I ought to know. I imagine it's something to do with the rhythm of the piece. I try to look intelligent when people mention it. Which is daft really, because I mainly discuss writing at Hatrack and in e-mails.
Robert McGee in Story states: "A beat is an exchange of behavior in action/ reaction. Beat by beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene."
He goes on to explain it is the smallest element of structure.
James Scott Bell in Plot and Structure uses the term in a way that supports that meaning.
What I gather is that beat is both an action and the precipitated reaction, and the action triggered by that, and so on. You can look at them as units of change. First Anne is sleepy. Her husband sees it and makes her coffee. Anne forgets to thank him and instead says, "Oh, it's about time!". Her husband gets hurt and makes some huffy comment... and so on.
"A beat?" Goatboy leaned forward and pulled his eyeglasses down so he could peer over the rims. "A beat is the the action I just used to break up this dialogue. You can use the regular dialogue tags, or you can insert a bit of action. A beat has the general effect of slowing the dialogue."
Posts: 497 | Registered: Jun 2004
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A "beat" in screenwriting lingo can mean a pause, but it is also a "moment" in a scene. You use beats to spice up your scenes. In a comedy, for instance, individual jokes you use in scenes, individual funny moments, actions, quips, etc. are all beats.
Posts: 31 | Registered: May 2007
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A beat is also a nice way to insert dialogue tags without using "he said, she said" and as a way to indicate who is speaking. In Goatboy's example, it's clear Goatboy is the speaker, because he despectacles himself (or is it makes a spectacle of himself? With Goatboy you never really know...)
"However, tread with caution when using beats, as a previous poster pointed out, they can slow things up even though they are inserting action, and it can get tiresome to read." She got down from her soapbox at long last. "He said/she said are pretty invisible to readers and can be simpler." She felt for her spectacles and then remembered she doesn't wear glasses. "You see how annoying that gets?" She peered at the computer screen, willing it to carry her expression forward.
I don't know about anyone else, but sometimes I see where the author writes it: "She waited a long beat, looked from one to another and finally spoke."
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"More on beats?" TaleSpinner leaned forward and squinted at several posts. "Beats are action and reaction. The smallest element of structure." He made a cup of tea, to give himself time to absorb it all, to think.
"Beats break up dialogue, improve flow." Sipping tea thoughtfully, he didn't notice the adverb. "They're moments in scenes, spice--and overdone, they're annoying." I like spice, but don't want to be annoying, he thought.
"So beats," he summarised to himself, "are the things that move the story along, the little twists and turns, actions and reactions, that influence the characters. They can be used to tag dialogue--but beware overuse." He looked back over this paragraph and wondered briefly whether "he said" might have been better than "he summarised to himself." Since he wasn't saying, but thinking, he left it as it was.
Feeling he'd learned something--changed--from the exchange of posts, he typed, "Thanks everyone. Does this mean I'm qualified now to join the beat generation?"