The Metrology of Story

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Prose has meter, too.

Unit of measure is common to almost everything. In distance, the base unit is a meter. In electricity, an ohm. In sound, the decibel. In weight the pound. What are the units of measure for a story?

Starting from the biggest to the smallest, a novel is:

  • Book – Act – Sequence – Chapter – Sub-Sections – Beat

In a stage play, screenplay, teleplay it is:

  • Play – Act – Sequence – Scene – French Scene – Beat

Play and book are self-explanatory, they are the complete work. Act refers to the beginning, middle, and end.  A sequence are the scenes/chapters that make up an act. Chapters might be broken down into sub-sections, but don’t have to be. A French Scene is a character level issue; when a character comes on and goes off, that is his French Scene.

The beat. This is the base unit of measure for story. It is a binary unit and is composed of a single choice leading to an action. That choice is binary, either action or reaction. There are thousands of beats in a story, and some of them are critical, but all of them should be sharp. Events don’t change on a dime, they change on a decision. A bomb explodes, the character’s beat is reaction. What does she do?

Betrayal is a beat. Reversals are a beat.

A writer takes control of the narrative by taking control of beats. Every beat must be motivated. When a tried-and-true friend turns on you, there’s a reason. For some reason (motivation), the betrayal is at the beat level.

Most writers manage beats intuitively. They don’t think in terms of beats, but they do write in them. To be able to break behavior down to a decision level, you can diagnose problems with simple questions: Why did x do that, and why then?

This is critical to actors because we see blurred beats. A beat has a micro-beginning, middle, and end. Blurring a beat means the actor has begun the next beat before the last beat is complete. You may not always be able to articulate why one actor is better than another, but clear, crisp beats mark a pro, soft muddled beats mark an amateur.

You can’t blur a beat in writing, but you can muddle them. Make sure your beats are properly fueled with motivation.

 

Questions are always welcome.

 

4 thoughts on “The Metrology of Story”

  1. Years ago when I studied fiction I was taught to write in beats (in order to outline stories), and (after years of writing non-fiction) had completely forgotten about the concept. As I hope to return to fiction one day (and will need all the help I can get as I find it much harder than non-fiction) thank you for reminding me. I have no idea why there are so many parentheses in my comments today. Many apologies. I am tired. The ultimate blog challenge is getting the better of me.

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  2. Like Karen, I hope to return to fiction someday, and will love all I have been learning from you this month! I never heard of beats, but I can see your point about needing them to be clear.

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  3. So may I ask —- when you have a story line in mind, where do you begin? Do you begin with an outline and mark them as chapters, beats, etc?

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    1. Outlining would include chapters, acts, and within them inciting incident, major conflict, reversals, and the like. A character sheet would include wants, beliefs, and other aspects of identity and conflict. When writing, you are writing in beats as your character makes decisions. A strong character initiates action more than reaction, and your hero may begin as a weak character (reacting) and change into a strong character as part of their arc.
      If you think of writing as acting each character, beats become second nature.

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