So here we are. The first of December. NaNoWriMo has wrapped up, and regardless whether you wrote 50k or not, this is Day 1 of FiYoShiMo, or Fix Your Shit Month.
What we’re going to do every day in December (not on Christmas though), is take a look at what you wrote in November, and we’re going to take it apart, so that you can see the moving parts, and figure out what parts work and what don’t. This isn’t meant to convince you that you are completely worthless and shouldn’t be writing, this is going to show you that what you’ve written in November HAS merit and value, and that you have some ability to write – you just need to focus and practice, and learning some writing craft would be good.
For today, you’re going to need some of what you wrote. Get some scenes. Doesn’t matter if they’re sequential, or even if they’re from the same chapter. Go grab some text from your manuscript. How much? How about 3 scenes? I’ll wait here.
We good to go? Awesome.
Before we get our hands dirty, we have to look at the craft element we’re talking about today – beats. A “beat” in a story (whether that’s a novel, a script, a short play, a whatever) is a moment of action or reaction. It’s something happening. In screenwriting, you get a beat about every 5 minutes or so. In novel writing, you get a beat just about every paragraph or two, unless you’re running a long stretch of description or set-up.
By most accounts, the beat is the smallest unit in storytelling. A bunch of beats together forms a scene, a bunch of scenes together forms a plot, so really, beats build your plot. Beats come in a couple
different flavors, all with their own purposes. A beat always has some kind of consequence. There are a few different kinds of consequences to talk about. The expected consequence is the reasonable assumption and reasonable outcome of a beat. The gun goes off, the bullet has to go somewhere. The timer hits zero, the bomb has to detonate. You step on the gas, the car goes forward. When the expected consequence happens, the reader is (ideally) satisfied, excited and is encouraged to move forward in the story to see how the rest of the dominoes topple as the story progresses. More often than not, you’re going have more expected consequences than any other kind.
The unexpected consequence is the outcome that doesn’t happen, even if it’s expected. This is less frequent than the natural consequence, and ideally, it’s a small boost of tension to a scene. A gun jams or a clip runs dry. The car doesn’t start, even though it’s got a key in the ignition. You take the expected outcome and you deny it, for whatever reason (you need a reason for it to be an unexpected consequence). This doesn’t generate reader satisfaction usually, but it does propel them forward, it makes them want to keep reading to find out what’s next. The danger here is that if you have a lot of unexpected consequences, they become expected, sort of like how everyone expects M Night Shyamalan movies to have some kind of twist. (This is separate from the expectation that Shyamalan movies are going to be awful suckfests that you’ll only find enjoyable through mockery.) What makes them exciting and special is their rarity.
The unnatural consequence is the outcome that happens, but we don’t know why it happens and often it shouldn’t have happened the way it did, so we’re driven to read more of the story to find out why. These are most often big moments in a story that set up a significant element – like why didn’t Harry get killed by Voldemort or why can’t Jason Bourne remember who he is. Again, these consequences are rare in frequency, and rarity often leads to significance.
An action beat is a moment of something happening. Not necessarily limited to something blowing up or a fight or a gun shot, but something physical that happens is the most common way to describe an action beat. An action beat is decisive, and the story gains momentum through them.
Action beats are the cornerstone in most genres. Again, don’t think they’re just physical, you can have mental action beats where you have your great detective puzzling out the solution to the mystery and builds an elaborate maze of string on a corkboard, or social action beats where the team is rallied by a passionate halftime speech. A beat is a moment, and practically everything you’re writing is either a moment unto itself, it expands on an existing moment, or it sets up a future moment.
There are also investigative or mystery beats (I’m going to call them both). Whereas the action beat is a moment where something happens as a result of often a physical stimulus, the investigative beat happens due to the need to gain more information, and it’s often the search for information that leads to other things happening. Your intrepid detective sits down, lamenting to their sidekick that the mystery is tough, then the sidekick says something and whoosh, the detective is out the door with the solution. Or the detective scours the crime scene, and the text describes how odd this looks to other people (because oddity is evidence of genius). Or the suspicious mother presses redial on her daughter’s phone. Or the nervous student asks a follow-up question. Yes, you can argue that investigation is itself an action, but the critical part of the investigation beat is the stuff going on in a character’s mind.
Now if we’re in first-person, and we have access to this character’s mind, the investigative beats become responses to the world around the character, all of which we interpret as narration. However, if your character is mystery-adjacent (if they’re the civilian who won’t have access to the material the cops do, for instance). then mystery beats require there be some sort of way for the character to reach the same conclusions as the cops, just by taking a different route. This is most often accomplished by going through a second character referred as a knowledge proxy (often someone with a specialization in the exact stuff the character needs to know to solve the mystery). In The Dresden Files, Bob the Skull is your knowledge proxy. In Harry Potter, it’s most often Hermione, though occasionally it’s Neville or a ghost or someone else just roaming around the fifteenth chapter or so.
If we’re in third-person, there’s a tricky line to tow around the show versus tell balance. Show versus tell, for me, is always a barometer about how much or how little the writer trusts/likes their audience.
Showing them, allowing them to reach their own conclusions or have their own feelings, shows a great deal of trust, it suggests that the writer knows the reader will “get it” (whatever it is). Telling them, dictating how or what they should think or feel suggests the writer thinks the audience won’t “get it” (and this is where you’ll often see a writer desperate to be recognized as good enough or smart). Hitting that balance, frankly, means doing a little bit of both from time to time. It’s experiential, and my best advice to you about it on day 1 of FiYoShiMo is to aim for more show than tell, but know that telling can be a great way for a reader to get a starting point for showing. Again, this is a practice thing.
Action beats are telling that masquerades as showing. We are shown the gun going off, but we’re told the response. Mystery beats are showing that masquerades as telling. We’re told how the detective solved the crime, but we’re given enough room to see if we can piece it out ourselves.
Where do those consequences fall here?
The expected consequence to a mystery beat is that the plot advances. We see that the gun found at the scene is or isn’t the murder weapon, and then we’re led further into the story. A mystery beat’s expected consequence (at least prior to the mystery’s solution) should lead the reader to ask a question, often “What happens now?” Once you reach the moment of the mystery’s solution, the question shifts to “How does this wrap up?” which is the obvious question to ask at any story’s conclusion. Expected consequences in mystery beats act like accelerators. They often move the story forward, possibly too fast, and they can lead to boring scenes. If we always know what’s coming, what’s the incentive to read? Where’s the challenge? For minor developments, expected beats confirm reader thinking, but keep them small and incremental.
The unexpected consequence to a mystery beat is also plot advancement, though often with changes to the mystery-information we already have. (Another word for mystery-information is clue.) With an unexpected consequence, we change the amount of suspects, motives, alibis, and other clues. The pieces of the mystery that we’re building don’t connect in the way we expected, so that drives us into the story to find out both how the pieces connect, or what we’re missing to make them connect.
This makes unexpected consequences a regular occurrence with mystery beats. The unnatural consequence to a mystery beat is often an action beat. Look at any crime-solving show with a male protagonist. Rockford Files. Magnum PI. Even the formulaic CSI shows. They find something out, even if it fits perfectly with existing information, it segues into action. The footprint means that guy really is guilty, go arrest him. The butter melted an extra eighth of a centimeter, she totally killed her husband. (Note: this is also true for shows with female protags, though often the action beat is indirect, since other people get called in to do the action … but we’ll get to direct and indirect tomorrow). Whereas with action beats the unnatural consequence is rare, they’re pretty common with mystery beats, since you have to winnow down suspects and increase tension.
The emotional beat, also called the meaningful beat if you suffered through some of the same classes I did, is the third major kind of beat we’re talking about today. Yes, others exist, but I want to keep the focus here for Day 1. When the others crop up, we’ll talk about them this week.
The emotional beat adds an additional layer to whatever is going on, no matter what it is. This often happens through dialogue and reactions to dialogue (and when it does, we call them emotional dialogue beats, isn’t that original?).
The crying child embracing his mother. The tearful man being vulnerable to the love of his life. The farmboy staring off in the distance under his desert’s planets twin suns. Film underscores the emotional beat by usually having a swell in music (especially true when there isn’t talking, but there needs to be some sound to help convey that this is a moment where the audience should be feeling something — see the show, not tell — but it’s left to them to feel whatever they do). Emotional beats help punctuate and emphasize scenes. They provide signposts to the reader suggesting that they should be so far along in their commitment to the story, and points out the path to go forward. A story without emotional beats can seem like a summary, or leave the reader wondering why they should invest any further. Don’t neglect these beats.
The expected consequence of an emotional beat is by definition unclear. That’s what makes it tricky (and vital) to a story. It isn’t about the gun or the gunshot, it’s about the feelings of the people involved and the moment they’re in. Is this the moment where you can’t believe that they’re going to kill Sean Bean (again)? Is this the moment where you reveal he’s been dead the whole time (I either mean Sean
Bean or your character)? The story is free to go in whatever direction you want, but remember that you’re going to need to give the story momentum here – an emotional beat might be important, but it can eat inertia. A little push is often a good idea here. Keyword is little, though that’s variable depending on what you’re doing or the scope of what you’re talking about.
The unexpected consequence of an emotional beat is called subversion, which is where you set up a scene to suggest that it’s going to pay off a certain way, then pay it off another way. This is where you, for example, get the classic double-cross, where a character turns on another character as plot advancement. An unexpected consequence is most often an action beat – something happens and that’s what left our jaws hanging.
The unnatural consequence is reader confusion. If your reader is left scratching their head about why this effect follows that cause, you’ve raised a red flag. Don’t do that. Always make sure you and your
reader can time the emotional beat to something. Yes, they might not fully understand what you’re
putting together when they reach page 20, but by page 120, they should be well on their way (I’m making page numbers up here). There’s a difference between needing more information and having no freaking clue what’s happening. Usually a reader looking for more information will keep reading, but if this is part of a pattern they’ve experienced with your story, expect them to discover alternate uses for the pages. Maybe an end table needs leveling. It’s wintertime, tinder is always a good idea.
Having now laid out three types of beats, I want you to take a look at the scenes you have in front of you. Can you spot the beats? Can you find the moments that build this story’s skeleton? When you find one, mark it in the margin: A for action, I for Investigation, E for Emotion. You can track consequences if you want, marking them little “e” for expected, “un” for unexpected, and “x” for “unnatural”.
Once you get all the A’s, I’s, and E’s marked, do you see any patterns? Are there not many E’s on the page? Are there way more A’s than you expected? Do your beats fall in one consistent order, even when you think you’re trying a new approach?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single unifying theory that says how many of each beat-type you should have. But here are three things I want you to look at today so we can go forward with this tomorrow:
You should be able to tie an emotional beat to an action beat that brought the reader to it, and to an action beat that leads from it. Like we’re making an action-emotion-action beat Oreo.
An investigative beat should produce new information that leads to an action beat somewhere, if not right away. Even if that new information is a unit of “we eliminate old info”, there’s a corresponding action beat prompted by what’s been learned.
Your expected consequences should vastly outnumber your unexpected and unnatural consequences.
Tomorrow, for FiYoShiMo Day 2, we’re going to look at Direct and Indirect beats, which is going to build on what we’ve got here.
See you then.