Scenes and Beats

Two types of scenes. Most of the scenes I write fall into one of two types: Action scenes in which the point-of-view (POV) character acts toward a goal and encounters conflict, and reaction scenes in which the POV character reels from a setback and decides what to do next.

Each type of scene has a typical structure. For an action scene, the structure is:

  1. Goal: The POV character has an immediate goal (called the scene goal), and acts toward the goal.
  2. Conflict: The character hits an obstacle, usually in the form of an opponent, another character whose goals conflict with the POV character's. For the bulk of the scene, the POV character and the opponent struggle with each other, each to attain their goal.
  3. Disaster: The POV character either succeeds or fails to achieve the goal. Most action scenes end not only in failure, but in disaster: The character is worse off at the end of the scene than at the beginning.

The structure for a reaction scene:

  1. Reaction: The POV character reels from the preceding disaster. This may include an emotional reaction, an rational reaction, or both. Usually the emotional reaction comes first.
  2. Dilemma: The character calms down enough (perhaps just barely enough) to explore options for what to do next. All of the options are bad.
  3. Decision: The character chooses the least bad option and commits to it. This becomes the scene goal for the next action scene.

Beats. The middle of each kind of scene proceeds in beats. A beat is a tiny cycle of flow and ebb, of forward and back, of progress and setback.

The conflict in an action scene proceeds in conflict beats. You can think of a conflict beat as starting with either the POV character’s action or with the opponent’s (or environment’s) action. Here’s the POV-character-first version, which I think of as an Action-Result beat:

  1. Action: The POV character takes action toward the goal.
  2. Result: The opponent acts against the POV character.

And the environment- or opponent-first version, which I think of as a Stimulus-Response beat:

  1. Stimulus: Something happens to which the POV character must respond.
  2. Response: The character acts in response to the stimulus.

Each kind of conflict beat gives a different perspective on the events of the scene. With Action-Result beats, the POV character appears to drive the sequence of events. With Stimulus-Response beats, the opponent or environment seem to be driving. Neither perspective tells the whole story: The POV character and the opponent co-create the sequence of events. I find it helpful to explore a sequence of beats from each perspective.

In a reaction scene, the dilemma proceeds in dilemma beats:

  1. Forward: The character thinks of another possible action toward the goal.
  2. Back: The character realizes the disadvantages of that action.

A caveat. These scene and beat structures are templates. If you apply the templates too rigidly, your story will read as if, uh… as if you wrote it by rigidly applying templates. I reach for templates like these only when I don’t know what to write next. They’re a great way to jiggle my brain. If the words are flowing without the templates, I don’t think about these structures.

Further reading. I learned these most of these ideas from Dwight Swain and two other writers who have expanded on Swain’s work:

Other names for these ideas. Swain uses different names than I do for these ideas, and Bickham and Ingermanson follow Swain’s lead:

  • What I call an action scene, Swain calls a Scene (capital S).
  • What I call a reaction scene, Swain calls a Sequel.
  • What I call a Stimulus-Response beat, Swain calls a Motivation-Reaction Unit (MRU).

As far as I know, “dilemma beat” is my own idea, though it’s probably implied by Swain’s description of Sequels.

Also, other people use the term beat in other ways.

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