A dramatic beat is a small but significant bit of information in a story.
Beats generally take the form of an event or action resulting in a reaction. Although a beat provides additional information, it is not strong enough to turn the story in a different direction.
Consider the example of a protagonist who is about to leave his flat to meet his fiancé at a restaurant only to have his mother arrive unannounced to visit him. He politely informs her that he is late for his date. She leaves, feeling disgruntled.
The unexpected arrival of the mother and her having to leave constitutes a single dramatic beat.
The number of beats in a scene can be as few as one or two in shorter scene, to five or more in a longer ones—though there is no set number. Importantly, the number of beats in an entire story varies from genre to genre. Art cinema and literature typically have fewer beats resulting in a slower rhythm than do mainstream films and novels.
A turning point, by contrast, is new information that is so forceful and, often, surprising, that it turns the story in a new direction. Things can no longer continue as they are.
“Turning points are beefed-up dramatic beats that turn the direction of a story.”
In our above-mentioned example, imagine our protagonist opening the door to have his mother reveal to him that his fiancé has just told her that she’s leaving him for another man. In a love story, that would constitute a turning point – a beat on steroids that changes the direction of the story.
Not all turning points come from outer events. Sometimes a sudden insight about some hitherto hidden truth about a character’s life can turn the story on its head – as in Benjamin Vlahos’ realisation about his true ancestry in The Nostalgia of Time Travel.
The dramatic beat is a small but significant unit of action and reaction in a scene. Turning points, by contrast, are beefed-up beats that change the direction of the story.