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.