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Story Beats: The Key to Line-by-Line Writing

What is a Beat?

Beats are the smallest UNIT OF STORY that writers use to convey the details of the ALTERNATE WORLD, AVATARS, and story events to their readers. A beat is a micro interaction that must always have an input and usually has an output. 

Story Beats: The Key to Line-by-Line Writing

The Input is an energetic transfer that comes from an object, a subject, or the CONTEXT. The input requires a response from the outputting AVATAR, either by directly targeting the outputter or by creating a situation in which the outputter is responsible for responding. The input is the cause to the output’s effect. Inputs can come from the story’s AUTHOR or an AVATAR.

The Output is an energetic transfer that occurs in response to the input. Outputs are the effects to the input’s cause. Outputs can also come from the story’s AUTHOR or an AVATAR. The Avatar who outputs energy is the one the audience identifies with and the protagonist of the beat interaction. 

Example

Input: All that the unsuspecting Bilbo saw that morning was an old man with a staff. He had a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which his long white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots.

Output: “Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Story Beats and Line-by-Line Writing

Conventional line-by-line edits apply the rules of grammar, syntax, and punctuation. These rules are important because they ensure that sentences conform to the general patterns of language. But a correctly written sentence can still be confusing or boring to readers and obscure the information and meaning the Author wants to communicate to the reader.

Story Beat analysis takes the rules of language into account, but the primary focus is on the objective energy transfer of the words and how audience experiences the story. That’s because a story is communication, a signal that an ARTIST sends to a MASS AUDIENCE. When writers understand the flow of energy, information, and meaning to the audience, they can cut irrelevant shoe leather and ensure that every line of the story supports the CONTROLLING IDEA.

Beats are the fundamental way we communicate with the audience of our story. Learn more by reading about Story Grid’s NARRATIVE PATH.

3 Categories of Story Beats

1. Active Build-Up Beats

In Active Build-Up beats, the AVATARS engage with one another. They are building up their relationship, even if they disagree.

Examples

Input: Soon after the Scarecrow stopped. “I see a little cottage at the right of us,” he said, “built of logs and branches. Shall we go there?” 

Output: “Yes, indeed,” answered the child. “I am all tired out.”

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Input: “Captain,” said the squire, “the house is quite invisible from the ship. It must be the flag they are aiming at. Would it not be wiser to take it in?”

Output: “Strike my colours!” cried the captain. “No, sir, not I”; and as soon as he had said the words, I think we all agreed with him. For it was not only a piece of stout, seamanly, good feeling; it was good policy besides and showed our enemies that we despised their cannonade.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

2. Reactive Break-Down Beats

In Reactive Break Down beats, the AVATARS respond to novelty they cannot process. It could be, for example, someone or something out of context or the failure of a tactic that has worked in the past. When novelty overwhelms their information processing, the avatar cannot directly engage with the input, and the relationship breaks down. 

Examples

By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed. Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce’s Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him with:

“Do you know, mamma, that my uncle Phillips talks of turning away Richard; and if he does, Colonel Forster will hire him. My aunt told me so herself on Saturday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, and to ask when Mr. Denny comes back from town.”

Lydia was bid by her two eldest sisters to hold her tongue; but Mr. Collins, much offended, laid aside his book, and said:

“I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit. It amazes me, I confess; for, certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction. But I will no longer importune my young cousin.”

Then turning to Mr. Bennet, he offered himself as his antagonist at backgammon. Mr. Bennet accepted the challenge, observing that he acted very wisely in leaving the girls to their own trifling amusements. Mrs. Bennet and her daughters apologised most civilly for Lydia’s interruption, and promised that it should not occur again, if he would resume his book; but Mr. Collins, after assuring them that he bore his young cousin no ill-will, and should never resent her behaviour as any affront, seated himself at another table with Mr. Bennet, and prepared for backgammon. 

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“These are prisoners of our king that have escaped, wandering vagabond dwarves that could not give any good account of themselves, sneaking through the woods and molesting our people!” 

“Is this true?” asked the Master. As a matter of fact he thought it far more likely than the return of the King under the Mountain, if any such person had ever existed. 

“It is true that we were wrongfully waylaid by the Elvenking and imprisoned without cause as we journeyed back to our own land,” answered Thorin. “But lock nor bar may hinder the homecoming spoken of old. Nor is this town in the Wood-elves’ realm. I speak to the Master of the town of the Men of the Lake, not to the raft-men of the king.” 

Then the Master hesitated and looked from one to the other. The Elvenking was very powerful in those parts and the Master wished for no enmity with him, nor did he think much of old songs, giving his mind to trade and tolls, to cargoes and gold, to which habit he owed his position.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

3. Binding 

Binding beats glue Active Build-Up and Reactive Break-Down beats together to create a coherent experience for the reader. 

There are three categories of Binding Beats:

  • World-Building beats describe the story’s ARENA, AVATARS, and their AGENCY.
  • Camera-Shifting beats direct the SINGLE AUDIENCE MEMBER’s (SAM) attention from one time, space, or AVATAR to another.
  • Transition Beats help the Author smoothly guide the SINGLE AUDIENCE MEMBER’s (SAM) between descriptions of On the Surface actions, Above the Surface processing, and Beyond the Surface meaning.

Examples

World-Building 

Input: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

World-Building 

Input: Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Camera-Shifting

Input: It was not very long after this that there occurred the first of the mysterious events that rid us at last of the captain, though not, as you will see, of his affairs. It was a bitter cold winter, with long, hard frosts and heavy gales; and it was plain from the first that my poor father was little likely to see the spring. He sank daily, and my mother and I had all the inn upon our hands, and were kept busy enough without paying much regard to our unpleasant guest.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Transition

Input (AVATAR): “Take a pew and read,” is all he said.

Output (AUTHOR): A thick case file lay on the seat behind him. The cover said BUFFALO BILL. Starling hugged it tight as the Blue Canoe blatted and shuddered and began to roll.

Transition

Input (AUTHOR): Bilbo stood still and watched—he loved smoke-ring—and then he blushed to think how proud he had been yesterday morning of the smoke-rings he had sent up the wind over The Hill.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Story Beats Build to Tropes

Beats are the building blocks of TROPES, which are STORY UNITS that create the FIVE COMMANDMENTS OF STORYTELLING in each scene of a story. They are units of interaction between the AUTHOR and SINGLE AUDIENCE MEMBER (SAM) or between AVATARS

Additional Story Beat Resources

This is just the start of what you can learn about beats and line-by-line writing using Story Grid’s  tools. For an in-depth study of beats and TROPES, join the Story Grid Guild, where members learn SCENE writing, including planning scene TROPES and constructing beats. 


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