There are many components that a director scrutinizes when preparing a scene for production. But the first step is determining the dramatic beats. This term should not be confused with the beats written in dialog, the pace and rhythm of the story, or the beats in a story’s structure. The dramatic beats are those moments in a scene where a character experiences an irreversible change in his thought process or beliefs.
A secondary definition comes into play when the beat occurs during the exchange between two characters. These changes are seen more as a shift in power, as each character attempts to achieve or obtain his objective. The character driving the story with dialog at any given moment is the one in power or controlling the scene, which might rapidly change numerous times within a single scene.
Since “DJANGO” won an Oscar® for Best Original Screenplay, I thought it was best to use one of its scenes as an example. I have marked the beats in the scene with a slash directly after each line that demonstrates the change. The slash is a standard script marking used in the industry for dramatic beats.
Once the director marks the dramatic beats, he can more easily see the patterns, character motivations, and objectives. I’ll walk through the basics of the Django scene…
The scene opens with a quiet picturesque setting lightly broken by the clip-clopping of the horse hoofs. Every shot sets the mood and tone of the moment, which is broken by the scene’s first beat – Dr. Schultz breaks the silence.
Dr. Schultz owns the conversation until the next beat, when Django says, “This ain’t my horse.” Django drives the next section of dialog, until Dr. Schultz has an epiphany and decides to give Django the horse. This settles the argument and brings the tone back to the silence of the scene’s opening.
The next beat is Dr. Schultz interrupting the silence again with a litany of dialog. Django resets the conversation by answering the original question about naming his horse Tony. Django drives the banter, until Dr. Schultz understands the answer and then poses a new question, “Why Tony?”
This gives Dr. Schultz control once again, which allows him to satisfy his reason for starting the conversation. As a result, he is content to bring closure to the chat and return them to their silent ride through the picturesque setting.
These shifts in power within the dialog make for several clear beats. The beats create significant interest in the minds of the audience, which adds to the film’s entertainment value. Without the dramatic beats, the scene would be a boring conversation between two points, rather than an interesting set of dialog that helps the audience understand the characters.