Spec Killers #1: "Beat"

One little word.

It looks so innocent.


Often the sole owner of a parenthetical, "beat" can be found in over half of the amateur scripts out there and virtually every professional script you can find.

The word is usually associated with pausing. As in:

You know I hate it when you do that.

You know, I hate you."

The use of the word "beat" is common practice among the screenwriting elite and you'd be hard pressed to find a script without one.

So what's so wrong with a word that everyone uses? Three things:

1) It's lazy.

Instead of creating an action for the character to do, the writer just slaps down "beat" and calls it a day.

That's great if you use the word as a place holder. But as seen in a parenthetical, nothing could be lazier. Use it once or twice, and I'm sure the reader wouldn't notice. But if "beat" plagues the page, the reader might assume you don't know how to do your job.

Your job being: actually writing something.

2) It's obscure.

More than half of the time, "beat" usually means "pause". And it's usually for comedic purposes. More than half of the time.

Which means for the other half of the time it means something else.

And it's up to the reader/actor to figure it out.

That's not good.

Take this example:

What do you want to do tonight?

Maybe go to dinner."

This beat can mean anything. A pause, her ignoring him, her smiling, her lost for words or pretty much anything. It's unclear.

It's never a good idea to let the reader fill in the blanks. They don't have the time and that's not their job.

They want to read your story and that means all of it.

3) It's Annoying!

I once read a script that had nine beats on one page. Nine! What?

That means there was a "pause" almost every four lines.

That's not good pacing.

Plus it was hard to tell what kind of beat it was.

It was beat, after beat throughout the entire script. It was a script that was written by a professional that felt like it was written by a newbie.

It was annoying.


Yes, the pros use beat. But this is one of those things that is best to be left for the pros. I don't think it's cool that they do it, but it doesn't matter. They made it. They're pros. They don't have to worry about anything because they're not writing on spec.

You are.

Like I said before, if there is a "beat" or two in your screenplay, I don't think anyone is going to notice. It's a word this is used so often that most readers won't even see it.

But more then two "beats" per script is a dangerous move.

Personality, I don't allow even one for my clients. There's just so many better ways of expressing what you mean and I try to give them more active and engrossing choices than "beat". You rjust have to be more creative.

And if all else fails, just say "he pauses".

Hey, it's better than beat.

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