Beats: Anatomy of a Scene’s Emotional Development

Editing is full of weird coincidences and fortuitous juxtapositions. When the same issue crops up in two or three unrelated manuscripts in a row, it’s time to take it to the blog. I’d like to deconstruct a scene and talk about beats, interior dialogue, and clarity.

First, some working definitions.

A beat is a minor emotional turning point in a scene between the POV character and another character or her environment. A clear series of beats guides the character through a change, showing the reader how it happens.

For example:

Say the scene is about a woman who shows up for a job interview only to be told by the receptionist that the firm has already hired someone, and the managing partner is at an offsite meeting. By the end of the scene, you want the woman to have gotten the job, anyway. How do you get her from Point A to Point B? There are two levels here: the external level, in which the woman sees on the receptionist’s telephone that in fact someone is in the partner’s office and using the line, waits till the light goes out and barges into the office, states her case why she deserves to at least be heard, sways the partner, and gets hired. It’s this long series of incremental, external steps that make up a series of scenes, and ultimately, a novel’s plot.

The internal level of a scene, however, is the most important in fiction: the level on which we observe this character’s hope as she walks through the door (beat 1), her dismay and desperation as she reacts to the news (beat 2), her anger when she realizes she’s being lied to about the partner’s absence (beat 3), her decision to walk into the office anyway (beat 4), her response to the partner’s decision to hire her (final beat 5).

The most basic way to convey a beat is through some form of internal dialogue. It’s often super-mechanical, but as a way of roughing out these beats in a draft, it gets the point across and gives your scene a clear structure. Roughly, here is what the emotional beats might be for the example above?

  • Beat 1: “She was almost too nervous to breathe; it was like she’d swallowed a cork. But she held on to her hope, because if she didn’t get this job, the collection agency would call her mother again, and then the whole family would know that she’d been lying all this time.”
  • Beat 2 might build on this: “The cork in her throat swelled. Panic thrummed in her head. This was impossible, this was—not fair. It had taken two hours and three buses to get here, time she could have been spending at the temp agency. This was her last chance and she’d already lost it.”
  • Beat 3: “He was in there, the asshole. He was in there on the phone and hiding from her. He didn’t even think she was worth an apology. As she stood there, staring at the little red light on the phone at the receptionist’s elbow, she began to burn with shame, but also something else: anger. At the unfairness of it. What else can I lose? she said to herself. I already look like a fool.”

Etcetera, through the end of the scene. In short, the beats are the opportunity to use (among other tools) internal dialogue as a way to mark turning points for the reader. The end result is clarity. We know exactly what happened in the scene, and what the character felt about it.

How to revise it?

It’s always possible that a situation is so clear and the character is already so well-known to the reader that these written-out, emotional beats are unnecessary—that we can sympathize so perfectly with the character that a scene can be entirely external without any chance of confusing the reader—and really, that’s the ideal, especially late in a novel. Yet I often see this as a weak point in manuscripts (i.e., confusing or amorphous scenes).

To revise, err on the side of too much clarity. Make your character at least glancingly aware of a change in his or her reaction to a situation. You might think you’re being overly explanatory with this new writing, and it will probably clunk in your ear, but put it in there anyway; after letting the draft cool for a month or so, then go back and read it and polish those additions. Maybe cut some of them, if they’re truly unneeded, but in general find a way to make them work in your voice.

A Real Scene, With Revised Beats

Canadian author Stacy Sinclair has graciously agreed to let me use a scene from her novel WAKE. (Think Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven meets Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News–I love this novel!)  In brackets, I’ve marked the places in the scene below where I felt that the characters had changed their minds about something, but we don’t know for sure or why. I’ve also marked the tiny wobbles and/or questions I had while reading.

Introduction: Clem is in her twenties, and is the daughter of a California fishing family who has just lost its livelihood to environmental deterioration, the Shift. The town’s industry has been “rescued” (aka taken over by) Pender Gibbs, a green energy mogul with shady motives and possibly violent business practices. Clem and Ambrose, a young engineer and Pender’s right-hand man, have an uneasy alliance devoted to revealing exactly what Pender Gibbs is up to. They’re in a hotel after a narrow escape from Pender’s thugs, staying in separate rooms.

She knocked hard on his door, so there would be no misunderstanding.

He opened before she’d even pulled away her fist. The air of the hallway sucked into his space, mingling with that smell, not of hotel, of industrial detergent and old duvets, but of him. That smell of the forest, a landscape suddenly hers.

“Hi,” she stumbled. I–” Her thighs, her jeans, were wet through. She was warm, though, even as she shivered. “I thought we could go out and–“

He had his canvas bag over his shoulder. His boots on. He hadn’t been answering her knock at all. [Really? Surely he heard it. It seems too coincidental that he just opened the door to leave after knocking hard. Make this simpler, maybe: he was getting ready to leave, but her knock interrupted him.]

She swallowed down a lump. [What emotion is the lump?] “What– are you leaving?”

“Clem, please understand.” He looked at her with pale-cheeked fear. With chin-down remorse. It made her ache. [For me, “ache” is a sadness. It’s a mini-beat that doesn’t go anywhere, because it might be duplicating the “lump.” Maybe cut this line.]

“What, that you’re running away?” She was getting warmer by the second, heat flooding up her neck, her cheeks. “That you’re being a coward?” [This is an effective beat. We hear her anger.]

“I tried to save you, Clem, but,” a shaky sigh, “running away doesn’t mean you’re a coward, Clem. This thing that you do, where you just focus on what you want and put your blinders on to everything else…” He shook his head. “Maybe you’re more like Pender that you’d like to admit.” [This is his first beat, between the shame of being caught to, possibly, a harder accusation that comes from defensiveness. Let’s hear his voice harden or whatever.]

“Wow.” She nodded at the carpet. “Finally, you tell me how you really feel.”

“Sorry, Clem–I just-” [His apology clashes a little with defensive anger. Maybe cut it. Let him go straight to a justification.] He dropped his bag on the carpet and white-knuckled the door handle, turning, turning. “I’ve done my part here, okay?” He talked quieter. “I’ve held up my end of the bargain with Agent Christie[.] and–

“What about–” [I didn’t immediately understand that she was trying to say “What about me?” Let’s hear her sense of offense slip into her voice, e.g.: “Oh that’s it, then? Then what about— What about…” She couldn’t say it. It sounded too needy, and she was too angry.]

“[What about] you, Clem? We never had a bargain.” But his shaking arms said differently. Behind his skin was the same thing that rippled under hers. The earthquake, the tsunami, as nature flowed over them, as the world had come crashing down, somewhere in all that, maybe when they were climbing King’s Hill, maybe when they were running down the dark alleys of the Seattle night, they had made a deal with each other. To be where the other was. To push and pull and tug them in the right direction. Not to safety, not to comfort, but to the other side of the storm. The way forward. [This is a great beat—under the hard words, they’re softening toward each other, realizing that there’s an unspoken alliance he’s violating.]

She couldn’t say it. Could barely even fathom it, even if she knew she hadn’t come back here to fetch him for dinner. [Instead, move the surface motivation—to tell him about dinner—all the way to the first paragraph of the scene. It orients us.] So she shook her head and tried to keep from shaking [trembling] too much. The rain that clung to her legs was losing its grip, tinkering down to the carpet, the sound of its collapse louder than it should be.

“You can’t leave. I need you, in Sunlet.”

“Jesus.” He leaned onto the trembling arm that was stretched out to hold tight to the door. “This whole time, you wanted me out of there, questioned why I was there in the first place and–“

“I was frustrated, Ambrose. Trying to connect the damn dots, and [I think we need a clearer beat here. They’ve had a moment of honest conversation, but let her struggle more audibly in the external scene, and internally, have her hate that neediness again. These will be enough clues for us to ascertain that she’s uncomfortable with her vulnerability.] Christ, don’t make me say it.”

He stood tall. [This action confuses me. Standing up like this says either anger or pride to us, and neither quite makes sense. Maybe he sags back into the doorway a bit and looks away, possibly annoyed.] “Say what. WHAT?”

“That I can’t do it on my own, ok?” Her voice reverberated down the hallway. “I’m not taking a fucking bomb out in the open water and—”

“Exactly! Because it’s a stupid idea. [By a person stupid enough to talk about it in a hotel hallway.]” [I suggest adding this both to underscore the obvious lack of judgment here, and also show Ambrose clinging to that judgment as a perfectly good reason to get out while he still can.] He reached for his bag and with a whoosh of air, brushed past her. Marching double time for the elevator.

[Add a beat of internal dialogue here. What’s her reaction? Contrition? Desperation? Anger at being walked away from?] She chased, running to get ahead. As his hand reached out for the down button, she slapped it away. He shouldered ahead her aside and slammed his palm into it onto the button. [Minor edits make the action easier to picture.] Somewhere beneath, the elevator started rising, each level climbed announced with a chime. Eleven, twelve…

[Beat missing. If he’s fed up with the danger, why does he start talking about the plan again? Maybe add a line to what he says, something like, “I thought you made your choice, but I guess I was wrong. So don’t worry.”] “I’ve given Johnno the location of the explosives, he’ll set everything up for and–“

[Beat missing. It’s unclear that they’re not talking about the plan anymore. Could fix by changing “want this” to “want to leave.”] “You don’t want this. You don’t.”

“Then tell me, what do I want?” his voice softened. He dropped his bag. “Clem, it’s my fault your aunt is dead. It’s my fault Michelle is–” he couldn’t even say it. “And I’ve got you into this mess with Martha and–“

“We’re in it together.” She grabbed his arm without thinking. [Clarify this beat. Maybe it’s the touch that makes their argument feel like a distraction, brings her back to the truth.] It made her legs heavy, anchored them, not to the boat, her boat, that was gone. But she had this: a plush carpet on the 35th floor of a fancy downtown Seattle hotel.

Seventeen, eighteen.

He shook his head, even as he sunk into her touch, pushing his arm forward. “The turbine project, whatever happens in Sunlet, with Pender, the whole fucking project is an albatross now, Clem. It will never see the light of day.” [This is a leap. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the story to support why the turbines won’t happen. We really start to lose our footing here. Maybe instead, he can say something like, “Clem, the fishing industry in Sunlet is over. Turbines or not, tuna or not, your license is gone. Your boat is gone. And messing around with explosives, terrorism? You could lose your freedom or your life, too. Is that what you want?”]

“You don’t know that.” [Maybe instead, “Pender Gibbs is the worst thing that ever happened to Sunlet. Whether it’s a splinter group or the FBI, he needs to pay.” Stay close to the basic logic of the plot.]

“I do. And what happens then, huh? Those turbines would have dug Sunlet out of the shit.” [Or, “And that’s your job? Clem Washburn, Sunlet Avenger? Maybe those turbines will dig Sunlet out of the shit. Maybe not. But I—I happen to care about you more than I care about Sunlet.”]

“Maybe, but at what cost?” She gripped his arm tighter, staring only at the crease in his elbow, “Look what we’ve already paid lost.” Her voice broke, and he reached out, lifting her chin.

Twenty-two, twenty-three.

Rising. But he was still there. He was always there. She stepped into him, arm reaching. The back of his neck shivered at her touch. Her hand wet, she let it slip, down and around to his chest.

“You’re shaking,” he whispered, and put his head down to meet hers, forehead to forehead.

“It’s the rain.” She swallowed. “It’s the Shift.” Her body had a heaviness, all that had rained down and god, she wanted to fall, too. His heart pounded, right into her hand. He brought his from her shoulder to her back and she shivered more, shaking outright, and letting him feel it, how she had shifted, too.

The elevator doors opened, a long, languid chime.

“I have to go, Clementine.” He was breathless. “Please.”

Water dripping on the carpet. Her mouth gone dry. The comfort, the unease, it hadn’t been the rain at all.

She smiled. [This beat feels wrong, though her invitation to stay is right. Instead of a smile, make it more solemn, fiercer—like gripping his shirt in her hand, feeling his chest underneath.] “Not yet.”

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