My main source of research about storytelling/screenwriting/how-to-write-a-book manual is [1]. But, the definition of "beat" given by [1] maybe can causing me some confusion.

In [1] we have a definition about what is an event and what is a beat. A event is something which, naively speaking, is both a point of life's character and something that causes change: after an event occurrence the character's life is changed (*). A beat is something that compose an Scene: Events+beats = scenes. A beat is something that catalyzes the conflict (external or internal) between the character and the world. Futhermore a beat is something that gives you a "fine tuning" (i.e. you can add beats to introduce,for example, tension into an not-so-interesting original scene) for the great change of the scene.

But accordingly to source [2] the author gives us an slightly different point of view of structure: "Stories are divided into Acts, Acts into Sequences, Sequences into Scenes, and Scenes into Beats" And also some youtube channels gives us something similar like videos entitled "The Beat Plot Structure" and so on. With this point of view in mind, is almost like beat and event are synonyms or an event is a more heuristic concept.

So, what is the difference between and Beat and an Event?( In particular on BOOK AND SHORT STORY writing process).

[1] MCKEE.R. Story. Itbooks, New York, 1997.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_(filmmaking)

(*) Then we have the notion of a Story event: the one which deals specifically with the character and an "trivial event" (or just an event) that do not deals with character (like an cup of glass fell from the top of an table and smashed to the ground).


2 Answers 2


I don't agree with McKee's definition of "Story", like many writers I think this difference between a "beat" and an "event" are contrived. I think the way McKee intends them to be used, "beats" are little events, and "events" are only used for larger "events", e.g. a Battle is an event presented in a scene, but the beats of the battle are the little turning points of your character(s) within that scene, as they worry about fighting, find their courage, etc. So in the scene they go, step-by-step from, say, "fear of battle" to "veteran of battle", or "dread of killing" to "killer by necessity", or something else. They experience a large change (event) as the result of many smaller changes (beats).

So McKee's Event is a turning point in the plot -- The battle was won or lost. It resolved some tension in the reader, but perhaps created a new tension or conflict.

McKee's Beat is a NOT a turning point in a plot, but a change point in the character's emotional journey. For example they go from fearful of risk, to resigned to risk, to acting on risk, and so on, each a change of mindset coming with its own types of thoughts, arguments, expressions and behavior. A woman that doesn't want to get in a fist fight looks and feels different than a woman that has resigned herself to being in a fist fight. That is a McKee Beat for that character, but obviously not the whole scene. At the same time, the woman picking the fight has had no emotional change, and no McKee Beat, she began angry and wanting to fight, she is taunting and harassing the MC that did not want to fight, and nothing in the antagonist's mind has changed: No McKee Beats for her.

Like @LaurenIpsum I prefer the screenwriter definition, a beat is basically a plot point for the MC. This is often accompanied by a mental change in the MC (as McKee suggests) but not always; or it is a stretch to say so because your MC is constantly experiencing many other mental changes.

For example, in Enemy of the State, a videotape (on CD) is surreptitiously given to a lawyer (Will Smith, the MC), hidden in his shopping bag. That is a Beat in screenwriting, the whole plot hinges on this two-second event within a scene between two college friends, but the MC has no idea anything has happened, and his mental state afterward is still "shopping for a present for his wife". But through surveillance cameras the NSA realizes this information they don't want to get out (videotape of a murder they committed) has been given to Smith, and they proceed to ruin his life, for reasons he at first does not comprehend, and mistakenly attributes to a criminal he is pursuing as a lawyer.

So maybe that is an "event" and not a "beat" in McKee terminology, but it seems like an artificial distinction to me. It is a beat in screenwriting, and I transfer that same notion of a plot point event the audience sees to the novel or story. Whether or not it involves any characters, I could open with a dramatic billiard-ball series of collisions amongst asteroids colliding that sends one spinning on a collision course with Earth, that is an event, and a plot point beat, involving no emotional changes in any character (but it may cause an emotional change in the audience).


I have never heard of McKee's definition of "beat." I have only heard of and use the filmmaking definition.

I have always viewed Event as part of your overall plot structure, and Beat as a granular part of how you construct a smaller Scene within a chapter. Events are high and low points in your plot, which you see from a larger perspective. Events are considered in the context of Ordinary World, First Threshold, First Setback, Acts I to V, Rising and Falling Action, Climax, Epilogue, and so on — the big milestones, the skeleton of your story. They are narrative tools.

Beats, scenes, chapters, parts, etc. are the bricks you use to build the tale on the page. They are storytelling tools.

  • Can you give me an simple example of the difference between an event and a beat?
    – M.N.Raia
    Aug 27, 2019 at 9:44
  • 2
    @M.N.Raia An Event is "Eliot gets shot." Beats are: 1) Gun fires. 2) Eliot is struck and falls. 3) Hardison, around the corner, reacts to gunfire sound. 4) Gunman sees Eliot has fallen and runs away. 5) Hardison yells for Eliot, who doesn't respond. Hardison yells again. 6) Hardison starts to run towards Eliot's location. 7) Hardison reaches Eliot and sees that he's bleeding. End scene. // The Event is the larger idea: "Eliot is shot." It will have consequences for the rest of the plot. It will have consequences for the characters. Beats are the moments where the "camera" moves. Aug 27, 2019 at 15:29

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