No, not the music ones. The story ones.
The Beats are the steps in the story, smaller than a scene (in fact they make up a scene) but are more than simply an action. They are an event, a plot fixture in which something happens to move the story along. Basic examples would be Character A preparing for battle, Character A discussing with Character B their strategy for dealing with Character C, or a campfire where A, B, C all sing row row row your boat out of tune. (Might have borrowed that last example from somewhere . . .)
Together, the beats make up your story.
As part of planning a novel I like to outlay the beats of the story. Get them down on paper (well, Excel actually) in order, divided into the four part story structure (more on this in a later post). Along with the description of the beat I also like to write down what emotion the beat is targeting, e.g what reaction it is supposed to conjure up in the reader. Should it make the reader feel adventure? A seat of your pants thrill? What about comedy? Romance? Tragedy?
And every beat has to have a reason for being in the story. Window dressing isn’t good enough. ‘Because I thought it was cool’ is not good enough. ‘Because it shows off the awesome research I have done’ is not good enough. It has to propel the story FORWARD. It has to have meaning. It can be simple, such as ‘It gets the character to the location where the battle is.’ Or ‘introduces the character and his relationships with other characters’, or it can be more complex such as a ‘plot twist’ or ‘mid-point contextual shift.’
My ‘beat sheet’ is a basic excel table. I have the beat number, the number of the scene it belongs to, a description of the beat, the emotion and the accomplishment. Once these are all laid out I can then really sit back and look at the whole story and figure out any problems: Where is it unbalanced? Are there any weak parts? Am I making the same emotional hits without a break? Is there enough variety? Am I accomplishing enough with the scenes or can the scenes accomplish more? Are there any scenes that don’t need to be there?
By thinking about these problems now, I won’t have to worry about them later. I will be able to knock out a draft as quick as you like and then when it comes time to edit I won’t need to worry about wholesale changes, just tweaks, corrections, improvements, etc that always come once you’ve actually been deep inside the story.
At least that’s the plan. What does the great optimist Murphy say? No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
I’ve attached a little part of the beat sheet below. It’s in shorthand and other nonsensical bits that are for my benefit, so it might not make a whole lot of sense, but gives you an idea of what I am doing.