beats shape the story’s pace, building tension, emotion, and character development, ensuring a dynamic and compelling narrative.

Story beats are essential narrative building blocks in any story – from literature to movies.

Story beats are the critical moments that shape the story, creating a structure and pacing that keeps the audience engaged.

These beats can vary in scale and intensity, from subtle shifts in a character’s understanding (story beat) to major turning points that alter the story’s direction (plot point).

The Hollywood Model can be an excellent tool for analyzing the intensity of story beats and plot points.

This article explains story beats, specifically within screenplays.

The different structural levels of a script

You can divide a movie script into different structural levels – from act to beat.

Beats are the smallest building blocks of a story (not counting words and individual sentences), each serving a specific purpose in the overall narrative arc.

Here’s an overview of the different levels in descending order:

  • Acts
  • Sequences
  • Scenes
  • Beats

So, acts consist of sequences of scenes that consist of story beats.

Depending on the level of analysis or writing you want to do, you can divide longer sequences into shorter ones and separate beats into big beats and smaller beats depending on their significance and impact on the story.

Different approaches to structuring story beats

Climax and Plot in film. Featured Image
A typical three-act narrative structure

Some popular methodologies for structuring story beats include the Three-Act Structure, the Hero’s Journey, and the Save the Cat beat sheet, among others.

Each framework outlines specific beats believed to engage the audience and deliver a satisfying story experience.

See a quick overview of the most popular storytelling structures.

Benefits of mapping out story beats before writing a scene

Story beats ensure the screenplay has a rhythm and flow, moving seamlessly from one important moment to another.

Understanding and effectively utilizing story beats is crucial for creating a compelling and well-paced narrative in screenwriting.

Screenwriters often map out these beats before diving into the detailed writing of scenes, using them as a blueprint for the screenplay.

This approach helps in maintaining focus on the story’s progression and ensuring that each scene contributes meaningfully to the narrative.

Read more on different types of narratives in movies.

The Difference between Story Beats and Plot Points.

Beats are the building blocks (smaller events) of a scene, detailing the emotional or informational shifts that propel the story forward.

In contrast, plot points are the significant events that define the story’s structure and alter its direction.

While a story beat and a plot point can coincide, not every story beat is a plot point.

  • Story Beat: a small event that happens within a scene and drives the story forward. A new beat = new energy.
  • Plot Point: a major event spinning the narrative in a new direction.

In any story, there are significantly more story beats than plot points.

Read more about what a plot is with examples

The Pros of Story Beats: Flexibility

The beauty and effectiveness of story beats lie in their flexibility.

They can be adapted, reimagined, and even subverted to fit a wide range of stories, making them a powerful tool for a creative storyteller.

Adapting Beats to Different Genres

In a romance, a beat might focus on a moment of intimate connection or a realization of feelings, whereas in a thriller, it might center on a revelation or a moment of high tension.

The core function remains the same—to move the story forward and deepen the narrative—but the execution changes to fit the thematic and emotional needs of the genre.

For example, the “all is lost” beat, typically found in the third act of a story, can manifest as a breakup in a romantic comedy or the hero being captured by the villain in an action movie.

This flexibility allows for creating genre-specific tensions and resolutions while maintaining a structure that satisfactorily guides the audience through the story.

The Importance of Flexibility and Creativity

The true power of story beats lies in your ability to use them flexibly and creatively.

Understanding the underlying purpose of each beat allows for innovative storytelling that can surprise and delight the audience.

Creative adaptation of story beats can involve changing their order, combining them, or even omitting some beats altogether.

This can lead to fresh, engaging narratives that feel coherent and structured.

The ability to creatively adapt and reimagine story beats is precious in genres that thrive on innovation and subversion, such as science fiction and fantasy.

Examples of Unconventional Beat Usage

Several films and novels stand out for their unconventional use of story beats, offering valuable lessons in flexibility and creativity.

“Pulp Fiction” (1994) by Quentin Tarantino – This film is renowned for its non-linear storytelling, dramatically altering the traditional order and expectation of story beats.

By presenting events out of chronological order, Tarantino creates a unique narrative experience that still satisfies the structural needs of storytelling.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) – This film explores the dissolution of a relationship in reverse, starting from the end and moving backward.

The unconventional use of the “meet cute” and “falling in love” beats, presented after witnessing the relationship’s fallout, offers a poignant exploration of memory and love.

The Cons of Story Beats: Common Pitfalls to Avoid

Sticking too rigidly to a prescribed set of beats can lead to predictable and uninspired storytelling.

Beat templates, such as the Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat, are popular frameworks that outline key events or milestones in a story.

While these templates can be beneficial, especially for beginners, an over-reliance on them can lead to predictable and formulaic storytelling.

You may find yourself forcing your narrative to fit into a pre-defined mold, which can stifle creativity and make the story feel contrived.

Each story is unique, and while templates provide a solid foundation, they should be adapted to fit the specific needs and nuances of the narrative rather than strictly adhered to.

Don’t Sacrifice Originality for Structure

Over-reliance on story structure can lead to prioritizing structure over originality, potentially making your screenplay predictable and lacking innovation.

Remember: Story beats are a guide rather than strict rules.

Don’t Ignore Character Arcs and Growth

One of the most critical components of a story is its characters and their development.

Sometimes, in focusing on the plot and ensuring each story beat is hit, writers can neglect their characters’ arcs and growth.

Characters may feel flat, their actions serving the plot rather than stemming from their motivations or desires.

This can disconnect the audience from the story, as they have no emotional investment in characters who don’t evolve or face internal challenges.

Integrating character arcs into the structure of story beats ensures that as the plot progresses, so too do the characters, making for a more engaging and satisfying narrative.

See how to come up with good plot ideas.

Example Analysis of the Story Beats in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Act III – The Escape Sequence

Let’s analyze a pivotal sequence of events from the 1994 film “The Shawshank Redemption,” written by Frank Darabont and adapted from Stephen King’s 1982 novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.

The sequence in question is Andy Dufresne’s (Tim Robbins) escape from Shawshank prison, culminating in his triumphant stance in the rain of freedom.

You can refresh your memory with most of the sequence in the two videos below:

Story Beats

1. The Revelation:

  • Beat: Andy shares his dream of living with Red (Morgan Freeman) in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, a place with no memory of his prison life.

    This conversation is crucial as it plants the seed of hope and dreams, not just for Andy but also for Red.

2. The Revelation to Others:

  • Beat: The next morning, when Andy does not respond to roll call, the guards discover his cell empty, with a gaping hole in the wall hidden behind a Raquel Welch poster.

    This reveals to the characters and the audience a pivotal moment, showing the extent of Andy’s meticulous planning and perseverance.

3. The Setup:

  • Beat: The night before his escape, Andy switches out the Warden’s ledger, replacing it with a dummy, and takes the Warden’s suit and shoes.

    This action is not shown directly but is revealed later, maintaining suspense.

4. The Escape:

  • Beats: Flashbacks show Andy using a rock hammer, which he has been using for nineteen years, to tunnel through his cell wall and subtly dumping the concrete – one pocketful after another – into the prison yard.

    These moments are significant because they culminate years of patience, resilience, and determination.

5. The Journey:

  • Beats: Flashbacks show Andy crawling the tunnel he dug, cracking a hole in a sewage pipe to the sound of thunder strikes, and finally crawling through the sewage pipe to freedom.

    It’s a physical and metaphorical journey, representing Andy cleansing himself of Shawshank’s filth and corruption.

6. The Triumph:

  • Beat: Andy emerges from the pipe into a river during a thunderstorm, raising his hands in victory as the rain washes over him.

    This scene symbolizes rebirth, freedom, and the fulfillment of the human spirit’s unyielding quest for freedom.

7. The Aftermath (denouement):

  • Beat: Andy uses the laundered money and the Warden’s identity to mail evidence of the prison’s corruption to a local newspaper, leading to arrests and the Warden’s suicide.

    Simultaneously, Andy escapes to Mexico, completing his transformation from a banker imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit to a free man living his dream.

This sequence of events is a masterclass in building and releasing tension, character development, and thematic expression through effective story beats.

Through these beats, Act III of The Shawshank Redemption smoothly transitions from hope, preparation, action, and revelation to triumph.

Each beat advances the plot, deepens our understanding of Andy’s character, and underscores the film’s themes of hope, resilience, and redemption.

Summing Up

Story beats in screenplays serve as the backbone of narrative structure, guiding the characters’ (actors’) emotional journeys and the audience’s engagement.

They ensure a dynamic flow of action and reaction, shaping the pacing and, ultimately, the story’s impact on its viewers.

Up Next: What is a subplot in movies and television?


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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