Setting Your Pace With Scene Beats
Whether you are a pantser or a plotter, you should always keep these two things in mind; scene beats, and scene turns. But what are they? They are the two most crucial parts of each and every scene. A beat, to put it very simply, is a thing that happens. These can be major things like plot-wide revelation, arguments, or plot twists, but the beat in those things is the point where those things happen. Minor beats are more subtle, but just as important. A shift in a character’s mood, a reaction, a piece of information, or anything that shifts the rhythm of a scene. Actors use these things in their work to know when they should make a certain face, react a certain way, or a variety of other subtle cues that make a scene flow from one point to another.
Scene turns on the other hand are more like major beats, however the difference is that a turning point in a scene is the main focus of that scene. It’s the point in a scene where the reader’s expectations are thwarted and suspense can be created from something unexpected. Basically, a scene will open with a certain expectation on how its going to go, but then at some point take a turn to something less expected. These turns can be minor or major to the plot, but most, if not all, scenes should have at least one turning point. Keeping this in mind will also make sure that each scene in your work has a purpose.
Ultimately, a scene turn is a scene beat, just one with a particular purpose. Beats make up a scene, a scene makes up a chapter, chapters make up a sequence and so on. They are simply the smallest unit of a story.
Turning points and beats should reflect where the reader is in the story and should keep with the pace you want your book to have. Generally, the beginning of a book should have only minor turns which don’t have a lasting impact on anything. With beats, you want to keep the beats low impact but frequent. This way you are creating a lot of action and reaction between characters without too much drama just yet, as a way of introducing as much depth to your main characters as you can. The middle of the book should have the most impactful and frequent turns. You want the middle to be where all the most important stuff gets revealed and where the most complications happen, so the turning of scenes should reflect that. The beats in the middle of the story should also be high impact, allowing for a steady increase as you approach the climax of the story. How frequent depends on the story you are writing, but generally you want to keep them increasing steadily to match the increasing intensity of the scene turns. During the end, the turns should be less impactful, save for any final twists you want to spring. You don’t want to turn the scenes too much toward the end, lest you convolute your story. Most of the complications that impact the entire plot should have already happened, and now you want to keep to turns that only have minor impact to each individual scene during the climax. Beats should be high impact and frequent. You want your characters to be engaging with one another in meaningful and high paced ways to keep the momentum going throughout the end of your book.
It all sounds very technical, but don’t let it get you down. Like a lot of the intricacies of the craft, many writers tend to do these things naturally because they subconsciously know it through their consumption of the mediums within which it is present. Most importantly, don’t think about it during your first drafts. Beats and turns are things that should be fine-tuned after you’ve finished in order to pace them properly. But what’s the benefit of looking that closely at our story?
For one thing, keeping our pace just right is important. There’s no hard and fast rule about what that pace should really be, but as with everything it is important to be consistent, and looking closely at the smallest unit which dictates that pace can be just as important as the larger pieces. Secondly, it allows us an opportunity to find entry points to layer in our subplots or/and subtext. We can look at each beat and analyse whether a character’s reaction or choice of words could be changed slightly in order to serve a more intricate purpose.
Back to pace however, turning points within scenes, as I said before, can be used to make sure the scenes you have are worth keeping. My rule of thumb is that if I can’t turn a scene so that it has some impact, no matter how small or subtle, it shouldn’t be in the final version of the story. You may have different ideas on what qualifies as important, but just make sure it’s adding to the story. That being said, I myself am guilty of leaving in a small scene here and there simply because I enjoy it. I can justify it if the scene at least has an exchange between characters that adds to their relationship or deepens them as characters, so long as those sorts of things are few and far between.
Making sure you advance the plot is important, but the true story of a book happens within its beats. The way characters reaction to one another, or how they behave when certain things happen. The cause and effect of every little action and revelation is what makes a story come to life.
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray Bradbury