The dog next door has been barking non-stop for days, maybe weeks. The first couple of times, you got up to see why, but never seeing anything, you barely hear the sound any more. It is just noise.
Alternatively, you’d never know your neighbour owns a dog, the creature is so quiet. But then, it suddenly barks. Jarred by the new noise, you look out your window only to find someone climbing through one of your neighbour’s windows.
Which dog are you most likely to notice: The one that barks incessantly or the one that doesn’t but just did?
If there is one function that I wish Final Draft and Movie Magic and all the other screenwriting software would remove, it’s the ability to insert the parenthetical (beat).
At the very least, when you type it, I would love a pop-up window to appear asking: “Are you sure it’s necessary?”
Because more often than not, it is completely UNnecessary. If anything, it is typically a nuisance.
As I understand it, (beat) is used to indicate a delay between one line of dialogue and the next.
In this example from The Imitation Game, the 2014 film screenwritten by Graham Moore, it is used to break up a phone conversation where we only hear one character speak. In this case, (beat) indicates a pause while Detective Nock listens to the party on the other end of the line.
Unfortunately, (beat) is also often inserted by the screenwriter for dramatic reasons.
The writer believes that the brief pause makes the prior line stand out before moving onto the next spoken thought. A dramatic moment is revealed in the dialogue, and (beat) gives the line space to be heard.
Or at least, that’s the theory.
Too often, unfortunately, writers use (beat) in place of drama. Unable to devise a truly dramatic or powerful line, they instead insert (beat) in a vain attempt to imply drama.
It’s tantamount to someone Tweeting about how powerful, smart or cagey they are to compensate for none of those qualities being obvious in their person or demeanor.
In the writer’s defence—and this happens more with newer writers—the (beat) is exactly how they “hear” the dialogue in their head. The character takes a moment when speaking and so the writer types (beat).
This would be fine if it happened a couple of times in a screenplay, but what I’ve found is that:
Once a writer starts (beat)ing off, it’s hard to get them to stop.
The more dramatic the scene they’re trying to write, the more aggressively they (beat) off. And they don’t stop (beat)ing off until the scene or sequence achieves climax.
Although the writer may gain some satisfaction in this, few others do.
The pace of the read and therefore the pace of the story slows for the reader. The Director doesn’t want to be told how to direct, nor the performer how to act.
To a person, each simply ignores the writer’s directive to (beat). The constantly barking dog is effectively silenced.
When everything is dramatic, nothing is dramatic.
And worse, once the (beat) moves on, the reader, Director and performer are left with lines of dialogue that are not dramatic, that have no weight, that dampen the drama.
So, what’s the writer to do?
One: Write better, more powerful dialogue.
Writing is an art, but it is also a craft.
Write the best line that you can, and then rewrite it better and better, layering the drama into the words, the cadence, the subtext, the timing within the plot.
Two: Trust the process.
Know that you are not the only arbiter of your words and trust others down the line to find the drama you so carefully crafted.
Below, see another example from The Imitation Game, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s script is un(beat)en and yet he imbues his lines with drama and significance.
If people cannot find the drama without constant insertions of (beat), they won’t find it with your direction (because it’s likely not there).
By being judicious in your use of (beat), those moments you do decide to use it will become the dog that never barks but just did.
The (beat) will stand out as something special, noteworthy; and so will your story.
Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.