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Make Pauses and Beats Pull Their Weight

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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by Naomi Write + Co. in rewriting, screenwriting

In some ways a screenplay is a limited canvas. You have an industry-standard number of pages overall, scenes often need to do double duty and move plot as well as develop character, and the words on the page have to be evocative and entertaining AND clear and concise.

So today’s tip is aimed at making sure you’re not wasting a single word.

Specifically, I want to shine some light on something that’s pretty common to see in scripts from screenwriters who are still learning the craft and trying to juggle all of the many skill sets required to write a great screenplay.

It’s definitely something I’ve done! And it’s easy to not even realize you’re doing it. But once you’re aware, it’s also relatively straightforward to improve on. Which makes it perfect for the Tweak + Polish Tip series*!

And that thing we’re aiming to expose today is the weak pause.

(*Today’s tip is #10 in the series. Here’s a link to #9: Do your scenes start in motion? And you can find the previous eight linked there too.)

Need a moment?

Sometimes we write pauses into a scene because we want to create a moment of tension or anticipation or reflection or reaction – whatever effect you’re going for. We want to show that the moment gives the character(s) pause before the scene continues.

But telling us there’s a pause isn’t always the most effective or impactful way to use that beat*.

(*And here we’re using the term “beat” in the scenework sense, not in the story beat or “Save the Cat 15 beats” way.)

Now, sometimes you’ll see a pause in a scene and it IS exactly the right thing for that moment. It lets us know the character has skipped a beat before reacting or responding.

Sometimes it’s comedic. Sometimes it’s to show that they HAVE a reaction, even though that reaction is almost imperceptible or not meant for other characters to see. Or it might spotlight that they’ve specifically noted something before continuing on. The pause or beat can alert us that there’s something to pay attention to there.

But sometimes – and this is the point I want to address today – a pause isn’t used to its full potential. It might be a throwaway or afterthought, used as filler. Other times it’s telling rather than showing.

And using it in either of these ways leaves opportunity on the table. These are instances where the words aren’t performing as well as they could.

Not a word to waste

If you have a limited amount of pages and words to tell your story, and to tell it in a way that wrings as much entertainment and emotion out of it as possible, wasted words only dilute and soften the overall effect.

To be clear, I’m certainly not saying not to write in moments of quiet or tension or confusion. A brief pause in the action might be important for the flow or pacing of your scene. But what I am saying is: make sure the pause is pulling its weight. Make sure it’s doing everything it can for the scene.

If you’ve written a pause into your scene, consider whether the pause itself is enough.

Helpful questions to ask:

  • Is the pause showing us something or dramatizing the moment, or is it telling us what’s happening in a less effective way?
  • Could the pause be more informative and clarifying about its purpose or what’s going on in the moment?

What’s happening in the space between

Consider describing and dramatizing the pause. Instead of having your character do nothing, give them something to do that’s relevant to and even furthers the story by demonstrating what the character is thinking or feeling.

Instead of describing a moment in your scene as:

Joe bursts onto the roof and pauses.

Consider if there’s a more informative action the character could take, or showing us what state the character is in as he reacts to the moment (or both):

Joe bursts onto the roof and anxiously scans the skyline.

Or, perhaps you could enhance an existing pause, beat, or moment by giving the character some action with a little specificity or evocative detail. Instead of:

Joe waits nervously for Susan to enter the room.

Try:

Joe sits on the edge of the bed chewing his nails. He eyes the door.

Save the wordsmithing for late in the game

Movies move, and scenes should be active. Dramatizing a story on screen means we’re watching things happen, people doing. So even in the quiet moments, the pauses, the anticipation for what comes next, can convey action contribute to the story of the scene.

In your screenplay you have a finite amount of space to pack as much punch as you can. Make every word and moment count.

But, as always, I have to give my usual disclaimer:

Tweak + Polish tips are meant for later drafts, after you’ve worked out the foundational stuff. The story and character development work (and probably at least a draft or two) comes first.

You don’t want to wear your analytical, critique-y hat while you’re writing pages. Save the wordsmithing and finessing for later in your process. When you’re writing, let it flow.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe