Hello, Writers!

 

In the previous episode, TAP046, I said that the next show would be on Value Shifts or Turning Points within scenes. As I wrote the outline and script for that episode, I realised that there is a smaller unit of story that I need to discuss that’s integral to understanding value shifts or how a scene turns. So, I considered adding it to that episode but soon discovered that the final version of the episode would be too long.

 

That’s why, I created this, hopefully, short bonus show, where I discuss what is a story beat. And how you can use them to create better scenes.

 

Without further ado, let’s get on with the episode.

About the Mini-Series

You’ll probably have noticed that I’ve mentioned that this is part of a four-part mini-series on writing great scenes. But, I’m still leaving this open-ended because I want to leave room for a topic that I might have overlooked, so I can give the series as many episodes as it needs.

 

Why?

 

Because I want this episode to help you to write better scenes, and in the spirit of that helpfulness, I’ve also included another writing exercise in this show as well.

 

Coming up in this series, you can expect episodes on:

 

And, just in case you’ve missed it, the first episode in this series answers the age-old question: what is a scene?

 

If there is a topic related to writing scenes that you’d like me to discuss on the show, use the request form to submit your topic suggestions. Or, submit a question for me to answer on the show or privately by filling out the form.

Thank You

If you’re new to this podcast, I want to say a huge thank you for stopping by and trying out my show. To those of you who have been faithfully listening, thank you for regularly listening in and supporting me; your support means more to me than you know.

Story Beat Basics

The term beat comes from screenwriting—this is how I first learned the topic. Back in 2011, I started writing screenplays and I came to understand that the word can be used in two ways. Firstly, there’s the term “beat” that you’ll see in all caps encapsulated by parenthesis. Essentially, this is a pause within dialogue.

 

A beat has also been used more recently by writers within the screenwriting space in reference to plot points. When I first heard this, I thought, why not use the term plot point?
Why add unnecessary confusion to the mix of information out there? In this episode, I’m not discussing the kind of beat that gets confused with the overarching plot points within the greater story structure.

 

The third type of beat is a smaller moment within a scene. When an actor prepares for a role it’s these beats within scenes where they will do a lot of preparation for the role. These moments usually contribute to the turning of a scene.

 

I realise that not everyone will want to go back and listen to the previous episodes, so for the sake of clarity, let me share a few definitions so we’re all on the same page.

What is a Chapter?

A chapter is a tool for controlling the pacing of a story by grouping together one or more scenes. Chapters can be as long or as short as they need to be, provided that the chapter has a page-turning effect on the reader. That’s what matters most—the reader’s experience.

 

If a chapter is a tool, then what is a scene?

 

So, What is a Scene?

A scene is a unit of story that takes place in a specific location and time. If one of these changes, you have a new scene.

 

If you want to know more about scenes, check out episodes TAP041, TAP045, and TAP046.

Defining a Beat

A Beat is the smallest unit of story that comprises of a moment that moves the story forward and compels the reader to consider what might happen next. Each scene in your novel may be comprised of several different beats. In short, it’s an exchange in action or reaction.

 

Now that we’re all on the same page, you must be wondering how story beats relate to outlining.

How Does This Relate to Outlining?

When I used to outline my novels, I outlined every scene because this is the type of outliner that I was; as I brainstormed ideas for the scenes, I wrote out the important beats for the scenes. These beats then allowed me to block the scenes which is another film term and relates to how a director decides the way the actors move around the set during filming. But you don’t need to go to this extreme. This is just a me thing.

 

Examples of Beats within Scenes

As I considered whether to use examples of beats in popular fiction, I decided to use my own work. This decision was made not because I believe I’m an amazing writer but because it feels wrong to break down a scene from another author’s work without their permission. You get it; it doesn’t feel right.

 

So, here are the six beats in the opening scene of my amateur sleuth mystery novella, The Locked Room. There are other elements in the scene, like setting description, point of view, character thoughts, and character development, but I just want to focus on the beats for now. Technically, those other elements are beats within a scene, but I want to keep this example simple for now and not go into the scene and sequel structure of a scene.

 

  1. James is leaning over his steering wheel in awe of the ground of Clovervale Hall, idling in the middle of the driveway.
  2. Further down the page, a grey cat waltzed across the driveway in front of his car and James slams his foot on the break pedal.
  3. The cat jumps up onto the bonnet of his car and sits down. James decides not to wait for the cat to move and gets out of the car and picks it off his bonnet.
  4. Towards the end of the scene, another character overreacts to James and his car idling in the driveway as he is bringing the cat back to his car.
  5. Next James continues to drive towards Clovervale Hall admiring the gardens along the way.
  6. The owner of Clovervale Hall knocks on the passenger window of James’s car after he parks. He stares up at the wall of the English manor house and excitedly points at the cat.

 

So, if I outlined that scene before writing it, those story beats would appear in the scene description portion of my outline spreadsheet. I guess by now you’re wondering, how does this look on the page in draft form? Let’s take a look at the third beat in my opening scene.

A Scene Beat Fleshed Out

The fourth beat in my opening scene is short, and it’s okay for your beats to be of varying sizes. Let me read this story beat to you:

 

Loud honks from the car behind caused James to jump in his seat. He glanced up into the rearview mirror, and a tall man with rimless spectacles and dark-brown skin came into view. Gesturing at James with the classic one-finger salute, the man honked his horn again then pulled his smartphone out of the inside pocket of his tweed jacket—the uniform of the university professor. The man looked like he was about to blow a valve. He was going to struggle with the technology-free retreat-style bed-and-breakfast. Does he even know?

Sentence-by-Sentence Breakdown

Now, let me break down the elements that exist within this beat sentence by sentence. Firstly, I want to quickly define the term action for you.

 

Action is the physical movement of the characters that moves the story forward.

 

It’s not just about fights, explosions or car chases—that’s the action genre. You get it; I’m talking about the literary definition of action.

 

  • [ACTION] Loud honks from the car behind caused James to jump in his seat.
  • [ACTION] He glanced up into the rearview mirror,
  • [DESCRIPTION] and a tall man with rimless spectacles and dark-brown skin came into view.
  • [DESCRIPTION] Gesturing at James with the classic one-finger salute, the man honked his horn again then pulled his smartphone out of the inside pocket of his tweed jacket
  • [POINT OF VIEW]—the uniform of the university professor.
  • [POINT OF VIEW] The man looked like he was about to blow a valve.
  • [POINT OF VIEW] He was going to struggle with the technology-free retreat-style bed-and-breakfast.
  • [THOUGHT] Does he even know?

Another Scene Beat Fleshed Out

The second beat in my opening scene is essentially an obstacle thrown in James’s path preventing him from achieving his goal. It’s not that much longer than the fourth beat, but it’s around one hundred and nineteen words in length. And it goes something like this:

 

Lifting his foot off the accelerator, James inched his car along the drive. The gravel crunched underneath the tyres as he soaked in his new surroundings. Out of nowhere, a fluffy grey English Shorthair cat sauntered across the beige stones as if it had not a care in the world. James slammed his foot on the brake pedal as he watched the feline display a rebellious distaste for order and the rules. The cat was clearly French and out of place in a world where the queue was everything. Pausing in the middle of the driveway, the cat glanced up at him with an innocent expression in its bright yellow eyes. With his heart pounding, James shook his head.

 

Sentence-by-Sentence Breakdown

Now, let me break down the elements within this beat sentence by sentence, just as I did in the previous example.

 

  • [ACTION] Lifting his foot off the accelerator, James inched his car along the drive.
  • [DESCRIPTION] The gravel crunched underneath the tyres
  • [ACTION] as he soaked in his new surroundings.
  • [DESCRIPTION] Out of nowhere, a fluffy grey English Shorthair cat sauntered across the beige stones
  • [POINT OF VIEW] as if it had not a care in the world.
  • [ACTION] James slammed his foot on the brake pedal
  • [POINT OF VIEW] as he watched the feline display a rebellious distaste for order and the rules.
  • [POINT OF VIEW] The cat was clearly French and out of place in a world where the queue was everything.
  • [DESCRIPTION] Pausing in the middle of the driveway, the cat glanced up at him with an innocent expression in its bright yellow eyes.
  • [ACTION] With his heart pounding, James shook his head.

 

Further Reading

In the process of double-checking my own understanding of the story beat and to avoid spreading misinformation, here are a few sources, mostly books, that I turned to that were most useful.

 

  1. Story by Robert McKee*, specifically pages thirty-seven and thirty-eight. Be warned, it’s a huge book with a small typeface.
  2. Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish by James Scott Bell*, specifically chapter seven, which discusses scenes and gives some amazing breakdowns, inspired me to do the same in this episode.
  3. Story Grid by Shawn Coyne*, this book is a terrific resource, but it’s worth pointing out that I find this technique a little overwhelming, but you may not. I think it might be all the moving parts that overwhelm me.

Writing Exercise:

Pull out your favourite novel and choose five scenes that pulled you in the most. Just a side note: you can also use the book you’re currently reading if you love it.

  1. Take note of the beats in each of these scenes.
  2. Summarise the beats
  3. Then dissect all of the beats like I did to the opening scene of The Locked Room.

 

Then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you see a pattern emerging?
  • Did any of the elements within the beats surprise you?
  • How can you apply what you’ve learned in your next novel or current work in progress?

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope this episode gave you a basic understanding of what is a story beat and how you can use them to write better scenes. As always, I have a few important questions for you.

 

  • Do you focus on story beats as you write scenes?
  • What did you learn in this episode that you plan on applying in your next novel or in your current work in progress?

 

Share your thoughts in the comments section under the blog post, under the video, or over in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group. If you like, you can submit your writing exercise to me in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group.

 

In the next episode of the podcast, I will delve deeper into the turning points of a scene and how they can help you write scenes that move the story forward.

 

Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.

 

With love,

Amelia xx

 

* DISCLAIMER: This blog post contains affiliate links (marked with an *), which means if you click on one of the product links, I’ll receive a small commission. The commission helps support the blog and allows us to continue to make content like this. Thank you for your support. 🙂

 

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Amelia D. Hay

Written by Amelia D. Hay

I’m Amelia. When I’m not hosting the Authorpreneur Podcast™️ and the Book Nerd Podcasts, I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Suspicion, the Lawn, and the Candidate.

On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process.

Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Suspicion, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.

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