What is a Story Beat?
Short Answer? A beat is a unit of a scene in a story where there is an exchange between the characters and the action/ reaction/revelation advances the story and shape the turning of that scene.
Long Answer? I can only give you my personal understanding based on my experience. And sorry, but I can only do this in the long way.
From the viewpoint of a Fiction Writer!
Many years ago I was thinking about writing fiction and looked around for a writing class – no luck, but there was a screenwriting class by a bloke called Robert McKee over two days in London on something called Story Structure. This was in dark days without Internet but I took the chance – when I got there, it was full of well known actors and movie directors! Scary!
I went in on a Saturday morning and by Sunday teatime my brain would never be the same again.
Image Courtesy of Shutterstock
Until that weekend I had no clue that every second of a movie is choreographed on the page to create the precise emotional and visceral response in the viewer sitting in the dark in the cinema.
They achieve this through the Structure of the Story.
How? By working to find the best way of expressing that story in the most powerful and effective manner possible – and that means structure.
Acts broken down into Scenes. And each Scene is broken down into Beats.
This is how Jenny Cruisie** defines Acts better than I could.
‘Act One: The conflict begins and while the protagonist is fighting the beginning skirmishes, the entire book is set up–all characters introduced at least by reference, all subplots begun, the mood, time, and place, etc. This is the promise you make the reader which must be fulfilled in Act Four. So Act One is set-up while you’re telling your story. It can’t just be you setting up everything, the story has to begin on page one and escalate to the turning point/climax. Remember Act One is a story of its own.
Act Two: The turning point has thrown the protagonist into a much more dangerous/desperate story, and here the conflict builds. You’re not setting up anything any more, now you’re revealing character change as the action escalates. You build in tension to the middle turning point where something happens that is so radical that it forces the character to act in ways he or she has never done before, thus cementing character’s change halfway to his or her complete change at the end. I like to make this act shorter than the first one for pacing purposes, but it almost always ends up shorter anyway because I’ve got so much heavy lifting to do setting up the book in Act One.
Act Three: The conflict continues to build (which is why screenplay structure considers Act Two and Three one act, they have the same definition: Build). The stakes are much higher, the protagonist’s desperation much greater, etc. ending in the third turning point, often referred to as “the dark moment” when all is lost and your protag is on his or her knees. For pacing and tension purposes, I recommend making this act shorter than the last one.
Act Four : This is the shortest, fastest act, everything in motion, hurtling toward the climax and resolution. This act is where you resolve everything including all subplots before the climax. Answer all questions, end all character arcs, finishing everything before the protag and antag face each other in the final climactic scene, the obligatory scene.
Everything in the book rests on that final climactic scene.
Think of your plot as a triangle balanced on its point.
The climax is at the point. You can have a short resolution scene after the climax, just enough to give the reader breathing space, a chance to relax within the story before it ends. But keep it short; you want the reader remembering the climax, not the resolution. ‘
Okay. Each Act then has to be broken down into scenes.
Let’s say that I am writing a short contemporary romance – say 50, 000 words.
I like to write scenes which last from 4 to 5 pages, so that something happens every 4 to 5 pages.
If one page = 250 words, 4 pages = 1000 words, 5 pages = 1250 words.
So. I would expect to create between 40 and 50 scenes, divided up into chapters.
Think of it as a storyboard.
This is the flow of the story. Here are my hero and heroine and this is how he/she is acting and feeling and how the romance and the storylines are working in that chapter.
THAT scene has to give the reader THIS information/ part of the story so that the chapter works within the bigger framework of the story.
If you have 50, 000 words, and, for example, 11 chapters, you only have 4000 to 5000 words a chapter. That’s 4 scenes. So each scene has to achieve many functions. So you challenge that scene, you interrogate it, you ask it hard questions.
Now to answer my own question. What is a Story Beat?
A Story Beat is how you build up a scene, step by step, so that the scene does its job in that chapter in that place in your story.
There are so many examples I could use but this is one from a Harlequin Mills and Boon I read last week –
Beat sheet – ‘Steamy Surrender by’ Ally Blake *
Questions you have to ask about the scene.
- Who is my viewpoint character or characters.
- What does the hero want in this scene? Why are they here? Why now?
- Who is going to block that want? How?
- What are the turning points?
- How does the whole scene turn from start to end?
Okay, so here goes my pathetic look at the opening scene of this short contemporary.
I think there are 10 beats to the point where the hero and heroine actually talk to one another for the first time. At the end of this scene the story launches into another scene, still in the shop, where the detailed dialogue takes off. That has a separate series of turning points and an escalation of the tension in the scene which leads off into the main Chapter One Turning point.
Morgan pushed her large sunnies higher onto her nose then stared across Como Avenue, the ice cold Melbourne street in which the cabbie had left her. She rubbed fast hands down her arms to ward off the insidious chill in the air. And she frowned. This was reason she had spent twenty-four hours seated on planes, fifteen of those hours next to a guy who hadn’t showered in at least a week?
When lawyers had contacted her in Paris less than two weeks earlier with the news that she’d inherited five shopfronts in Carlton, she’d been silly enough to allow herself to imagine a quaint florist, a charming café, maybe even a funky boutique or two.
But considering the bequest had come from her grandfather on her mother’s side she ought to have known better. The Kiplings had two great talents; self-preservation, and intra-family disharmony. Passing on prime real estate in a move of last minute conciliation would just have been out of character.
We know that the heroine is called Morgan. She has travelled from Paris on a 24 hr flight after receiving an inheritance from her grandfather – where there is trouble within the family – and now she has come to inspect the five shopfronts in Melbourne. It is an ice cold day.
As it turned out, her inheritance offered a city full of savvy shoppers a drycleaner, a real estate agency with faded advertisements lining a cracked window, an Indian restaurant with dusty red curtains and crazed vinyl chairs haphazardly lining the footpath, and a place called Jan’s Wool and Fabric with a sign so old it was missing the tenth digit which had been added to all Australian phone numbers many years before.
The final shopfront was the building’s saving grace. With new signage, golden down lights and clean windows, the façade of the Bacio Bacio Gelataria was like a sunburst of panache within the hotchpotch of ancient, dilapidated outlets. And though the idea of gelato seemed ludicrous considering it was at most five degrees outside, it was enough for Morgan to decide to start her stealthy reconnaissance there. She stamped her half numb feet against the cold cracked concrete, took a gulp of her lukewarm, over baked, congealing, takeaway coffee for courage, and checked the street before crossing, reminding herself to look right first and last. Yet while nearby Lygon Street hummed with constant traffic, Como Avenue had none.
‘You sure ain’t in Paris anymore,’ she told herself before jogging across the empty road.
Five shops. The last one is new and shiny. A gelataria. The empty street is quiet with cracked concrete. She plans to start her ‘stealthy reconnaissance’. Her decision is to start with the ice cream shop. Note the detail here – she needs the money and this is her inheritance.
Saxon sang along with his favourite Elvis Costello CD as he turned Bessie, his beloved midnight blue 1968 MkII Jaguar, off Lygon Street and into Como Avenue.
When she purred to a full stop in the staff parking area at the back of the run of shops, he gave her his habitual loving stroke of the dash, and told her what a good girl she was before getting out.
This is the hero. English classic car and English old style music. He has good taste, stylish, and talks to his car – an endearing touch – treats it like a girl. Instantly appeals.
‘Sheesh,’ he said to no one in particular when the freezing wind whipped about his face and leached through his jeans.
He didn’t remember it having been this cold in years. Not since the halcyon days of cruising Lygon Street in nothing warmer than a T-shirt and Levi 501s, the tape player in his hotted up Monaro cranked loud with Billy Joel while his similarly under-dressed cousins shouted offers to the lucky ladies on the sidewalk as they thundered by.
He pulled his beanie tighter over his ears and his sheepskin collar higher around his neck. Not all was lost. The sky was crystal clear indicating fresh snowfall on the northern mountaintops. He might still get the chance to take Bessie for a run up to Mt Buller before the week was out. Skiing, mulled wine by the open fire, with a little Tom Jones on the CD player. If he played his cards right perhaps even a warm willing ski bunny in faux fur and tight pants might help take the edge off.
He grew up here – knows the street and the area, and used to cruise with his cousins. He knows the good life – sporting, good food and wine, music, and he is single. Looking for some female company. He likes ladies and fun. Has a business and has money.
The sound of a distant tinkling bell split the air, drawing him out of his daydream. He’d know the sound of that particular bell anywhere. For him it meant business.
He popped a stick of cinnamon gum in his mouth, waiting for the peppery sweetness to warm him as he jogged to the back door of the shop. He knew he ought to just give his cousin Darius his weekly kick in the pants and leave Trisha to handle the customers. But the thrill of the chase warmed his blood more than any Tom Jones song ever had.
Nope. Darius wouldn’t get much of a wave before he spent a busy lunch hour doing what he did best. Selling ice-cream to Eskimos.
He is a business man and this is his business. He should leave the work to his cousin and staff – but he loves selling ice cream. This is what he does best. He has cousins who he used to hang out with. Hint at his musical tastes/ cultural refs. Time of day.
The soft tinkling of an old fashioned brass bell heralded Morgan’s introduction to The Bacio Bacio Gelataria.
She slid her knee length knitted scarf from around her neck and tied it around the handle of her oversized designer bag – one of a trillion freebies she received as a perk of working as a photographic set designer for a top fashion mag in Paris. Then she strolled deeper into the room, her creative eye skimming over numerous visual delights.
She is a set designer for a top fashion mag in Paris. And she likes the décor.
Rendered walls were painted a deep golden yellow bar one feature wall covered in an impression of Tuscan hills. A huge gleaming bronze espresso machine took up a tidy portion of the long mahogany counter top, leaving the remainder of the space for curved glass cabinets, cleverly backlit to make the most of at least three dozen long trays filled with towering swirls of multi-coloured gelato, flat spoons sticking out the top of each perfect mound like the first flag on Mount Everest.
It was the kind of place someone in her job dreamed of stumbling upon.
A perfect blend of colour, texture, and lighting. It bombarded the senses in such a way it sold not just foodstuffs, but an image, a feeling. She could imagine men in fedoras crowded around the several tiled wrought-iron tables talking football spreads and planning heists, and little kids in newsboy caps sticking their noses against the large window, wishing they hadn’t spent the last of their pocket money on some silly toy.
It was a pity she was here on not nearly so pleasant a task as scouting out a Chic Magazine set. A great pity.
Instead, by the end of the week she would have to have made a decision: up the rent astronomically to make the place viable, or sign off on the plans burning a hole in her bag and raze the building to the ground.
She is an artist and has an artist’s eyes when she looks at the place. It creates a feeling, not just an image. But her imagination goes riot.
Then reveals – she had to decide whether to increase the rent, or sign off on the plans burning a hole in her bag – and level the place.
Why by the end of the week? asks questions in the reader.
Once inside, Saxon replaced his beanie for a black Bacio Bacio cap, left his leather jacket over a chair in the staff room, and tied a deep red apron around his waist, tightening the knot in front.
He tucked his hair behind his ears, decided he’d better get a hair cut before his mother saw him again, and then hastened out into the warm inviting surrounds of his home away from home to find a woman had entered his haven.
He has to cut his hair before seeing his mother – a woman he respects.
The shop is his home from home. And a woman had entered his warm and inviting space.
He slowed. For this was not just any woman, but a woman who deserved a second glance. And a third. And dinner and a movie and at least an attempt at a nightcap.
Blonde she was. Dirty blonde with luscious waves trailing long and unkempt down her front. Huge dark sunglasses covered half her small face. At least three gold chains hung around her slim neck, carrying oversized charms that jingled against one another as she moved through the room, giving her a kind of musical quality. And poking out from her ridiculously high-heeled bronze sandals the nails of her dainty toes were painted working-girl-red. Actually she was kind of small all over; the class of woman his father would say fit nicely into one’s pocket. Her pint-sized loveliness was sheathed in a tight gold V-neck top that adhered lovingly to some seriously eye-catching curves, like caramel sauce over ice-cream. And a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t sliver of skin between the bottom of her top and the top of calf-length cargo pants kept him riveted for a good thirty seconds.
He is good with details and appraises women in a certain way.
[ and you can’t help notice that she is wearing high heeled sandals and bare feet – and it is freezing outside. This could be a plot device or a symbol that she is a phoney all surface girl.
Saxon made a concerted effort to rein in his libido which had become overexcited astonishingly quickly for such a cold winter morning. For simmering just below the initial wham bam thank-you ma’am attraction he felt a thread of residual discomfort, like a red flag waving in the very corner of his sub-conscious. Something about this woman was making him itch.
He caught Trisha’s eye instead and motioned that he’d get this one. The grin on Trisha’s face told him she’d been more than half expecting it. He curled his lip and it only made her giggle behind her hand before she snuck out the back to take her morning break before the lunch rush set in.
Alone with the mystery woman Saxon leaned on the counter and began his signature pitch that had sold a million gelatos and turned his family’s one small suburban shop into a trans-Tasman empire.
‘What’s your poison?’ he asked.
This is not the first time saxon had looked after female customers.
He senses something different about this woman.
He has a sales pitch – and he has turned the small family business into an empire. So he is a successful entrepreneur. And he has thought about both his parents and his cousins as working together. Contrast with Morgan’s family on her mother’s side = self-preservation and family disharmony.
- What does the hero want in this scene? Morgan has come to see the five shops she has inherited from her grandfather- and decide whether to raise the rent or go with the plans and level the place – and she had to decide by the end of the week
· Who is going to block that want? the occupants of the five shops and especially Saxton, the ice cream seller
· How is the conflict going to escalate in this scene? Saxon sees her and is attracted to her
· What are the turning points? Morgan decides to start her investigation at the ice cream shop. Saxon decides to serve in the shop instead of leaving it to the cousin and staff, and then he sees Morgan and is attracted – and stays.
· How does the whole scene turn from start to end? Morgan is wearing sun glasses in the freezing cold – ends with Saxton in the warm and inviting shop.
Some people break down the scene this way before they write.
MOST writers I know create the ‘discovery draft’ as Nora Roberts I think calls it, then use Craft and structure to make the story as strong as possible.
Do you do this type of ‘Scene Design’ for every scene?
You could, but your brain would explode, or your book would take a very long time. But certainly for the opening scenes which have to work hard and key turning points in the book.
*http://www.allyblake.blogspot.com/ – from her book extracts. Great book!
Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott wrote ‘Shrek’ and ‘Pirates’ and have a superb database of articles on Craft.http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp32.Plot.Devices.html
Google ‘Story Structure’ or ‘Story Beats’ and procrastinate for hours.
Robert McKee wrote a well known book ‘ Story’ and there are two long chapters on scene design and scene analysis – his analysis of scenes from the movie ‘Casablanca’ is amazing.
There are hundreds of other books on Amazon on structure, but life is too short.
YouTube? Who has time to YouTube. Think of all those Beats I have to correct!