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I keep hearing the word "beat" in Writers.SE, as in "... break your scene into beats" from this question. What is a beat? How is it different from a scene?

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4 Answers 4

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Since "break your scene into beats" was from my comment, let me see if I can add anything to the discussion here:

You originally wrote "I divide my story into scenes, and put those scenes into chapters." So you understand how to break a story into smaller pieces. Let's create an example:

SCENE: James just found out that he's been promoted, and is sharing the news with his best friend Sam. James didn't know Sam was going for the same promotion. Sam is both pleased and jealous, and trying to hide his jealousy.

[My original suggestion here was "forget about word count, and ask yourself 'Did I accomplish the task(s) in my outline in this scene?' " Let's assume that the tasks you want to accomplish are:

  1. show James to be young, enthusiastic, ambitious, and somewhat full of himself, but not entirely insensitive
  2. show Sam to both love James and see him as a rival
  3. start laying groundwork to set up the big Act IV confrontation between James and Sam.]

So to create beats, you kind of micro-outline your story.

  • Sam is sitting at his desk working. Sam's thoughts: both he and James interviewed. Sam has been working very hard for this position and thinks he has finally convinced Big Boss that he deserves the responsibility. Sam knew his interview was strong, but he also knows James is a charmer. Wonders if interviewer told James that Sam was interviewing. Wonders how James did. Wonders what it would be like if James had to report to him, and if that would cool their friendship. Leads to tangent reverie about happy childhood memory with him and James.
  • James comes in the room extremely excited. "Sam, I got the job!" Eagerly recounts how he was just told. Starts to rattle off future plans for the position. James doesn't notice the smile has frozen on Sam's face. Sam's thoughts racing as James bounces around the room, oblivious.
  • James finally pauses for Sam's reaction. Sam forces out something positive. James's smile falls as he realizes Sam isn't nearly as excited as he expected. Asks what's wrong. "Aren't you happy for me?" Jumps to conclusions and starts reassuring Sam that James will certainly insist that Sam join him in the new department as his right-hand guy. "I'd never leave you behind, Sam, you're my best friend." Adds something about refusing the promotion if Sam can't come with him, speaking with a great air of gallantry.
  • Sam recognizes James's genuine devotion to him, and is able to smile more normally. Thanks James for his offer and reiterates his pleasure at James's promotion.
  • James is up and running again, rattling off ideas, but this time it's more give-and-take, and Sam finds himself caught up in the excitement of the new project. This feels more natural, more right — the two of them working together to solve a problem.

Those are beats. They are bubbles of action, of thought, of mood, which each contribute something to character or plot.

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TLDR: Beats are what you make scenes out of.

"Beat" is terminology that probably came backwards into writing from acting. Essentially a scene is made of beats for an actor. To explain: I used to be an actor and one thing that I think always blows people's minds is how an actor can learn the entirety of Hamlet's part in a matter of a few months and then recall it and act it night after night for a play's run. What blows people's minds even more is that the actor can simultaneously go to the shops for milk, bread, eggs, beer, bacon and cigarettes and only recall the need for beer and cigarettes.

When I first started acting I always wondered what would happen when I was good enough to have more than five lines in a play. When I first got to twenty I had enough trouble remembering them. As I continued to act, though, I learned how it is that actors can be so good at memorising parts but hopeless as everyone else at remembering everything else. The secret is in the beats.

The script is one part of making a performance, often compared to a blueprint. There is also a process of breaking down a scene and working through all the lines slowly and painstakingly finding out when it's a good idea to make a move across stage, when it's alright to take a pause, how your part meshes with the parts of everyone else who's in the scene. This process is called "blocking".

Take this beginning to Act II Sc ii of Macbeth. In this short piece of dialogue Lady Macbeth is awaiting the return of her husband from the King's sleeping Chambers. She has plotted with Macbeth to kill King Duncan in order that Macbeth may assume his crown as King of Scotland. Now she knows she has sent him to do it but is uncertain as to the state of the King. She has some concern that Macbeth will be unable to commit:

Enter LADY MACBETH

LADY MACBETH That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold; What hath quench'd them hath given me fire. Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman, Which gives the stern'st good-night. He is about it: The doors are open; and the surfeited grooms Do mock their charge with snores: I have drugg'd their possets, That death and nature do contend about them, Whether they live or die.

MACBETH [Within] Who's there? what, ho!

LADY MACBETH Alack, I am afraid they have awaked, And 'tis not done. The attempt and not the deed Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready; He could not miss 'em. Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done't.

Enter MACBETH

My husband!

MACBETH I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?

LADY MACBETH I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. Did not you speak?

MACBETH When?

LADY MACBETH Now.

MACBETH As I descended?

LADY MACBETH Ay.

MACBETH Hark! Who lies i' the second chamber?

LADY MACBETH Donalbain.

MACBETH This is a sorry sight.

Looking on his hands

LADY MACBETH A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight.

This is always a favorite for actors to interpret, and ideal for our explanation because there are many beats of different kinds in this one section of dialogue. Here is the same broken into three broad "mood" beats, these are the closest to a writer's beats:

Beat 1: In this beat Lady Macbeth is allowed a moment alone on stage. Later in the play she famously goes mad (or more properly becomes mad in a different manner) and this is a moment in which we start the shift from a state where she is cold and megalomaniacal to a state of incoherent paranoia. This beat allows the scene to start on an off kilter note and Shakespeare inserts Macbeth's off stage comment in order to disrupt the soupy verse of Lady Macbeth's consideration. She starts the monologue truculently considering how the act of murder intoxicates her and then moves on to gloat at the thought of having sent her husband to murder the king and his heirs. After the off stage interruption she has a moment of peevishness that her husband nay be too lily livered to go through with it. This is particularly rich as she later freely admits that she didn't have the stomach for it. The mood of this beat is fairly slow, delirious, a moment of giddy trauma marked by careening mood swings of the sole character on stage.

Enter LADY MACBETH

LADY MACBETH That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold; What hath quench'd them hath given me fire. Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman, Which gives the stern'st good-night. He is about it: The doors are open; and the surfeited grooms Do mock their charge with snores: I have drugg'd their possets, That death and nature do contend about them, Whether they live or die.

MACBETH [Within] Who's there? what, ho!

LADY MACBETH Alack, I am afraid they have awaked, And 'tis not done. The attempt and not the deed Confounds us. Hark! I laid their daggers ready; He could not miss 'em. Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done't.

Beat 2: Macbeth enters and the next beat begins. The two characters are now "in the moment" of having just conducted an act of murder. Shakespeare shows that these two people are united only in this murderous act. They both panic and although both kind of converse they are more talking to themselves than communicating with each other. Each is alone in their own experience. They both talk about noise but in each case they are talking about something different. Macbeth is talking about the noise of the murdered as he stabbed them in their beds. Lady Macbeth talks about owls screaming and crickets crying, the natural world reacting to the death of a monarch in a more spiritual way. Again Shakespeare is telling you Lady Macbeth is going to go mad one way and Macbeth, formerly uncertain about his capacity to kill for power is already acclimatising to his new role as murderous tyrant. This beat aims for a brief flutter of panic, trying to push the audience's heart rate up a little but only for a moment.

Enter MACBETH

My husband!

MACBETH I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?

LADY MACBETH I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. Did not you speak?

MACBETH When?

LADY MACBETH Now.

MACBETH As I descended?

LADY MACBETH Ay.

Beat 3: This is really the beginning of a longer beat rather than a whole beat, you can easily find the whole text if you want to examine this practice further. In the next sequence Macbeth and Lady Macbeth engage in a protracted examination of the act of murder, its commission, its possible consequences. The two dance around each other each on their own track. Shakespeare uses this time to convert the characters from what they were before this moment to what they become for the rest of the play. Lady Macbeth in this moment changes from the cold and calculating ice queen whose husband was never good enough into the terrified animal who will eventually snuff out her own life rather than live with the voices that attack her in the darkness. Macbeth goes from the loyal and humble warrior who fights for king and country to power-thirsty dictator with regard for nothing but his own ambition. The mood of this section as it unwinds is a kind of antiseptic stillness, the calm after a hideous storm and the fragmented dialogue pushes the audience into a distant position where they may better regard these two hideous creatures revelling in their own filthy act.

MACBETH Hark! Who lies i' the second chamber?

LADY MACBETH Donalbain.

MACBETH This is a sorry sight.

Looking on his hands

LADY MACBETH A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight.

Notice how each beat changes the mood of the scene. Lady Macbeth foreshadows her own creeping madness in the first beat. The second beat wipes this soupy descent from attention as the two panicking murderers face each other for the first time after the deed. The third beat shifts gear again as the two, over the initial shock, fall to contemplate the act.

In script writing beats are often portioned out like that. Sometimes scripts are written from improvisational work and in that case you can see that a list of beats would be like a list of mood moments the actors had worked out for the writer to turn into dialogue e.g.

NOTES FROM MACBETH IMPROV - Scene: After The Murder

  1. Lady Macbeth alone, already she is starting to fall into lunacy.

  2. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth see each other, he is bloodied, she ennervated, a moment of panic.

  3. The two contemplate the act. Morosely revelling in their evil.

And so on.

When applied to screenplay writing, as scenes are generally shorter in movies, a beat could be a single scene, it could also apply to a montage of events dislocated in space and time such as a training montage in a Rocky movie. As movies can play a little faster and looser with regard to the Greek unities of time, place and action the beats can be spread to single units of time between two and five minutes in length. Also films have far more liberty in the use of juxtaposition, see Inception for the use of juxtaposition to create a rhythm of visuals and sound that a lot of people seemed to like.

Coming now, finally, to the writer of novels. I doubt that Dickens or Austen thought of their work as being so related to the Shakepearean plays (Ibsen, on the other hand, wrote plays designed not to be performed but to be read like novels, maybe he had more of an inkling about this). The idea of using this micromanagement technique to pace out incidents in a novel is relatively new as it has flowed from the playhouse to the movie studio and finally back to the writers desk.

When a novel has beats it's more about how one should play the moods of scenes that are adjacent to one another. One chapter in a book could have one distinct mood and explore one set of ideas or aspect of the novel's theme, the next should move away from this to give the reader some variety. There are a number of techniques for this.

In novels broad beats can be broken down into smaller beats. In the novel of Macbeth the scene above is a "Character Beat" where the novel takes a chapter to explore the beginning of strain between Lord and Lady Macbeth. The preceding chapter which details the act of the murder of King Duncan is a "Suspense Beat" in which we want the audience to contemplate the immorality of the act and Macbeth's inevitable comeuppance.

Within both of these broad beats we could break the scene down into further, smaller beats. The murder beat could require a visceral moment of denial, a terrifying moment of action, and a descending moment of realisation of what has been done. Then the character beat can proceed as detailed above.

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One Monkey, I can't follow the Macbeth example at all, so I'm ignoring it. In the novel section: If a beat sets a mood, then one scene can have just one beat, as (I'm guessing) the mood stays roughly the same for each scene? –  Shantnu Tiwari Sep 13 '11 at 10:22
    
@Shan, I don't think the mood necessarily stays the same for one scene. One Monkey is saying mood stays the same for one BEAT, but there could be multiple beats in a single scene. Re-read the last couple paragraphs of Monkey's post, then pick up your favourite novel (or your WIP) and see if you can spot beats in it. –  Kate Sherwood Sep 13 '11 at 11:02
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@Shan: I'll annotate the example. You have been playing with the tin opener in the canned worm factory I am afraid ;) –  One Monkey Sep 13 '11 at 11:20
    
+1 and I wish I could give it +10 for all that amazing analysis. –  Lauren Ipsum Sep 13 '11 at 11:47
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@One Monkey- Go ahead, see how many words you can stuff in one post before you crash the server! ;) –  Shantnu Tiwari Sep 13 '11 at 12:25
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I think One Monkey's answer shows the way 'beats' is used on a scene basis (and the way it was being used in the answer you referenced), but the word is also used in relation to dialogue, as a way to break up a wall of text and acknowledge the pauses and ticks of traditional conversations.

Without beats: "I can't believe you'd do that. I mean, we've talked about it so many times, and I really thought we had it all figured out. We knew it would be hard, but...I really thought we'd make it work. I guess I was wrong. So I guess now, we just have to figure out what the hell we're going to do about it."

With beats: "I can't believe you'd do that." She shifted in her chair, moving her body away from him. "I mean, we've talked about it so many times, and I really thought we had it all figured out. We knew it would be hard, but... I really thought we'd make it work." Another shift, and this time her eyes left him, too. He wondered how much longer he had before she stood up and walked right out the door. "I guess I was wrong." She paused, and then her gaze returned to his, and her look was so fierce that he found himself wishing for the earlier distance. "So I guess now, we just have to figure out what the hell we're going to do about it."

That example is kinda over-beated, but you get the idea. The beats give information, but they also make speech feel more natural, and give the reader a chance to absorb the emotions.

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Oh yes, of course that's the micro micro beat, sometimes even written into scripts. "Marriage is a wonderful institution. (Beat.) But who wants to belong to an institution?" That's where the whole thing started, of course. Good spot. –  One Monkey Sep 13 '11 at 9:51
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So pleased to read those valuable answers, as an theatre and movie actor I can testify that beats in a dialogue, are an indication about where the character is at a particular key moment of the scene. It helps determine what motivates him to jump to the next thought or action. It means that a beat marks a change of intention, desire or objective.

If the the character's objective happens to stay the same, then what's determined is the action he decides to take, consequently to the information he just received (line, action or reaction) in order to reach his main target as character. However I would have been happy to see OneMonkey's annotated example.

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