Word Beats and Sentence Tempo


Image credit Tekke

I had a film school teacher tell me once about the “right” way to edit music to a film. That when pairing up your music track, the best way to reach an audience in a scene was to have the emotional beat/upsweep of the song or score hit right after your actor’s knowing glance. You know what I’m talking about, that horrified “What did you just say? look” or that moment of realization that turns your character’s story upside down.


My teacher’s reasoning behind this was that as we are sitting in our chairs in the theater (yep, this was 2003 so everyone still went to the theaters back then), we are going to connect with the actor on screen when that emotional music beat really drives it home. If you bring that emotional beat in too early – too distracting. If you bring that emotional beat in right at the exact time of the knowing glance – too much. Choose the timing of your emotional beats carefully and you’ll rivet your audience without them evening knowing it.

At first I thought this was crazy, no way was this happening without my notice. Second, I thought the guy was a real @#@$%*!% so I wanted to disprove him. (Which always works out so well *insert heavy, heavy sarcasm*) I started watching for it in movies – and he was right. It was everywhere. Watch a kissing scene in a movie and tell me when you notice the emotional upsweep of the music. I betcha it’ll be right after they lock lips.

Why am I talking about this random film school note? There’s more. In another editing class, I was criticized for cutting “along with the beat.” So my cuts were flowing and keeping pace with the tempo of the music. That teacher argued I needed to establish and fight for my own tempo of images to run complimentary with the music. Looking back, this was great feedback. (I wish 20 year old Erin would have listened, le sigh.)

I think about these criticisms from time to time. Not because they bother me (although that guy was a real @#$%) but because of how emotional beats and tempo can apply to so many other forms of art besides movie making. Music, of course. But with writing, I can create a tempo with the length of my sentences. Maybe I’ll use a lengthy “run on” sentence to sweep a reader into a breathless whirlwind of words. Or a sentence will only contain one, two, or three beats (words) to, in a way, trip a reader and cause them to pause. And think.

Time your beats and establish your own tempo, right? (At least 33 year old Erin is listening.)

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