The Units of Story: The Beat

By popular demand, I’ll be going over the units of story in detail over the next several posts.  What’s important to remember is that these units have a Russian doll relationship. Beats create scenes which create sequences which create acts which create subplots which create a global story.

Now before you lose your mind in all of this, here’s the bottom line: FOR WRITERS, THE MOST IMPORTANT UNIT OF STORY IS THE SCENE.  If you master Scene creation, the rest of storytelling almost takes care of itself.  With that said, let’s start our deep dive into all of the units.

The Beat is the smallest unit of Story.

And as the smallest, it is often given short shrift by prose writers. In many cases, beats are ignored and left to the exigencies of the unconscious. What I mean by that is that Beats are so small (atomic in some instances) that we often leave them unexamined in our quest to finely tune the mechanics of scenes, sequences, acts, secondary plot lines and global stories. And that’s okay for the novelist.

Dwelling on the beat in the first drafts of your novel is a mistake. You will most certainly lose the forest for the trees if you obsess about each and every beat. If a scene works, then by association so do the beats that make up the scene. If the scene doesn’t work, then having wonderful beats within it will not save it. I recommend that tinkering with beats be best left to the final finish work just prior to publication or production.

But with that said, looking hard at every beat in a story, while taxing, creates rich subtext. Slight tweaks of beats can highlight image systems and hammer home your controlling idea/theme. Should you spend hours deliberating the use of one word? It depends on the beat within the scene and the importance of that scene to the overarching story of course. Obviously, you are going to spend a lot of time on every beat in your Story’s global Climax scene.

Carefully weighing and pruning your language is exactly what you do when you examine beats. My answer is to not even think about parsing beats until you have a very accomplished draft in place. Robert McKee will soon release a book purely dedicated to DIALOGUE, which I’ve had the privilege to edit. I suggest you take a look at that book for further delineation about Beat craft. It’s comprehensive.

In the performing arts, much more so than in prose writing, beats are the central focus. Beats are the actors’ medium. It is within the moment-to-moment beats that actors make specific choices to portray their idea of their characters. Acting is a very difficult skill as it requires the delivery of memorized text in a simulated and at the same time “real” situation—one actor speaking to another is real, even if the text is pre-programmed.

So what is a beat?

A beat is an identifiable moment of change. And like all units of Story, the writer must have the raw materials to create a stable beat. There is an inciting incident, a complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution inside each and every beat.

  1. The inciting incident is when two characters, each with their own agendas, take the stage or come on to the page.
  2. The complication is a clear understanding that their agendas are in conflict. That, is one wants something from the other one that the other does not want to give.
  3. The crisis is a question that arises within each character. Do I do this? Or Do I do that?
  4. The climax of the beat is the active choice that the two characters individually make in response to the crisis.
  5. The resolution is the fall out from the choices as evidenced in the reactions of the characters.

I think you can see how this can get mind-trippy.

The beat is the moment when one character realizes that the active choice he/she is making is not working on the other character. He’s not successful getting the other person to do what he wants, so he changes the action to try and get it another way. Perhaps scolding doesn’t work, so the character changes his approach and tries to woo the other one instead.

For example, in the movie Tootsie, there are pitch perfect beats galore.

I saw Tootsie decades ago, but there was one moment that was so perfectly executed and so in character that I still use it as the best example of a beat…a definable moment with an inciting incident, a complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution that changes everything.

In the movie, Bill Murray plays playwright, Jeff. He’s thrown together a birthday party for his actor friend and roommate Michael Dorsey played by Dustin Hoffman. Up until this moment, the viewer has only heard about “Jeff” from dialogue between Dorsey and his agent, played by the wonderful Sidney Pollack who also directed the movie. Dorsey has told his agent that he needs a job so that he can raise enough money to put on his friend Jeff’s play at a regional summer stock theater. The name of the play is Return to Love Canal. For those of you who don’t remember, Love Canal was a place in New York that had been built on top of toxic waste. The people who moved into Love Canal got terribly ill (this is all true) and many contracted cancer because of the exposure. It was a big story in the 1970s and a real tragedy.

So Dorsey’s friend Jeff has decided that he will write a play about people who were exposed to horribly toxic substances, who then make the ridiculous decision that they should move back in.

The very title of the play sounds like the work of a very self-important person.

At first exposure, Murray as Jeff seems like a really thoughtful, good friend to Michael. He’s put together the party and we watch as Dorsey makes his way around the crowd. It seems that Jeff is just a good egg…no more no less.

Then later on, the camera moves to Murray/Jeff holding court at the kitchen table. He’s got a crowd gathered around him and he’s telling people his philosophy of theater. He tells them that he wants to have a theater that’s only open when it’s raining and that he doesn’t want people to tell him how great his work is, he wants them to come out of his plays and say to him.

“Man I saw your play…what happened?”

Let’s walk through the next beat, which is my aforementioned favorite.

  1. The inciting incident is the party.
  2. But in the middle of Murray/Jeff’s speech, he senses that he’s losing his audience. A complication. The people listening to him are beginning to think about whether or not they should leave the party or if they should get another drink or if there is going to be cake etc.

Jeff’s agenda is to enthrall the guests of his friend’s birthday party enough that they will eventually support him either financially or just show up for one of his plays. His bullshit has been working but now it’s starting to wear off, which raises the crisis question…

  1. The crisis question is what can I do to get the crowd back hanging on my every word?

But remember, the people around Jeff have their own agenda. They are at this birthday party to see Dorsey and are most likely Dorsey’s primary friends, not Jeff’s. They find Jeff kind of fascinating at first and he’s one of those people you meet at a party who hold your attention and make you forget the fact that you are at a party. Guys like Jeff relieve the people around them from having to be “on.” They don’t want to be “on.” This guy is “on” so their wants are being met.

Then Murray/Jeff begins to repeat himself and is starting to bore them. So from the point of view of the party goers, the inciting incident is the party, the complication is that the conversation is getting boring, the crisis is what they should they do about it? Should they leave the circle and have to be “on” somewhere else? Or stay the course and be bored?

  1. Murray/Jeff realizes this is happening. So, he needs to change to get back his audience. That moment of change is the moment the beat changes.
  2. The climax of the beat is not verbal in this instance. I doubt it was even written into the script. Rather it’s a physical motion that the actor Bill Murray uses to keep the scene moving forward.

Just as he senses that his beginning to lose his audience, Jeff/Murray violently swats at an invisible fly. This action gets all of the listeners’ focus back to him.

The aggressive move changes the dynamic of the moment and the story value from Friendly to Dangerous. Murray/Jeff gets what he wants (he regains the people around the kitchen table’s undivided attention) but at a price. Yes the people will continue to listen to him and pretend that he is fascinating, but you intuit as the viewer that they are now plotting a way to escape. And thus another beat begins. That’s acting.

This is the example of a very clean and discernible beat. Before the fly-swatting incident, the environment is one way…after the fly swatting incident things are another way. The Beat change was driven by conflict. Murray/Jeff was not getting what he wanted and so he changes his action to get what he wants. This choice says everything we really need to know about Jeff/Murray. This is a selfish guy who needs constant stroking and support to create his “art.” If he doesn’t get it, then he will strike out at those he perceives aren’t listening.

The beat is so well done that it brings a very large laugh. The laugh comes from the audiences understanding intuitively the dynamic at play and Murray’s violent action breaks that artifice. We recognize this kind of thing from our own lives. This moment, entirely invented by Murray, is what is meant by an actor making a specific choice. An active choice (not in the screenplay) that is universally understood by the audience propels the beat and the scene forward.

But you can’t put actor moments like that in a novel, right?

Actually you can. Here’s a sentence from THE GREAT GATSBY that comprises an entire beat.

The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott (2003-05-27). The Great Gatsby (p. 3). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The inciting incident of this beat is the intention of the first person narrator to tell the reader about himself. The narrator begins by telling us about the world he lives in. “The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch…” Having Nick Carraway, his narrator, state that his family is like a “clan” connotes deep Scottish roots and allows Fitzgerald to establish what kind of people will inhabit the story. The bloodline is so deep that it extends back to Dukes in Scotland… These are ”some high class people” is the narrator’s intended message.

But the use of the phrase “something of a clan” raises a complication.

The narrator intuitively knows that he may lose his audience if he comes off as too insular or snobby, so he hedges his statement with the word “something,” which tells the reader that he’s detached from this family attitude. Which raises the crisis question of what to do about disabusing the reader of the notion that the narrator is not “like them.”

The narrator’s object of desire is to get the reader on his side—be willing to listen to him and his story for quite some time—which results in a climactic decision to play down his lineage.

He states that he is from blue blood, but then sensing that this revelation may turn off the average reader, he changes his approach and his action by then confessing that “the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in ’51 (meaning 1851…not exactly a founding father of the revolution), sent a substitute to the Civil War (used money to get out of his Patriotic duty…perhaps this is a line of cowards?) and started the wholesale hardware business (not pedigreed money, money that had to be earned) that my father carries on to-day.”

The resolution of the beat is the narrator’s confession that he’s basically the son of a guy who runs a hardware store. This confession pulls the reader into Carraway’s story. The message to the reader is “I live in a high class world, but I’m not really like those kind of people…Being of salt of the earth lineage, I’m capable of seeing through it…”

So the turning point is the shift from hoity toity “you should listen to what I have to say because I’m a high class guy” to “I may seem to be high class, but the reality of my life is much more in keeping with the average hardworking American Joe…” Fitzgerald accomplishes this shift by having his narrator use an action, to confess.

Do you see how brilliantly Fitzgerald created a beat with this one sentence? The first person storyteller’s inciting incident is the need for them to tell you something, followed by the complication that perhaps he’ll turn off readers who cannot relate to the setting of the story, giving rise to the crisis of how to get the reader back, leading to the climactic action of confession, and the resolution of getting the broadest possible audience back to hear more of the story.

What’s more the word choices Fitzgerald makes could just not be any better.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


31 comments on “The Units of Story: The Beat

  1. If a beat is an identifiable moment of change that not only changes the character but also the story value, then if I can’t identify the moment when my character changes in a scene, and if I can’t identify the value change in that scene, then I haven’t done a good enough job writing the scene.

    You’ve told us this before but with the above examples it suddenly makes sense, especially as final finish editing.

    “Beats are the actors’ medium.” I’m thinking comedians need to master beats too.

    Thanks for another eye-opening post!

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    I agree with Debbie – this post and the examples you used have really helped me to grasp this slippery concept of “beat” – it makes a lot more sense now. Looking forward to more – as always, thanks!

  3. Michael Beverly says:

    I’m starting to get it. It’s been complicated because everyone seems to explain beats a bit differently.

    I understand what you’re saying in this post, Shawn; lights are coming on.

    Now, here’s what I’m wondering:

    What do you call a section of a scene that is not a beat, but is vitally important to the story? Just exposition?

    In other words, when I outline, I might write something like this:

    Mary and Joe meet, they are at Mary’s family business.
    Mary’s father doesn’t like Joe.
    Joe asks her on a date.
    Blah, blah, blah.
    Blah, blah, blah, story problems.
    Finally they make glorious love and declare their love for each other: (think Leonardo and Kate in the back seat of a car in the Titanic’s cargo hold).

    The love scene is important, but is it a beat? Are we saying that the complication is that she’s dressed and he needs to find a way to get her naked? “I want you to draw me,” she says. “Okay, get naked,” he replies.

    Is there really a conflict there?

    And I thought that was a great scene. Okay, confession, that’s my favorite scene of the movie.

    Is it really a beat, however?

    And if not, what should we refer to those things? Expositional beatie thingies?

    Or am I still dense here? Am I not seeing that it is really a beat?

    Thanks again, I’m learning like a 3rd grader who is in love with his teacher.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      You can really drive yourself crazy pounding on beats. The big deal is scene. If your scenes are working, chances are the beats are doing their job.
      All the best,

      1. Larry says:

        “You can really drive yourself crazy pounding on beats.” Pun intended?

  4. Where do I sign up for an autographed copy of McKee’s new book?

    Okay, back to reality. Thanks for the frequent reminders not to obsess about the nails and boards just yet. Knowing which pieces to pay attention to at each stage will be most helpful. And though it makes sense, as you say, to put every beat of the critical scenes under the glass, I can’t imagine polishing every beat; the books would never be finished. At some point, we have to trust that we’ve learned to write.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Definitely Joel. Beats are really actor tools. Prose writers just need to concentrate on the scene. Has it changed from beginning to end? Is there an easily identifiable moment when the change occurred? That’s basically it. Then you do your best to order your scenes so that they progressively build to a crescendo. Then you go back and check everything again and see if you can make them better.

      1. Patrick says:

        Back in the day when being in a theatre play was called ‘treading the boards’; in the days of poetry and iambic pentameter, now and then we used to feel a pulse running through the cast and audience at the same time – that pulse was an unmistakeable ‘beat’.
        A beat feels like a pulse. Like a rhythm. Like a heartbeat. No pulse, no heart ‘beat’ in a story and your scenes flatline. First bradycardia – then It is dead. There is nothing there for a reader’s mind and your book is left forlorn and forgotten on a sad brown bench in busy train or bus.

  5. Julia says:

    Great analyses of the sentence in The Great Gatsby. I think besides a terrific beat, the sentence is also a marvelous example of econony and “show, don’t tell.”
    Great stuff.

  6. Joe Fusco says:

    Love this series. Love the insight. Love “Tootsie.”

    Teeny, tiny, nit-picky observation. Love Canal was a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y. I’ll admit, though, that “New Jersey” sounds like it could be true.

  7. Elanor says:

    Thanks for this post!

    I’ve had a lot of acting training (I wanted to be a movie star when I grew up!), and I’ve been trying to look for a concrete way to work the understanding of storytelling I’ve gained from acting, dancing, and choreographing into my prose writing. Thinking about beats is the perfect way to do it!

    I also found your breakdown of the beat interesting. As an actress, my understanding was always more instinctual than deliberate. I’ve always thought of a beat as a moment in which the audience is pushed to a precipice — information/emotion is given a chance to sink in, attention is drawn to a specific point, collective breath is held — and the audience’s perceptions shift.

    I’ve also thought of beats as a timing thing. Directors say, “take a beat there,” and I’d know to draw a moment out a little longer. That can create more tension, or allow the audience to feel sadness or happiness, or any number of other things.

    I am not at all confident that I’ll be able to use beats effectively in my prose, but your breakdown makes me much more hopeful.

    Thanks again.

    1. Larry says:

      “I’ve also thought of beats as a timing thing. Directors say, “take a beat there,” and I’d know to draw a moment out a little longer.”

      I’ve no acting experience, but I’ve always thought of beats that way, too — on the printed page as well as in a movie.


      The host turned to Count Dracula and asked, “Would you like some wine, Count?”
      “I don’t drink wine,” Dracula replied.


      The host turned to Count Dracula and asked, “Would you like some wine, Count?”
      “I don’t drink,” a fleeting smile crossed the count’s lips. ” Wine.”

      1. Different concept entirely. “Taking a beat” is that acting or joke-telling pause. A story beat is one episode of conflict. See Robert McKee’s “Story” for a superb definition with examples. We should all have a copy for constant reference anyway, eh?

        1. Larry says:

          Since I came late to the party, I’m spending most of my time going thru all the posts on this website for now.

          Rest assured, Mckee’s book (as well as the one coming out in July) is high on my “to read” list.

  8. KV Hardy says:

    Lightbulb moment for me. Your examples have, for the first time in years, made me understand the mechanics of it (I think, anyway), and how each point actually fuels the next one. Please tell me if I understood it right – my example below is silly-simple, but that’s my brain for you…
    -Inciting Incident: MC is tired and wants to go to bed.
    -complication: The cat is on the bed, and will not be refused of attention.
    -Crisis: Boot the cat out and risk revenge, or give the cat attention and lose sleep?
    -Climax: Actually, I guess in this example, success of either one is a failure, because we all know how nasty cat revenge can be, and loss of sleep can be just as bad. But if we insert a third option in the climax, we done a bad thing, right? (no gun on the mantle) Unless we’ve figured out a way to keep the cat happy when it was booted out (which, according to my cat is just not possible)

    But anyway, sorry for the verbosity. Is my basic workthrough sound?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Yes I think so. And of course there is no reason why you cannot add additional dilemmas to a crisis choice. That is you can have more than two best bad choice or irreconcilable goods choices.

      1. Tina Goodman says:

        And, don’t forget the oft neglected resolution.

        1. KV Hardy says:

          Indeed. Strangely, I complain (in my head) about lack of resolution in books I read, and then don’t always put proper thought into it my own stories. Go figure.

  9. Hi Shawn,
    I searched all over your website for a Contact Me button, but couldn’t find one, so I’m using the comments on this entry to say what I would have put in email given a choice.

    I finally listened to the podcast you did with Joanna Penn and am very excited that the book will be releasing mid-March. I’m also pleased that there will be a special deal for subscribers, as well as extras. Now, I subscribed because it didn’t take reading too many of your posts to discover that this was incredibly valuable content. (And I’ve been using it as I plan my next WIP.) But I think you should have somewhere on your home page or email sign-up page the same information that was in the podcast. I think it would encourage more readers to join your email list.

    Thanks again for doing this.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Elise,
      Thanks for the idea. I confess that I’m concentrating full bore on bringing the book home and haven’t turn my full attention to marketing etc. My gut is that anyone serious about writing/editing will either find this stuff helpful or they won’t. If all of the stuff I’ve posted doesn’t motivate them to join the site, I don’t think any special deal will. Anyway, thanks again and stay tuned. There will be bells and whistles to go along with the launch of the book and subscribers will get first crack at everything.

  10. Shawn….question. I’m still thinking about this latest post and others as I go back and re-read them.

    Writers need to perfect scene writing and scenes need to show change in character and in value, and the moment of change is the turning point which is actually a beat.

    You posted the turning point info right after the info on progressive complications and called turning points the “little buddies” of complications. This tells me that scenes should turn after complications or because of complications.

    But I think scenes need to turn during the climax too, do they not?

    Do good scenes turn more than once, maybe because of complications and during the climax? Or do good scenes simply turn once and at either point?

    I suspect I’m overthinking again and would appreciate your help in getting my head unmuddled!

    Thanks as always for your patient answers!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Debbie,
      Yeah, I think you’re going a little too nano here, but I love nano, so here goes.

      A beat is a micro-scene. Believe it or not, a beat has the same story qualities of a scene. So it has all of the same things a scene does. So it has an inciting incident, a complication (not more than one because it is the smallest unit of Story), a turning point around that complication that is generated through action or revelation, a crisis that arises from that turning point that is either a best bad choice or irreconcilable good choice, a climax decision based on the question raised by the crisis, and a resolution.

      Now a scene is made up of a series of beats. So if you were to go nuts and diagram an entire scene based on its beats you would find a whole bunch of little beat inciting incidents, complications, turning points, crises, climaxes and resolutions that build up to the critical beat that turns the entire scene and changes its polarity.

      After I get the book to bed, I think I’ll do this for the site so that you can follow the minutiae from beat to beat. It will take some time to put together, but it would be fun.

      Anyway, the answer to your question is YES, a scene will have little micro turns etc. based on the beats that lead up to the “BIG BEAT” that represents the turning point action or revelation that turns the entire scene.

      With that said, it’s best to put all of the Beat stuff in the deep recesses of your mind. You will naturally create these beats without really knowing that you’re doing it, if you concentrate on turning your scenes and being clear about the change in value from the beginning of the scene to the end. Say your scene begins with someone in a very big rush to get to an event or they’ll lose their job, so the value you at stake is “financially secure/financially vulnerable.” He has the job at the beginning of the scene, so he is financially secure. But if he loses the job because he is late for the meeting, then the value will change from financially secure to financially vulnerable.

      So we’re watching this guy in the scene (reading the prose of the writer describing it or watching the thing on screen) as he runs down the street in a suit trying to make his meeting. And then all of a sudden, as he’s crossing the street, he’s hit by a car and knocked unconscious.

      That’s a huge turning point beat (he looks at the “walk/don’t walk” sign and notices that “walk” is flashing meaning he has like three seconds to make it across the street which becomes a crisis for that beat) and a huge turning point for the scene (he didn’t count on the fact that a driver would drive recklessly). Now he’s going to end up not just losing his job but perhaps losing his life.

      So the beats have their own little turns and so does the larger scene. Russian dolls.
      Hope that helps

  11. Fernando says:

    Hi Shawn,
    I have the movie Tootsie and I saw it again to help me illustrate your description about the beat and how it works, but to me surprise the beat ended up in a completely different manner. There has never been a fly swap or anything of the sort… please check it out to get the facts right.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Fernando. I wrote the piece about tootsie from memory and from consulting the screenplay. As I recall Murray makes a swatting motion with his hand in the air during s monologue like one would make to try and catch a fly or fruit fly. Haven’t seen the movie in a while. I’ll check it out again soon and revise. Thanks.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Fernando,
      My friend Jeff Sexton sent me a link to the scene I was writing about. Thanks Jeff! You can see it here:
      Around 1:00 minute, you’ll see the gesture I referred to in the post. I mis-remembered it as Murray having a full audience when he made the gesture. Thanks for the catch. I think the point though is still valid. Beats are micro story movements and really are the actor’s medium. In the gesture moment, you’ll see that the woman trying to console him has a reaction that cues the viewer about Murray’s Jeff character’s state of mind. Anyway, I hope the beat still makes sense to you. The example from THE GREAT GATSBY may be better for you as it comes from prose as opposed to screenplay/film. When I get a moment, I’ll go back and revise the Beat piece to reflect this.

      1. I have to say, the subtlety is beyond me. I assume that means I need more experience, more observation. Which is fine.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Don’t fret. Actor beats are extremely subjective. That’s why Julianne Moore’s acceptance speech for her Oscar was so appropriate. The beat is very micro and for prose it would prove almost ridiculous to track for an entire novel. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t do it or that it wouldn’t be informative, but my take is that the beat is something a writer comes to intuitively. When he finds his voice, the beats come naturally. Finding the voice, as you know, is pure labor. Pure effort over and over again until things just start to sound like “you.”
          All the best

  12. Tina Goodman says:

    I always thought when Nick Carraway said they have a family “tradition” of saying they come from Scottish dukes, he means it is a tradition, just something they have taken to doing, so it may not be true.

  13. Annetta Hoshor says:

    Thank you so much for this great information. I am new to story writing and am finding your site to be very helpful!

  14. Russ Herald says:

    I heard of your site via the podcast with Joanna Penn. And just as I’d finished the first draft of a short story and thinking that I needed a few extra tools to get a handle on what was and wasn’t working. Spot on posts, at least for me. It’s like a refresher course in the best lit. crit. classes I took, the ones where we actually parsed stories.

  15. Larry says:

    As great as the book is, whenever I read a chapter in the print or epub version, I always come back here to read the follow-up posts. What a great service.

    Thank you.

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