“In a rant last week, a famous writer said, ‘The Internet is not to blame for your unfinished novel: you are.’ As far as I’m concerned, the internet was created to keep more crappy novels from crowding the in-boxes of bitching ass agents like me. From crowding the shelves of bookstores. From taking down trees. From becoming e and crowding the what? ether? I think the more the internet keeps people from writing the better. Thank you internet porn. Thank you E-Bay. Thank you YouTube. Thank you Mark Zuckerberg. Every minute you surf the web is a minute you don’t write something stupid and pathetic. The internet is the next best thing to wanking, face picking, drawer reorganizing, and therapy. The internet is what separates the yolk from the whites.” — Betsy Lerner
“OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning—I just try to write. ” — John McPhee
“Many boys dream of a career in the big leagues. But when they become men, all but a small minority give up their big league dreams, and instead enjoy their sport as a hobby. Why is it so different for writers?” — Rachelle Gardner
The term beat refers to the way one breaks down events into small steps of action, making it possible to evaluate whether those steps move the action effectively toward the culmination of the scene. Even if the beats are nested in a scene dense with description or reflection, making them clear and vivid will keep the line of action in the reader’s mind as the scene moves toward the outcome of the event.
Think about an event, any event. For this example, let’s use something slightly dramatic, a police officer telling a newlywed man that his wife has just been killed in a car accident.
As you can imagine, such a scene will be filled with all kinds of vivid emotion and (if it’s any good) rich description. But if the reader can’t follow the individual beats of the scene, the actions and reactions of your characters — in short, what your characters are actually doing during the scene — then all of your emotion and description will be for naught.
Told from the perspective of the police officer, the beats for our imaginary scene might include the following:
- The rookie officer pulls up to the victim’s house
- The officer knocks on the door
- The officer rehearses what she will say
- A kind-looking, young man opens the door
- The officer asks if the man is who she thinks he is
- The man answers in the affirmative
- The officer looks past the man, into the living room, where there is a picture of the now-dead woman kissing the kind man at the door during their recent wedding
- The officer begins to speak, but finds herself crying before she can get the words out
- The man invites her in, and not understanding the issue, he begins to comfort her
- The officer becomes embarrassed
- He continues to comfort her
- Sitting in the living room, facing the photos and knickknacks of the poor newlyweds, she grows even more upset
- The officer becomes cowardly, and can’t tell him the truth
- She lies about why she’s there, making up some story about why she’s crying and why she knocked on his door, making sure to keep the two facts unrelated
- He tries to calm her down, but to no avail
- She excuses herself without ever explaining that his wife is dead
- She gets in her patrol car
- He watches from the screen door
- She backs out of the driveway and drives down the block
- She pulls over and cries
Now, that’s a relatively dramatic event in the police officer’s day (not to mention the poor husband’s!), and it might make for an interesting short story. But as you begin drafting it, you might find that you’re getting caught up in the officer’s backstory. Since you need her to be the kind of person who would grow cowardly in face of such a conflict, you’ve detoured the reader into the officer’s character history, which is fine. But unless you keep control of the beats in your actual scene, your reader (and you) will get confused.
Basically, the beats of a scene are the outline of what’s happening. If you pull them out of your text and look at them in the abstract, they’ll not only keep you on track, but they’ll also ensure that the logic of your scene remains plausible.
In the above example, the crux of the event happens in beats ten through thirteen. You can see the subtlety that those beats will need from the verbs we’ve used to describe them: becomes, continues, and grows, followed by a non-action, the can’t telling of the central truth. If I were to actually write this scene, I’d probably break those four individual beats into finer detail, zooming in on them until the logic of her cowardice makes sense to even the bravest of men.
I’ll give Miss Scofield the final word:
[Scenes can have] a beautiful interweaving of character interaction, theme, and mood, but all those things [only] work [if your character] is doing something.
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. And the thing I would say to you with all my heart…if you’re going through this phase, it’s totally normal, and the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work, a huge volume of work…It’s only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap.” — Ira Glass (via kottke.org)
“[For writers], freedom can be our worst enemy. It can lead to paralysis, procrastination, aimlessness, or indecision. And especially for writers who are just starting out, the principles still need to be learned. While we may need room to experiment and explore, we also need meaningful practice and a way of measuring progress.” — Jane Friedman
“Amazon on Wednesday announced that later this year it will launch the Kindle Lending Library, a feature that will allow Kindle customers to borrow books from 11,000 libraries across the United States… Once the feature launches, customers will be able to borrow Kindle e-books from their local libraries and start reading them instantly.” — Macworld, writing about a press release that could change the entire game of ebooks: why buy when you can borrow, over and over and over again?