Let Darth Vader & Luke Skywalker Teach You About Story Structure

A movie is made up of a lot of small narrative parts, the smallest of which is the "beat". If you don't know what the hell that is, what better film to study these cinematic emotional building blocks than with Star Wars.

The storytelling concept of a "beat" was coined by Robert McKee in his book Story, and The Film Theorists do a great job of explaining what it is by using Return of the Jedi as an example. Check out the video below.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMsE01MTgGU

Now, Return of the Jedi isn't a film that most would think of when it comes to great screenwriting. However, the film does offer beginning screenwriters a good place to start in terms of educating themselves on basic story structure. And what better place to start than learning the building blocks of a narrative?

As it goes, beats make up scenes, scenes make up sequences, and sequences make up entire films. McKee describes a beat as the "smallest unit of change in a script," that means that a beat occurs when a character experiences a major emotional change within the story -- love to hate, happiness to sadness, etc.

This is really helpful to understand, because, if you haven't already noticed, writing a script can get overwhelming and confusing really quickly. But getting organized is definitely possible. Personally, I like to make a beat sheet, which is basically an outline of every beat in your screenplay. (Sometimes I make one after I make an overall outline for the story.) This helps me keep track of every reversal, including where they occur in the story, how they correspond with the story/character arcs, and whether or not they're pushing the story forward.

It has to be said -- Robert McKee isn't the only act in town. There are plenty of other screenwriting theories out there that don't incorporate, or even support, the idea of a beat. However, if McKee's approach works for you, reading up on what beats are is a great place to start learning about story structure.     

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ROTJ would've been a good film if they got rid of the Ewoks. Maybe next Special Edition?

November 5, 2015 at 5:34PM

Henry Barnill
Director of Photography

It's a classic, built off of classics! I found this video helpful concerning the beats of writing a screenplay: independent lasagnas diy full guide how to make a feature film lesson 1 : how to write your screenplays! http://youtu.be/xcku_sUj0wk

November 5, 2015 at 5:49PM, Edited November 5, 5:49PM

Reyshan Parker
Writer/Director/Producer at Independent Lasagna

While I have great respect for Robert McKee, I do not believe the concept “beat was coined” by him.

The storytelling concept “beat” has been taught to actors long before McKee wrote about it in his informative book Story.
In fact, the storytelling concept was around long before the word “beat” was even uttered.

The term “beat” is said to come from Constantin Stanislavsky's (1863 – 1938), who was a Russian actor and theatre director. Stanislavsky was trying to explain the storytelling concept using the word bits. However, because of his thick Russian accent, everyone thought he said, “beats”.

Stanislavsky pioneered an acting style that was taken up by Elia Kazan’s Group Theater who trained actors in a realistic style of acting. That style has evolved into what is now known as the "Method”. The Method is a style of acting taught at the Acting Studio. Acting Studio members include Marlon Brando, Robert de Niro, James Dean and many more.

Btw, a “beat” is actually composed of 2 parts: Motivation & Reaction. The video seems to focus on the reaction half of the beat. But, you cannot have the character change/reversal they speak of in the video without the first half of the beat. Without a motivation, you don’t have the character reaction/realization. If the 2 parts of the beat do not walk hand in hand together, the beat will not work or it will just have a very weak impact on the viewer.

There is more to tell about this concept but I fear I’ve already bored you enough.

November 5, 2015 at 8:27PM, Edited November 5, 8:40PM

B Sharp

I'm pretty sure it's beats build into scenes, scenes into sequences, sequences into acts and finally acts into movies.

November 5, 2015 at 9:47PM, Edited November 5, 9:47PM

Miko Jacildo

To really learn how STAR WARS can help you learn story structure then you need the original and the FINAL WHITE SCRIPT. Plus my ebook THE SIGN OF 4. It is free.
You will see how the plot is really just a special group of 16 blocks of STUFF.
You can organise this STUFF into anything you want.
DEEP LITERARY THEME THEORY is the real professional answer.

January 19, 2020 at 7:45PM, Edited January 19, 7:45PM