6 Questions to Sharpen Your Story Beats and Make Your Plot Sing

When you’re writing or plotting a story, one way to approach it is to write out the story beats. A beat is a small action; a collection of beats makes up a scene. It’s sort of like choreographing a dance; you must make character move around, interact and do things. You can write story beats on the fly if you like, but I like doing some planning ahead so the actual writing is easier. If you, too, write story beats ahead, here are some things you should keep in mind.

  1. Where are the characters in space? Because beats represent physical actions of a scene, you must always keep in mind where the characters are in space. In a dining room, is mother on the other side of the table from her daughter or on the same side. If she’s on the other side, then she can’t reach out and touch her daughter. She must physically walk around the table to do that. You must always be aware of EXACTLY where each character is. Draw it out or act it out if necessary.
  2. Where are we? The story's setting determines the types of action possible. Moving around a marina is very different than running through a wooded area. Photo by Darcy Pattison.
    Where are we? The story’s setting determines the types of action possible. Moving around a marina is very different than running through a wooded area. Photo by Darcy Pattison.
  3. What is the moment before? When a scene opens, don’t have a character move out of empty space. For example, if you write, “Mom walked over to Lucy,” then I want to know where Mom started that walk. Where was she the moment before this started. Place her somewhere and give the reader enough context for the action to make sense.
  4. Can you name and transform an emotion? To help me write a scene, sometimes I need to actually name the emotional back and forth. Then, I work to push the emotion into the dialogue, the beats (actions) or the body language. If mother wants to appeal to her daughter for understanding, perhaps she pulls out a chair and sits, which puts her in a lower position than the daughter. If she holds up her hands, mother becomes a supplicant before the daughter and the beats/body language reinforce that mother is asking for understanding. Then, you don’t have to say it, because you’ve shown it. But naming it helps me keep the emotional tensions as tight as possible.
  5. Can you escalate the tension? Mother grabs the daughter’s arm. That’s definitely conflict. But when Mom squeezes harder, the tension escalates. Within a scene you want a mini conflict that rises to a small climax and you should be using the beats to help you escalate and build that tension. What beat did you list? How can you escalate that action in some way? Mom squeezes harder; mom’s face gets in daughter’s face; one of them shoves the other; and so on.
  6. What body Language would help express the beats? While you are writing out the beats, or the actions that characters take, it could be subtle changes of body language. One character leans closer to hear better. Another crosses arms over her chest to fend off a verbal attack. Avoid the clichés: looking away, spun away, tears rolled down her cheeks. Instead, look for fresh beats and fresh ways to use body language.
  7. Is the action clear? Above all, you must strive for clarity. Readers must never be confused about what is happening in a scene. Try to look at it with fresh eyes and see it as a first-time reader would see it. Clarity trumps pretty language every time.
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