Reaching for Beats

I blogged a while ago about discovering a problem in my writing related to reaction beats.  Here’s my friend Heather’s recounting of the events.  Basically, my character’s reactions to story events weren’t coming through, because I was getting the mechanics of beats wrong.

Since then I’ve done quite a bit of research about beat structure.  What I’ve learned is basically summarized in this post on motivation-reaction units, which is brilliant.  I also like everything that is said about structure in this post.


Let me tell you, it is really hard to come up with beat after beat to show character reactions and emotion.  The character’s heart can only thud so many times before I want to crack my head on the desk.  As I’ve been fixing my motivation-reaction units, I’m having occasion to write (and re-write) literally hundreds of beats.  And mostly, I just want to claw my own skin off instead of writing one more way that my character can express that she’s upset.

So I did some research into how to come up with better beats, which is really the root of all of my problems.  I tend to leave the beats out, which makes it hard for the reader to connect with the character.  I do this because I can’t think of a good beat at the time, so I just kind of wander away and never come back.  Time to learn to write better beats, Janci.

A friend referred me to the work of Robert Olen Butler, whose thoughts on the subject are summarized here.  He suggests five types of beats; let me tell you, for the volume of beats I need to write, five was not enough.  So I did some more research, and some brainstorming, and this is what I’ve come up with.  Ahem.

A Non-Inclusive List of Physical Beat Ideas, for When You Want to Claw Out Your Eyes Rather Than Write About the Beating Heart

  1. If you have a magic system, use it.  In Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson gets a lot of beats out of people burning various metals; in Warbreaker, his main character’s hair turns color according to her emotions.  I’m working on a shape shifter book; my characters can show their emotions in the ways their bodies shift, but consciously and subconsciously.   If you’re lucky enough to have something like this, use it.  Your beats will be more unique and interesting when they’re derived from your world, and you’ll be enriching your world to boot.  Reciprocal relationships like that are the best.  Win/win!
  2. You do have a setting.  But it looks and feels different, depending on your character’s mood.  Let your character describe people, places and things in emotional language in the dialogue beats; then the reader can tell what they’re feeling through the same words you’re using to get across the blocking, or the setting.  Once again, win/win.
  3. This is Butler’s real contribution: you can use quick, one sentence visceral images from the past as a character remembers something, or from a feared or desired future when your character anticipates something.  Not a full flashback, just an image.  These can make really powerful beats, but they have to be pretty seamless in order to work right.
  4. I’d add, you can do the same with things the character fears/hopes are happening in the present, in other locations in your world.  If a character is worried about someone else, you don’t need to tell us they’re worried.  Give us a one sentence visceral image of what the fear looks like, and we’ll be worried, too.
  5. On the same note of Butler’s “little vivid bursts of waking dreams,” you can also go surreal.  If the character gives us an image of the floor swallowing her whole, we’ll get that she’s scared, or wants to hide.  Just make sure that the surreal images are clearly metaphorical, and avoid them in the first pages of fantasy novels.  Wouldn’t want your reader suddenly imagining carnivorous floors, unless you’re writing about them.  In which case you are awesome.
  6. Another good beat is a deliberate physical action that reveals what the character’s feeling.  Just make sure we’re really grounded in the character’s internal thoughts before she slaps someone.  If we are, it’s a great beat.  If we’re not, we’re confused.
  7. Then, there’s the oft used physical sensation beats, both the internal and the external.  The wind can blow across her face.  Her heart can pound.  She can grind her teeth.  These are powerful, but super easy to overuse.  I try to exhaust the rest of the list first, and I’m still using too many of these.  Time to cut, cut, cut.  And then replace.  With a better beat.  Dang it.
  8. And last, while I don’t glowingly recommend this, you can just tell us what the emotion is.  “He looked angry,” isn’t the most artful sentence ever, but hey, it’s better than leaving it blank.  And as I’ve been researching, I’ve been surprised about how often my favorite authors just tell me what the emotion is a lot of the time.  I put this at the very bottom of the list, because I think other ways are better ways, but if artistry fails you, just tell us what the character feels.  You can fix it later, or if you don’t, most readers will probably forgive you, especially if you don’t do it every time.
I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.
Happy beats!