General · Writing

What is a writing beat?

I mean, in writing a short story or a novel. What is a beat? I first heard the phrase on Writing Excuses, and I have since heard it in a few other places.  untitled-1

Even though Writing Excuses was where I first heard this term, I don’t think they actually define it in any podcast. Anyway, I haven’t found a podcast dedicated to the concept of writing beats. (I would like to hear one, if you are reading, Writing Excuses.)

According to dictionary.com, it can be:

36. Music.
a. the audible, visual, or mental marking of the metrical divisions of music.
b. a stroke of the hand, baton, etc., marking the time division or an accent for music during performance.

37. Theater. a momentary time unit imagined by an actor in timing actions: Wait four beats and then pick up the phone.

And other Katherine Cowley on her site (http://www.katherinecowley.com/blog/10-keys-to-writing-story-beats-in-novels-with-exercises/) defines it as:

The definition: A beat is the smallest story unit in fiction. Individual words are like atoms. Story beats are the molecules, the real building blocks of the story world. There are different categories or types of story beats including a line of dialogue, a moment of action, a moment of reaction, a moment of inaction, a visual image, an emotion, a setting, a theme, or an instance of meta-storytelling.

So having googled writing beat, I still don’t really understand it. How do I identify the beats in a book?

I am pretty sure there are different types of beats. Story, character, plot, emotional, action and so on and so forth. But I don’t think I can tell one beat from another or even identify a single one in a scene. It is quite confusing.

In this first chapter – which is mostly dialog, just one setting, one scene – from Pride & Prejudice, what are the beats?

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1342/1342-h/1342-h.htm

I suppose they must include the last line? Which is the aim of her life? But . . . is that a story beat, a character beat, a plot beat, an emotional beat? One or more of the above? Story, yes; plot, probably; character, probably; emotional; maybe; action; no?

And what is the difference between story and plot beat? I don’t know. I am confused.

A part of me wants to forget this whole notion of writing beats.

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2 thoughts on “What is a writing beat?

  1. I have always taken writing ‘beats’ to refer to how the text flows as a whole: the pace and rhythm of the piece. Sometimes I’ll read back what I’ve written and think, “That went too fast. The characters went from emotional state A to emotional state B too quickly. There needs to be a more gradual progression. So I’ll put in another ‘beat’ – another piece of dialogue, or an interior monologue, or even a whole new scene – to bridge that gap, and smooth out the curve. This can apply to action, dialogue, emotion etc; anything, really, that needs to progress through the story at the right pace.

    Sometimes, of course, the pace is too slow. I have too many beats, repeating the same point over and over again; so I’ll cut some out, getting rid of redundant text.

    In the case of the Jane Austen piece (and I’m no expert), you could argue that the dialogue could go from ‘Mr Bennet replied that he had not’ to ‘”Why, my dear, you must know …”. But then we would miss the ‘beat’ of the interchange between the two where we learn that Mr Bennet is being deliberately obtuse and Mrs Bennet is getting frustrated with him.

    It doesn’t matter to the plot in the slightest, but it rounds out the characters and gives us a bit more about them.

    And so on.

    That’s my view, anyway. Let me know what you think!

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