By popular demand, I’ll be going over the units of story in detail over the next several posts. What’s important to remember is that these units have a Russian doll relationship. Story Beats create scenes which create sequences which create acts which create subplots which create a global story.
Now before you lose your mind in all of this, here’s the bottom line: FOR WRITERS, THE MOST IMPORTANT UNIT OF STORY IS THE SCENE. If you master Scene creation, the rest of storytelling almost takes care of itself. With that said, let’s start our deep dive into all of the units.
The Beat is the smallest unit of Story
And as the smallest, it is often given short shrift by prose writers. In many cases, beats are ignored and left to the exigencies of the unconscious. What I mean by that is that Story Beats are so small (atomic in some instances) that we often leave them unexamined in our quest to finely tune the mechanics of scenes, sequences, acts, secondary plot lines and global stories. And that’s okay for the novelist.
Dwelling on the beat in the first drafts of your novel is a mistake. You will most certainly lose the forest for the trees if you obsess about each and every beat. If a scene works, then by association so do the beats that make up the scene. If the scene doesn’t work, then having wonderful story beats within it will not save it. I recommend that tinkering with beats be best left to the final finish work just prior to publication or production.
Examining Story Beats
But with that said, looking hard at every beat in a story, while taxing, creates rich subtext. Slight tweaks of beats can highlight image systems and hammer home your controlling idea/theme. Should you spend hours deliberating the use of one word? It depends on the beat within the scene and the importance of that scene to the overarching story of course. Obviously, you are going to spend a lot of time on every beat in your Story’s global Climax scene.
Carefully weighing and pruning your language is exactly what you do when you examine story beats. My answer is to not even think about parsing beats until you have a very accomplished draft in place. Robert McKee will soon release a book purely dedicated to DIALOGUE, which I’ve had the privilege to edit. I suggest you take a look at that book for further delineation about Beat craft. It’s comprehensive.
In the performing arts, much more so than in prose writing, beats are the central focus. Story Beats are the actors’ medium. It is within the moment-to-moment beats that actors make specific choices to portray their idea of their characters. Acting is a very difficult skill as it requires the delivery of memorized text in a simulated and at the same time “real” situation—one actor speaking to another is real, even if the text is pre-programmed.
So what is a Story Beat?
A beat is an identifiable moment of change. And like all units of Story, the writer must have the raw materials to create a stable story beat. There is an inciting incident, a complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution inside each and every beat.
- The inciting incident is when two characters, each with their own agendas, take the stage or come on to the page.
- The complication is a clear understanding that their agendas are in conflict. That, is one wants something from the other one that the other does not want to give.
- The crisis is a question that arises within each character. Do I do this? Or Do I do that?
- The climax of the beat is the active choice that the two characters individually make in response to the crisis.
- The resolution is the fall out from the choices as evidenced in the reactions of the characters.
I think you can see how this can get mind-trippy.
The beat is the moment when one character realizes that the active choice he/she is making is not working on the other character. He’s not successful getting the other person to do what he wants, so he changes the action to try and get it another way. Perhaps scolding doesn’t work, so the character changes his approach and tries to woo the other one instead.
Examples of Story Beats
For example, in the movie Tootsie, there are pitch perfect beats galore.
I saw Tootsie decades ago, but there was one moment that was so perfectly executed and so in character that I still use it as the best example of a beat…a definable moment with an inciting incident, a complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution that changes everything.
In the movie, Bill Murray plays playwright, Jeff. He’s thrown together a birthday party for his actor friend and roommate Michael Dorsey played by Dustin Hoffman. Up until this moment, the viewer has only heard about “Jeff” from dialogue between Dorsey and his agent, played by the wonderful Sidney Pollack who also directed the movie. Dorsey has told his agent that he needs a job so that he can raise enough money to put on his friend Jeff’s play at a regional summer stock theater. The name of the play is Return to Love Canal. For those of you who don’t remember, Love Canal was a place in New York that had been built on top of toxic waste. The people who moved into Love Canal got terribly ill (this is all true) and many contracted cancer because of the exposure. It was a big story in the 1970s and a real tragedy.
So Dorsey’s friend Jeff has decided that he will write a play about people who were exposed to horribly toxic substances, who then make the ridiculous decision that they should move back in.
The very title of the play sounds like the work of a very self-important person.
At first exposure, Murray as Jeff seems like a really thoughtful, good friend to Michael. He’s put together the party and we watch as Dorsey makes his way around the crowd. It seems that Jeff is just a good egg…no more no less.
Then later on, the camera moves to Murray/Jeff holding court at the kitchen table. He’s got a crowd gathered around him and he’s telling people his philosophy of theater. He tells them that he wants to have a theater that’s only open when it’s raining and that he doesn’t want people to tell him how great his work is, he wants them to come out of his plays and say to him.
“Man I saw your play…what happened?”
Walking Through Story Beats
Let’s walk through the next beat, which is my aforementioned favorite.
- The inciting incident is the party.
- But in the middle of Murray/Jeff’s speech, he senses that he’s losing his audience. A complication. The people listening to him are beginning to think about whether or not they should leave the party or if they should get another drink or if there is going to be cake etc.
Jeff’s agenda is to enthrall the guests of his friend’s birthday party enough that they will eventually support him either financially or just show up for one of his plays. His bullshit has been working but now it’s starting to wear off, which raises the crisis question…
- The crisis question is what can I do to get the crowd back hanging on my every word?
But remember, the people around Jeff have their own agenda. They are at this birthday party to see Dorsey and are most likely Dorsey’s primary friends, not Jeff’s. They find Jeff kind of fascinating at first and he’s one of those people you meet at a party who hold your attention and make you forget the fact that you are at a party. Guys like Jeff relieve the people around them from having to be “on.” They don’t want to be “on.” This guy is “on” so their wants are being met.
Then Murray/Jeff begins to repeat himself and is starting to bore them. So from the point of view of the party goers, the inciting incident is the party, the complication is that the conversation is getting boring, the crisis is what they should they do about it? Should they leave the circle and have to be “on” somewhere else? Or stay the course and be bored?
- Murray/Jeff realizes this is happening. So, he needs to change to get back his audience. That moment of change is the moment the beat changes.
- The climax of the beat is not verbal in this instance. I doubt it was even written into the script. Rather it’s a physical motion that the actor Bill Murray uses to keep the scene moving forward.
Just as he senses that his beginning to lose his audience, Jeff/Murray violently swats at an invisible fly. This action gets all of the listeners’ focus back to him.
The aggressive move changes the dynamic of the moment and the story value from Friendly to Dangerous. Murray/Jeff gets what he wants (he regains the people around the kitchen table’s undivided attention) but at a price. Yes the people will continue to listen to him and pretend that he is fascinating, but you intuit as the viewer that they are now plotting a way to escape. And thus another beat begins. That’s acting.
This is the example of a very clean and discernible beat. Before the fly-swatting incident, the environment is one way…after the fly swatting incident things are another way. The Beat change was driven by conflict. Murray/Jeff was not getting what he wanted and so he changes his action to get what he wants. This choice says everything we really need to know about Jeff/Murray. This is a selfish guy who needs constant stroking and support to create his “art.” If he doesn’t get it, then he will strike out at those he perceives aren’t listening.
The beat is so well done that it brings a very large laugh. The laugh comes from the audiences understanding intuitively the dynamic at play and Murray’s violent action breaks that artifice. We recognize this kind of thing from our own lives. This moment, entirely invented by Murray, is what is meant by an actor making a specific choice. An active choice (not in the screenplay) that is universally understood by the audience propels the beat and the scene forward.
Story Beats in Novels
But you can’t put actor moments like that in a novel, right?
Actually you can. Here’s a sentence from THE GREAT GATSBY that comprises an entire beat.
The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott (2003-05-27). The Great Gatsby (p. 3). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The inciting incident of this beat is the intention of the first person narrator to tell the reader about himself. The narrator begins by telling us about the world he lives in. “The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch…” Having Nick Carraway, his narrator, state that his family is like a “clan” connotes deep Scottish roots and allows Fitzgerald to establish what kind of people will inhabit the story. The bloodline is so deep that it extends back to Dukes in Scotland… These are ”some high class people” is the narrator’s intended message.
But the use of the phrase “something of a clan” raises a complication.
The narrator intuitively knows that he may lose his audience if he comes off as too insular or snobby, so he hedges his statement with the word “something,” which tells the reader that he’s detached from this family attitude. Which raises the crisis question of what to do about disabusing the reader of the notion that the narrator is not “like them.”
The narrator’s object of desire is to get the reader on his side—be willing to listen to him and his story for quite some time—which results in a climactic decision to play down his lineage.
He states that he is from blue blood, but then sensing that this revelation may turn off the average reader, he changes his approach and his action by then confessing that “the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in ’51 (meaning 1851…not exactly a founding father of the revolution), sent a substitute to the Civil War (used money to get out of his Patriotic duty…perhaps this is a line of cowards?) and started the wholesale hardware business (not pedigreed money, money that had to be earned) that my father carries on to-day.”
The resolution of the beat is the narrator’s confession that he’s basically the son of a guy who runs a hardware store. This confession pulls the reader into Carraway’s story. The message to the reader is “I live in a high class world, but I’m not really like those kind of people…Being of salt of the earth lineage, I’m capable of seeing through it…”
So the turning point is the shift from hoity toity “you should listen to what I have to say because I’m a high class guy” to “I may seem to be high class, but the reality of my life is much more in keeping with the average hardworking American Joe…” Fitzgerald accomplishes this shift by having his narrator use an action, to confess.
Fitzgerald and Story Beats
Do you see how brilliantly Fitzgerald created a story beat with this one sentence? The first person storyteller’s inciting incident is the need for them to tell you something, followed by the complication that perhaps he’ll turn off readers who cannot relate to the setting of the story, giving rise to the crisis of how to get the reader back, leading to the climactic action of confession, and the resolution of getting the broadest possible audience back to hear more of the story.
What’s more the word choices Fitzgerald makes could just not be any better.