The Beat Goes On

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From Writer Unboxed:

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.

. . . .

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. 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

1 thought on “The Beat Goes On”

  1. Whereas I, as reader, when I try new books, often give up even on the sample due to all the beats being the same from story to story. Movies also suffer from this. Beats exist, but they’ve been standardized. So, boring to read or watch.

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