Hello, writer, and welcome back to The Novel Series, a multi-part blog post series about writing novels and other forms of fiction. I’ll be posting at least one, if not two, blogs from this series every month until it’s complete.

Catch up and read the previous posts:

Or, click here to see the full series.

Today, we’re talking story beats and how to find them in your story. We’ll also be reviewing structure and plot to give you a fuller understanding of how story beats fit into your story.

// Structure vs. Plot

Before we can actually go into story beats, we need to revisit a couple of important points.

Structure and plot are not the same thing in storytelling. Structure is the organization of your plot, but the plot is the actual story and events taking place.

In western storytelling, the most popular structure is the three-act structure.

The first act sets up the story. There’s some kind of inciting incident where the hero is set on their path for the rest of the novel. Then you have the second act, which is the meat of your story. It’s where characters face all kinds of obstacles on their quest. There’s also usually a major problem or setback that truly puts the mission in danger. Then there’s the third act, in which the character is in the final fight for their goal. They either succeed or fail, for better or worse.

A very popular example from recent pop-culture is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, though many stories follow this structure. Another example you probably know is The Wizard of Oz. They may follow the same structure of ‘setup > conflict/challenges > resolution,’ but these books/movies have very different plots.

And remember, this is a very basic, very popular structure. Plots can get complex within this structure, and this isn’t the only story structure. Don’t feel like you have to follow this one exactly. I just wanted to give some context before we go forward.

// What are beats?

Back to the real reason behind this post. What the heck are story beats?

If you go looking for information about beats online, you’re going to find a bunch of different ways of explaining them and methods for incorporating them into your storytelling. A popular one is the Save the Cat beat sheet from Blake Snyder.

(I’m taking a slightly different approach in how I explain beats because I think it’s a more natural to look at them this way, especially for novels.)

A beat is the smallest unit of a story. It assists in the rhythm, pace, and intensity of the story by forcing actions, decisions, and emotional reactions from characters to move the plot forward.

Scenes and acts are also units of a story. If you want to break it down even more:

  • Beats build up scenes;
  • Scenes build up acts; and
  • Acts build the novel/story.

Scenes almost function as a miniature plot within the overarching story. A basic scene functions like this: 

The character has a goal. They face obstacles. There is a disaster or crisis. Then, the character comes to a decision or resolution that drives them into the next scene and into the next actions.

Within these scenes are your beats.

// Two Main Beats

Beats can be split into two main categories: story and emotional beats.

A story beat goes back to the scene structure we just talked about : goals, obstacles, crisis points, and actions/new goals. These are straightforward.

On the other hand, an emotional beat is the depth you add in to go with the actions above. Characters are going to have an emotional reaction, whether it’s anxiety, getting focused, feeling relieved, or whatever. Emotional beats are especially important for adding a rich subtext to your story. After all, a story would be so boring if it was just about actions taken and none of the emotional reactions that go along with every story and very life.

// A Popular Example

Let’s look at an example before wrapping up this blog post. I’m going to use The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins because it’s likely a story you’re familiar with. We’ll look at the scene where Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Games in the first book.

Katniss and all of the other children are rounded up to see who is going to fight in the Hunger Games. Katniss wants to get through the whole charade with her sister, Prim, safely so they can return to their normal lives for a year. However, Prim’s name is picked. Katniss volunteers to go in her place. Then, when Peeta is picked to go too, Katniss remembers when he was kind to her as children.

If we map this out for the scene, here’s what it looks like:

  • Goal: Don’t get picked for the Games. Keep her sister safe.
  • Obstacle/Crisis: Her little sister gets picked.
  • Decision: Katniss volunteers to save her sister.
  • New goal: Win the Games to return home.

If we break the scene down into story beats, things change just a bit.

  • Story beat: Katniss realizes her sister’s name has been picked.
  • Story beat: She volunteers to go in Prim’s place.
  • Story beat: Peeta, one of the few people who has been kind to her, is going too, and she might have to kill him to win.

Now, add in emotional beats:

  • Story beat: Katniss realizes her sister’s name has been picked.
    • Emotional beat: Shock and panic
  • Story beat: She volunteers to go in Prim’s place despite her sister’s protests.
    • Emotional beat: Resolution to stay strong
  • Story beat: Peeta, one of the few people who has been kind to her, is going too, and she might have to kill him to win.
    • Emotional beat: Denial

If you layer in these emotional beats, however small, within the rest of your story, you’re going to have a much richer, deeper story and help readers identify with your characters.

// When to Worry About Beats

Beats are tricky because it can become a “losing the forest to the trees” situation. You’re probably already writing beats into your scenes without even thinking about it.

Don’t try to write them in your first draft; just tell the story. You can revisit beats when you’re revising.

If a scene is working, your beats are working. If a scene isn’t working, your beats aren’t working. It’s that easy during revisions.

// Your Next Steps

Think about your favorite books and stories, then see if you can pick out some of the beats that make up different scenes. This will help you see beats in action and how you can implement them into your own story (if they’re missing)!

Don’t forget to join the Between the Lines Writer’s Nook on Facebook to connect with other writers and ask questions.

And, you can always email me at hannah@btleditorial.com if you need assistance or are interested in working with me as your editor or writing coach.