If you read about writing craft, you’re going to come across the word “beat” on occasion. But this is a term that even within the realm of creative writing has at least three different meanings. Let’s break them down here.
Beats in Dialogue
On the smallest scale, a beat refers to narration that occurs between or among lines of dialogue. And there are sort of two senses of the term at this level, actually. Sometimes you’ll hear the phrase “action beat” to refer to the action being narrated as dialogue is delivered. This is also known as stage business. The action beat below is in red:
“Hey, Handsome,” she said. She tipped her hat up so I could see her face. She winked.
But that action also gives a rhythmic pause, and that’s the other sense of the term “beat” within dialogue. Sometimes, you want to allow time for characters to process something before they reply. In a first draft of a story, you might even pencil in something like “[pause]” or “[beat]” and return to it later to flesh the scene out with something that accomplishes more than just pausing.
So, at the smallest scale, a beat is a narrational interruption within a dialogue exchange. Some of those interruptions are actions; some might be descriptions or thoughts or any other type of narration that happens to supply a rhythmic pause within the scene.
For some ideas on how to create meaningful beats within dialogue, check out my article on Triangulating Dialogue.
Beat within Scenes
The next definition of a beat is the smallest unit of story. And that’s a little abstract, so I’ll explain. A scene is comprised of several moment-to-moment actions and reactions. There’s a stimulus and response.
A person walks into a bar, looks around, sees an empty stool and walks over to it. That’s a beat.
Another person sitting next to our new arrival says, “Hey! You come here often?” And our protagonist scoffs, says no, and turns away. That’s a beat.
And we go on and on like this to build an entire scene.
We could define these beats as units of action/reaction, and they deliver tiny moments of change.
For more on how you can think about beats in a productive way to help you craft scenes, check out my article on Using Beats to Move Characters within Scenes.
The third definition of beat is at the largest scale, and it refers to the most consequential events within a story. It’s sort of like an itinerary for a story. If you travel with an itinerary, it won’t tell you everything you’ll do on a daily basis, but it will list the highlights: breakfast at hotel; museum; lunch in cafe; trolley ride; lighthouse tour, etc.
You sometimes hear people talk of “beat sheets,” which are basically that itinerary. They’re templates for the major landmarks a story should visit along the way.
So those are your three definitions of “beat.”
- Narrated action or narration that otherwise provides a rhythmic pause between lines of dialogue.
- A small unit of story that is comprised of an action and reaction and delivers a small change.
- A significant development within a story that one might list in a beat sheet, giving an outline of the whole story.
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