A Beat in A Beat

A beat, a beat, what the bubble is a beat in a story? My imagination, when I first heard this term, was a beating, but no. A beat is a moment in time in a story where discoveries or actions cause forward momentum.

Discoveries – things we learn – are changes in knowledge. Decisions – to undertake an action – are changes in tactics. A tactic becomes an action based on information discovered/uncovered. They learn about something that’s related to what their goal/purpose is, and they take action to move closer toward that aim/goal.

Aren’t these plot points?

After all, that’s how beat sheets generally define their big beats of the story, the big turns, the major signposts.

Yes, in a story, these are often the major plot points, however, the small bits in a scene are also beats. Beats are the forward movements in a scene when new knowledge is gained, or a decision is made, an action undertaken, a move forward (or backward) on the story-ground. It’s physical, can be visualised, acted out. In other words, it’s a mini turning point. A bit of a beat that changes the direction in that moment.


And yet, beats took me a long time to discover.

Originally, a Russian director called them ‘bits’ but because of the accent, the players heard it as beats. Physical moments on stage, a gathering of information, a decision to do something, and doing something about what was learned/decided. A change in direction or tactic. A beat, a physical manifestation of the character’s forward momentum.

Beats in stories need to do a lot of the work.

In a beat-sheet, it’s a generalisation of the overall story, laying out the major milestones of the journey.

As a low-down, quick-and-dirty definition, a beat is every physical moment in a story WHICH CAUSES FORWARD MOVEMENT. That means, if the physical action doesn’t do anything, doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t go in the story.

As an example, if a person bites their lip, as a personal tic, say, but if it’s the only physical thing they do when stressed, it doesn’t belong.

Why not? It’s a personal tic, so why not repeat it at will?

Because it has no meaning unless the action is applied with meaning that relates to the story. The response must mean something, so to bite her lips as a response to something (that cause-effect thing) might mean something, but to bite her lips as a non-response doesn’t show anything. It should show something of the inner person, or as an indication of something to come.

An example:

The road ahead wasn’t sealed. Reenie tapped the GPS and chewed at her lip. She couldn’t get lost out here. Not out here, not with Roger right on her six, just waiting for her to make a silly mistake. Ow! Blood trickled down her chin. She had to stop doing that, had to stop punishing herself for wanting to live.

Personally, I think the tension is applied to an action with the above. I could be wrong, though, so you can tell me. Is that a beat? Does it move the story forward? Do you know more about Reenie from that little bit of the story?

Beats in a scene are the little bits that do the same job as the big, plot-point, story-turning beats.

Big beats, medium beats, little beats. It’s a demonstration of the changes that cause momentum in the story, so regardless of their weight in that story, they have a big job to do.

I wonder if, rather than beats, we should call them whips? Makes sense to me. Giddy-up (No, I’ve never used a whip for that purpose. In horse-riding, the whip is to directionalise the movement, not to force anything – it’s like an extra hand).

Okay, not whip. However, a sheet of music, always moving forward with each note … Hmmm, might work because in music, a beat is the basic unit of time [forward movement], and in story, a beat is a basic unit of movement [through time]. Heh!

What’s your take on what an itty, bitty beat is for story?

From Pixabay

14 thoughts on “A Beat in A Beat

  1. I gather a lot of information for each scene – what it is going to do for the story, characters, setting, etc.

    And then I organize it before starting, into
    New (first line)
    Conflict covering two or three beats:
    Beat 1 (what it covers)
    Beat 2 (what it covers)
    (Beat 3) (what it covers)
    End (last line)
    like a ministory.

    Somewhere in one or another of the beats are the Outer and Inner Turning Points for the scene.
    The process of organizing and asking myself the right questions usually leads to a first line – and I get started writing. When I get down to the resolution, we know what happened in the scene, and the last line – something to entice a reader to keep going – always seems to pop up in my mind.

    So my beats are bigger than yours, but it’s the same general idea – in real life things may be chaotic and disorganized, but in the book, especially since the reader doesn’t control the flow of information, the writer has to have given thought to how to feed it most efficiently into the reader’s mind.

    Efficiently, because my novels are over 165K already, and I don’t want to wander.

    It’s fractal – these beats can have those smaller internal beats you talk about, and the scenes plus epigraph and title are organized into chapters, and the chapters plus prologue into a novel, and the three novels into a single story in the trilogy.

    I have a damaged brain – the structure is absolutely essential for me to be able to work one piece at a time, and know it will make sense in the whole.

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  2. Thanks for explaining this. I have to say, the word “beat” in this sense puts me off. I don’t plan my writing to that extent, and I don’t think in terms of beats, which to me implies a rhythmic structure, a series of repeated sounds. Can’t relate that to writing fiction. Maybe poetry, but not fiction.
    I do see the word use regularly in advice to use “beats” instead of dialogue tags. Why not just call them “actions?”

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  3. Good post, Cage. I know some people don’t like the term “beats” (or feel confined by story structure and rules), but I like to think of a story as a puzzle or a moving puzzle with gears. Everything has to fit together right, thus the structure. (Hm, I have an engineering background, so maybe that has something to do with my liking structure.) I think of story beats as plot points and scenes as mini-stories with their own mini-beats.

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    • That’s how I think of them, too. Every scene a mini-story, part of the whole, yet unique in its individual purpose.
      I can’t remember who said it, but the gist was this – if it can’t be acted out, then it’s not a beat; no beat, no movement, no action, no interest. Beat it up, bonnie, and let’s see this story move.

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