It’s confusing. As if there aren’t enough hero’s journeys and snowflakes to follow in putting together your novel, there is also the matter of beats. Commonly used in screenwriting, the concept of beats sometimes creeps into thinking about fiction writing. What exactly are beats, and do they have any utility in fiction?
In screen and stage plays, a beat is most commonly used to mean a pause in dialogue. Think the pregnant pause in plays by Harold Pinter. A short silence makes a deliberate space for the audience to digest a shift in circumstances or to take in the meaning of what’s being said.
However, a beat has come to mean more than that. It also means moments in a story that are plot pivots or emotional shifts. Palpably and perhaps invisibly, the story takes a step. Things change: outside, inside or between people. The story marches forward in a marked cadence. The felt impact of each step is a beat.
Robert McKee describes a beat as the smallest element of story structure. There are acts, sequences, scenes and beats, which are noticed when characters adopt distinctively different behaviors, showing a clear change in their actions or reactions. That makes sense in movie, TV and stage stories since those are performed by actors. Rather than reading words on a page, on the screen we watch actors’ faces, read their body language and hear their tonal shifts.
In screen and stage plays, beats mark the audience’s sense of progress through a story. So critical are beats that they can even be formulized. There should be a beat, it’s said, every five minutes. In a drama (typically 120 pages) there should be twenty-four beats. In a comedy (typically 90 pages) there should be eighteen beats. Fifteen is a good number regardless. Obviously, such formulae have less application in the context of a novel, but are beats nevertheless important to identify and chart? Should you create a “beat sheet”, like screenwriters do?
I somewhat disagree with the idea that beats are the smallest element of structure, at least in fiction. To me, the macro-plot and scene dynamics are followed, in conceptual order, by micro-tension, which is the line-by-line, moment-by-moment, under-the-surface uneasiness or tension experienced by the reader which forces the reader to inexorably read the next thing on the page. Micro-tension is like the cosmic background radiation pervading the universe: lingering and never-forgotten evidence of the Big Bang that started it all, as well as the ever-present hum that tells us that space is not empty but always alive with activity.
But really, that’s a quibble. Wherever beats may figure into the hierarchy of story structure, it is nevertheless useful to look at what produces that deliberate sensation in readers that we, as writers, wish readers to feel: a feeling that at this very moment in the story a shift of some kind—and there are many kinds—has taken place.
Shifts Big and Small
Shifts can happen in characters’ expectations of what is coming or what they must do. They can be in the arrival of new complications, new information, or new realizations about anything big or small. A false hope can arise or a reversal of fortune can befall. A character’s role can change. A relationship can alter. An outcome can surprise. Resolve can be found or hopelessness descend. A punch can be thrown or a flower can be laid on a grave. Stories are about people and changes in people produce beats.
Shifts, however, aren’t always produced by what actually happens on the page. Shifts can occur in the reader’s minds, hearts and understandings, as well. What was supposed to be true might turn out to be false. Right could veer wrong. Bad might become good. When doubt arises, hope is dashed, a silver lining is discovered…when there is any emotional shift at all in the minds or hearts of readers, that too is a beat.
A beat, as I said, is a deliberate effect. The reason that I raise the topic today is that most manuscripts have too few of those. Naturally, we hope that plot itself will produce those beats. But does it always? Oftentimes, a fumbling handling of story developments blunts or even loses the sought effect. Scenes wander, fishing for their drama and missing opportunities for changes to cut with a sharp sting or sing a song of soaring beauty.
Above all, a beat is something that we experience in a moment. It’s a stab of fear, a twinge of shame, a shout of encouragement, a shot at prediction, a tremor of doubt, a punishing verdict, a roar of rage, a tear of grief, a nod of satisfaction, or anything that causes us to feel a way that we didn’t a moment before.
There are many ways to make that happen but the simplest may be to start not with what’s happening in the story but with the shift you want readers to experience, and then find the places in the story where those shifts can be most deliberately demonstrated through your characters and provoked in readers.
The following are some of the emotional shifts that I’m talking about. Where in your current manuscript can you find opportunities to shape and provoke the following responses in your readers:
Hooray for you!
Curiouser and curiouser…
The plot thickens…
Uh-oh, that’s not good!
Yikes, didn’t see that coming!
Goodness, what next?
Ah-ha, I knew it!
What are we going to do now?
Hold on, I have an idea…
Watch out, he’s right behind you!
Hurry, hurry, hurry!
Don’t go in there!
Damn, damn, damn!
Say it ain’t so!
Forward into battle!
Baby, I got this!
Well, it was worth a try…
Don’t give up!
Give it one more shot!
There’s still hope!
No good deed…
How dare you!
She’s covering up!
You’re going to regret that!
Shame on you!
Ain’t that ironic!
Huh, I never saw it that way before…
You’re not who I thought you were…you’re less!
You’re not who I thought you were…you’re more!
Someone’s got a crush, eh?
Aww, so sweet!
Ha-ha-ha, we’re rich…rich, I tell you!
Farewell and God speed!
This is bigger than the both of us…
You deserved that!
That’s just desserts!
Well now, that’s the end of that!
You get the idea. If you, as a reader, are so engaged in a story that you’re having an inner dialogue with it—commenting, judging, pondering, laughing, telling off or falling for—then you are experiencing it in the way that we want. The progress you feel isn’t coming from the plot, it’s coming from your mental and emotional steps as you read.
In short, if your readers are feeling it happen, moment by moment, scene by scene, season by season, from beginning to end, either in the soft flow of experience or the sharp blows of struggle, then what your readers are feeling is the beat. It’s the beat of change. It’s the beat of our hearts and hopes. It’s the beat of life. It’s the beat of your story and when it’s there, we dance.
In reading this post, did you think of one new beat to add to your story? Tell us about it!
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