Beats in Fiction Writing? Honestly, beats isn’t a term I use a lot, but it is a term I hear a lot, so I thought it would be good to define what beats in fiction are and why they matter.
Beats in Fiction Writing Defined
According to Sandra Scofield in her book, The Scene Book, beats in fiction are “small units of character action and reaction.”
Hmm… sounds a lot like Dwight Swain’s MRUs (Motivation Reaction Units).
Beats, however, are a bit different. Instead of thinking of the something happens/something reacts pendulum of MRUs, think of beats in fiction writing more like a skeleton. Beats are the bare purpose of your scene. They are the “just the facts, ma’am” of your scene.
Here is a very short scene from book 6 in my Dusty Deals Mystery series (This is from the rough draft…)
Eight thirty the next morning, I was bouncing along a gravel road in a dilapidated bus that I assumed had once served to carry unfortunate children to some school or another. Now it was painted park ranger green and nary a child was in sight. In fact, the next youngest person on the thing was our guide and my guess was she was pushing sixty.
We were on our way to Bannack, one of Montana’s best known and most visited ghost towns. Like a lot of Montana cities, it was founded after gold was discovered there, in Bannack’s case in 1862. It was a beautiful place with a lot of history, which I loved, but getting up at 5 a.m. to get on a bus by 6, was not my idea of a vacation.
Not that this was my vacation.
I glanced around. Everyone else, whose vacation it was, seemed thrilled with themselves, chattering excitedly when someone spotted so much as a pika scrambling to hide under a rock.
As another round of yelling, pointing and crowding to one side of the moving bus ensued, I tilted back my head and sighed. Maybe early morning energy came with age.
Something to look forward to I guessed.
The bus swung into the parking lot and we bumped and groaned to a stop.
As everyone scrambled to exit, I stood and waited. My mother waved at me to get into the pack of humanity squeezed into the aisle. “We only have two hours here. Then it’s off to sapphire mining!”
I smiled with what I hoped looked like enthusiasm. Did ghost towns have coffee?
270 words or so of stuff that happens, what my main character is thinking and some description.
So where are the beats?
- Lucy is bouncing along on the bus. (Traveling on bus)
- The bus arrives at parking lot/sapphire mine.
- Lucy’s mother waves at her and says they only have two hours there.
- Lucy smiles (fake smile)
That’s it. That’s the scene. All the rest? Window dressing that (hopefully) makes it fun to read. (Check out Pope in the Pool for more on that.)
Beats in Fiction Writing, Why Should You Care?
Why should you care about knowing your beats? Well, some writers… I’m not saying this is you, of course, get a bit lost at times. They can get so caught up in describing how the moonlight reflects off the water or so involved in that gun battle that they forget that the main purpose of scene is to move the story forward.
By tracking your beats or going back and looking for them if you have a scene that goes nowhere.. or seems “off,” you can get your scene, your story, your book back on track. You can add all of that description and other action and still keep your scene working to move your story along. That’s a good thing. A very good thing.
Beats in Fiction Writing, One Warning
Beats are action and reaction. They are not description or even emotion. What Lucy was feeling that made her give the fake smile is not a beat. Her physical representation of it, her smile, is. Make sure you show those emotions, don’t just tell us about them.
So Beats in Fiction? Any questions? Do you think in beats? Leave a comment or even an example from your own work.
Lori Devoti is the author of paranormal romance, urban fantasy and young adult fiction. Under the name Rae Davies, she writes the USA Today Bestselling Dusty Deals Mystery series. Check out her books at www.LoriDevoti.com and RaeDavies.com. Looking for help with your writing? Lori also does developmental editing and critiques for other authors and publishers. See our Editorial Services page for contact information and pricing. Or check out Lori’s classes at the Continuing Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin.