What Is a Beat, Anyway?

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. 

“Hi, Mom.”

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.

Storywide Beats

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. 

For more on storywide beats, see my articles on Creating a Moving Character Arc and Novel Structure.

The Summation

So those are your three definitions of “beat.” 

  1. Narrated action or narration that otherwise provides a rhythmic pause between lines of dialogue. 
  2. A small unit of story that is comprised of an action and reaction and delivers a small change. 
  3. A significant development within a story that one might list in a beat sheet, giving an outline of the whole story.  

Want to watch the video version of this article? Check it out below:

Some clarity on a term that gets tossed around a lot within the writing craft community. #writingcommunity #writingtip | stormwritingschool.com
  • daniel pearse says:

    Only in the language of the English, could we have a term of art spelled exactly the same, sounding exactly alike, but as varied in meaning as milk and cheese. I suppose, we could just call these dairy words . . . you know, some are the freshest essence(milk) of the story, others are a more pronounced, or solid, iteration(your cheese), and then the in the broadest of terms, the nutritious and satisfying element–eggs. Thank you for rendering these three concepts into a quick “beat”. But you had me at Lighthouse Tours, anyway.

  • Polly Hansen says:

    The concept of beats has always puzzled me, perhaps because I’m not sure why the concept is so important, and I gather that it is very important because EVERY writing teacher, coach, and accomplished author, mentions them. Does it have to do with dead wood? meaningless text that doesn’t further the story? I both read and watched the video, and in the video caught something I glossed over in the reading — that bit about about actors — that actors pay attention to beats to help them interpret a character. That makes sense, little chunks of characterization that bring that character and the action to life. So analyzing beats would be a way to edit out text that doesn’t comprise a beat?

    • TD Storm says:

      The concept is important for varying reasons, depending on what kind of beat we’re talking about. Those links I supplied at the end of each section above should address the importance of each. If you’re talking about beats within a scene, the value of analyzing them is to assess the character’s movement within a scene. Let’s say you have a character at the beginning of a scene being excited about meeting a romantic partner but at the end of the scene leaving in disgust. How do you move the character from point A to point B? Beats can help make that progression causal and authentic.

  • Lita Brooker says:

    This excellent article answers the question: how shall I improve my writing over the weekend? Many thanks, Tim. 🙂

  • […] (For more disambiguation about the word “beats,” which means multiple things in the world of writing craft, see this: What are beats?) […]

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