April 12, 2018
What's in this heart-to-heart?
Recent Goings On:
Tragedy struck my family, so I have been in Florida this week. Fortunately, I already wrote the Daydreamers part of my newsletter, but alas -- no updates for the Misfits/DenNerds.
Hold your loved ones close, my friends, and be grateful for every day.
For the Daydreamers:
Understanding Story Beats
A few weeks ago, a Witchlander (I mean, DenNerd -- I will get used to that!) asked something along the lines of, "What is a 'beat?' I keep hearing people use this word, and I don't get what it means."
An excellent question! And also a word I use often, assuming everyone knows what it means. But of course not everyone will!
So today, we're gonna dig into beats: what they are, how to use them, and some familiar beat structures.
So what is a beat?
In music (or poetry), a beat is a rhythmic unit. And while music is an arrangement of notes according to a rhythm, stories are no different -- it's just that instead of notes, we have structure, story events, and emotions.
And just as the beats in music will vary in intensity according to musical genre (compare death metal to a Chopin nocturne), so too do story beats.
For example, a thriller might have high intensity beats throughout, while a sweet romance might be filled with low intensity (but nonetheless tense) beats. In both examples, though, the beats will shift and change throughout the course of the story, typically following an ever-increasing ramp upward.
Of course, this still doesn't tell you what beats are or how to use them, so I've broken them down into the different ways I view them:
There are emotional beats, which track the changes in emotion through a scene and story.
There are story event beats, which track the different events that happen in a scene and overall story.
And there are structural beats, which look at the story's structural arrangement -- both from a macro (story-level) and micro (scene-level) view.
I know: it's a lot and probably seems confusing right now. But the reality is that writers do use the word "beat" to encompass all these different things.
In fact, a phrase my writer friends and I often say is, "I've already got a beat like that earlier in the story, so I need a different beat here." In this case, we're probably referring to emotional or story beats.
But we might also say, "The midpoint beat is in this scene right here." And in that case, we're referring to structural beats.
So let's break it all down.
Which leads me to macro structural beats. These are the broad moments that form the overall structure of your tale. It is the skeleton upon which the plot is laid.
Note: A common mistake I see beginners make is thinking that plot = structure. But this isn't true at all. Compare Murder on the Orient Express to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Both of these books follow a pretty traditional whodunit mystery structure, yet the plot events are obviously quite different.
The most famous structure, of course, is three act.
- Act 1: Story set up.
- Turning Point 1: The main character (MC) is on a path and cannot be steered back.
- Act 2: The MC faces challenges.
- Turning Point 2: The MC faces a major set back.
- Act 3: The MC fights for what they believe in.
- Final moment: The MC triumphs or fails.
The Acts + Turning Points + Final moment are our structural beats
. In fact, they are THE structural beats that western culture is most familiar with. I'd even argue that this loose structure is so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we naturally seek it out and relate to it.
Let's look at an example everyone knows:
- Act 1: Luke is a lonely farm boy who dreams of bigger things.
- Turning Point 1: Luke's family is killed, so he joins Obi-Wan Kenobi to help Princess Leia.
- Act 2: Luke rescues Leia and escapes Darth vader.
- Turning Point 2: Obi-Wan Kenobi dies, and all hope seems lost.
- Act 3: Luke and the rebels attack and destroy the Death Star.
- Final moment: Triumphant, Luke receives a medal from Leia.
And of course, here's another familiar story that hits the same macro structural beats -- but is completely different in terms of plot.
- Act 1: Harry Potter discovers he is a wizard.
- Turning Point 1: Hagrid brings Harry to Hogwarts, a school for wizards.
- Act 2: Harry learns to be a wizard, makes friends, and starts to delve into the mystery of the Sorcerer's Stone.
- Turning Point 2: Harry and his friends go after the Sorcerer's Stone.
- Act 3: Harry and his friends face a series of obstacles and finally the villain Quirrell.
- Final moment: Harry gets the stone and defeats Quirrell, dealing a blow to Voldemort.
Now remember: three act structure isn't the only option out there. In fact, if you're a more advanced writer, I urge you to look beyond those basic sign posts.
Here are some other macro structural formats to study (though this list is by no means exhaustive):
Now let's hone in on micro structural beats.
Micro beats are really no different from macro beats, but rather than look at higher level story structure, we're focusing in on a single scene.
In other words, our "rhythmic units" are smaller.
And of course, just as there are certain rhythmic macro structures we are more familiar with as a culture, there are rhythmic scene structures as well.
And that structure tends to follow:
- Goal: the reader learns what the character wants or needs
- Conflict: the character cannot get that thing for X reason
- Resolution (or Failure): the character achieves their goal or does not
- New Goal: the character ends the scene with a new goal.
As an example, here's the opening scene of Truthwitch:
- Goal: Safi and Iseult intend to waylay the "Chiseled Cheater" who stole all of Safi's money the night before.
- Conflict: The wrong carriage hits their trap, and now they are surrounded by a lot of soldiers and a Bloodwitch mercenary monk.
- Resolution: The girls manage to escape.
- New Goal: They are now wanted by city guards and the Bloodwitch recognized Safi's scent, meaning he will hunt her. The girls need a plan.
And then the next scene:
- Goal: Safi and Iseult have to wait for the tide to leave so they can return to shore from a lighthouse. In that time, they need to formulate a plan.
- Conflict: All their previous plans are ruined, a Bloodwitch now hunts them, and they have no idea what to do.
- Resolution: After discussing their options, they come up with a rough, rather desperate plan.
- New Goal: They will sneak into town, grab their things, and flee.
Notice that the story events and emotions are completely different between scenes, but the general structure remains the same.
And of course, like macro structure, this is not the only way to structure a scene! There are as many definitions for a scene out there as there are minutes in a day. So again, I urge you study as many methods and approaches as you can.
Now, let's finally turn to story beats and emotional beats. These are essentially what DIFFERENTIATE the structural beats between stories and scenes.
Your book might have the same structure as mine, but our plots and emotions are going to be totally separate.
So let's look at plot and emotions for scene 1 of Truthwitch:
- Story beat: Safi and Iseult realize their heist has gone wrong, and the wrong carriage is about to hit their explosive booby trap.
- Emotional beat: freak out!
- Story beat: They come up with a plan to don disguises and head off the carriage.
- Emotional beat: anxious focus
- Story beat: But then that plan doesn't work and the carriage hits the booby trap and explosives erupt.
- Emotional beat: utter panic!
- Story beat: The girls fight off the carriage owner's bodyguard, a vicious Bloodwitch, and then escape by the skin of their teeth.
- Emotional beat: survival flight mode
And here is scene 2:
- Story beat: Iseult and Safi are trapped in a lighthouse while they wait for the tide to recede. They are trying to process what just happened.
- Story beat: They clean their blades and discuss their options.
- Story beat: They settle on a plan: they will leave town. It isn't what Iseult wants at all, but the girls see no other choice.
- Emotional beat: disappointment and determination
The emotions between these scenes is completely different -- as are the events -- yet the broad structure is the same.
It might seem unimportant to track such minuscule beats, but in reality it keeps you from repeating yourself (more on that below). And it also ensures your emotional dominoes stay on track -- which I also discuss below.
A few troubleshooting thoughts before I wrap this up.
First: Emotional beats are linear.
In other words, no emotion exists within a vacuum. Whatever emotion is happening in a scene is dependent on the scene that came before (unless it's the opening scene, of course).
The reader should be able to start at the beginning of a story and track a very clear line of what how the emotions will play out. That doesn't mean you can't surprise readers, but it DOES mean that emotional shifts must make sense.
In other words -- to use one of my signature phrases -- you need to follow the emotional dominoes™. If you have one row of dominoes falling, and then suddenly a scene jumps to a completely different line of dominoes with no clear emotional connection....
Well, readers don't like that. You can't have Mary Jane be SO ANGRY at her boyfriend that she cries in one scene, and then in the next, they're flirting like nothing happened.
So keep track of your emotional dominoes. And -- pro-tip! -- if you ever find yourself stuck in a draft, write out your emotional dominoes and assess what emotion would logically fall next.
Second: Avoid circling.
I talked about this in far more depth in this newsletter on tightening your prose, but it would be remiss of me not to mention it again.
One of the most common mistakes I see in beginner books (and honestly, some books by not beginners) is this idea of "circling."
Circling is when a scene meanders from Point A to Point B...then back to Point A before stopping at Point C and finally ending at Point B (again).
In other words, the same emotional beats are being hit multiple times, which is both annoying for the reader and just plain boring.
I think it's natural to circle when you're drafting and figuring out a scene, but one of the best things you can do for your writing during revisions is to find those circles and straighten them out!
Third: Avoid repeating beats.
Unless you're intentionally repeating a beat for artistic purposes (which is totally acceptable), redundancies are best avoided.
No one wants to read the same rehash of emotions three times. We get it already! If only you had made a different choice, then maybe your brother would still be alive!
Nor does a reader want to see the same story beat happen multiple times.
For example: Imagine you have two characters being chased over rooftops in a scene. Then, four scenes later, they are -- once more -- being chased over rooftops. Sure, they might be in a different location, but the general story event is exactly the same.
That's not interesting to the reader. AT ALL.
Or here, I'll give you an example from the Witchlands -- though SPOILER ALERT!
At the end of Truthwitch, Safi makes a bargain with the Empress of Marstok. At the end of Windwitch, Safi makes another (very different) bargain with a pirate named Admiral Kahina. Now, as I sit here trying to map out the next Witchlands book, an EASY story solution would be for Safi to -- yet again -- make a bargain with someone in power...
But I've already hit that beat twice. It would be downright lazy of me to hit that beat again, even if it's a logical choice for Safi to make. So instead, it's my job to find a different story solution -- different events and also different emotions -- to push the plot ahead.
Hopefully I haven't confused you too terribly about "beats." I know I covered a lot of ground -- from structure to plot to emotional dominoes™.
But like I said, writers tend to use this word to mean so many different things. I certainly do, and I hope that this newsletter will help you follow along when I do. ;)
New York, NY
June 1-2, 2019