Beats: micromanaging the action – Scene template, Part 6

Fiction is not real life. There is purpose to fiction, order. Reproduction of reality is both impossible and boring. Things happen as the author arranges them to happen, and the author is in charge of selecting, out of the huge number of events going on every second, which will get chosen and which will be detailed.

If the author tells you the color of the bathroom fixtures, there had better be a very strong story reason for wasting words on such trivia when they could have been used to tell you about the main character’s childhood – and how it influences her choices right now.

Writing fiction is fundamentally fractal:
The book has a beginning, middle, and end – and tells a story.
Each chapter has a beginning, middle, and end – and tells a smaller part of the story.
Each scene is like a short story, complete in itself – with a beginning, middle, and end.

But it doesn’t stop there. One of my favorite tools is breaking up what happens in a scene into a series of beats, each beat a tiny chunk of the action with a purpose, and a beginning, middle, and end. In the scene template it looks like this:

First beat: Description of first unit of action
Purpose: Why beat is in scene
Introduction – How scene starts (evokes FIRST LINE)
New – What happens to get scene going
Conflict – Character vs. self, other characters, Universe
Resolution – How conflict is resolved

Beat: Description of unit of action
Purpose: Why beat is in scene
Transition – How scene continues from previous beat
New – What happens to get beat going
Conflict – Character vs. self, other characters, Universe
Resolution – How conflict is resolved

(repeat as many times as needed)

Each beat has a single nugget of information for the reader, a single piece of the puzzle: the Conflict. Each character in a beat has a goal – and that goal is in conflict with the goals of the other characters in the beat. And in each beat, one and only one character wins.

Why micromanage to this level? Because it is the most efficient way to get and keep the reader’s attention.

If you’ve ever fed a baby, you know how this works. Your goal is to get the food into the baby without taking forever and driving yourself crazy. (The baby’s goal is to play with his food and maximize the pleasant parts of the interaction.) The most practiced feeders keep up a constant stream of spoonfuls going into the little maw (along with patter – you have to have patter – Here comes the train!) so junior neither gets bored nor chokes. Anything missed is collected and re-offered. The next spoonful is prepared and ready as soon as the current one is swallowed, but not offered a moment before that – because that distracts the baby from the bite IN her mouth. An attentive parent keeps up just the right serving size coming, and balances out the favorite sweet potatoes with the required amount of protein, planning the experience so it all comes out even, and a reasonable amount of dinner ends up INSIDE baby.

In other words, the feeder PLANS and EXECUTES the delivery, a bite (beat) at a time.

The food (information) comes in right-sized chunks, at appropriately-spaced intervals, just as the baby is ready to swallow (absorb) it. This is the author’s JOB.

The more complex the story, the more the author has to control the delivery of the pieces to avoid confusion – and keep the story moving always forward.

In Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Albert Zuckerman calls these beats ‘Story Points’: he details Chapter 45 of Gone With the Wind, showing how Margaret Mitchell relentlessly keeps the story moving forward by delivering one blow after another, in pieces just big enough for the reader to grasp before being assaulted with the next one.

The experience of the reader is PLANNED. Which is as it should be: the writer already knows the story, and is trying to get it across to the reader in the most exciting way possible.

For me, planning a scene as a series of beats, each with its own internal logic and conflict, makes it easier to write, because I can hold a whole beat in my head, as a unit. Think flash fiction. Thing anecdote. Think haiku. Heck, think Lego building blocks.

If I know the goals of the characters in a beat, I can choose which character wins – and build up a scene out of a series of win/lose moments between the characters. I can deliberately alternate to create a scene that is an argument between the two characters, showing first one winning and then the other. I can create the impression of a cowed character – by showing the other character ‘winning’ all the interactions, one after another. I can escalate the conflict – by showing the ‘win’ getting more extreme in each beat.

Again, I find it helpful to write play scenes as a way to duplicate the experience of being constantly kept off balance by what comes next. Theatergoers are spoiled: they want SOMETHING happening every moment – or they get bored and start to fidget. And once I have the spine of the story, with anticipation going into each beat, conflict in the middle, and a tiny bit of resolution at the end followed by things getting even worse, all the rest of the story information (setting, theme, backstory, …) can be tucked in as decoration.

This works for plotters in the planning stage – and pantsers in the revision stage. In revision, I take all the good bits, number them, literally cut them into strips, and group them into blobs that somehow ‘go together.’ Then I organize a beat out of each stack of strips by putting them into some kind of order that makes sense out of them, leading up to, through, and out of a tiny piece of the story.

As a side bonus, if I need an outline or a synopsis, the fractal nature of writing fiction surfaces again: a list of chapters provides a one-two page summary. A list including the titles/descriptions of each scene provides a more detailed outline twenty to thirty pages long. And if I need an incredibly detailed outline, I simply add the beat descriptions within the scenes.

Thoughts?

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2 thoughts on “Beats: micromanaging the action – Scene template, Part 6

  1. jassnip

    Hi Alicia, I really enjoyed reading your series on scenes/chapters and dramatica. I do have one question. How do you apply the appreciations of dramatica to your beats? Thank you in advance for your insights.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Hi, jasnip. You don’t say how experienced you are at plotting with Dramatica, so I’ll assume you know the basics: after working at your story, you’ve answered the questions to your satisfaction, and have ended up at a single storyform (or picked one to play with).

      An appreciation (app) gets a single ‘encoding’: you choose to put it somewhere in the story at least once. For example, let us say that, in Chapter 14, Scene 4 (check out Pride’s Children Table of Contents if you want to see how it plays out in an actual scene), you have decided to put the appreciation ‘OS Inhibitor Approach.’ Which sounds formidable and confusing. It is, a bit, until you realize you, the writer, have complete control over how you choose to represent this in the story. To break it down, ‘OS’ is the overall storyline – which I’ve chosen to represent by Bianca (and everyone else except the MC – main character, Kary, and the OC – obstacle or impact character, Andrew). So setting it in the OS means Bianca gets to do or say something.

      ‘Inhibitor’ means something that slows the progress of the overall storyline. ‘Approach’ is how a character achieves her goals, by going after things actively, or by setting things up so they come to her. I choose to make Bianca cautious about something she’s going to do or say; normally, she speaks her mind, but she is going to be careful in what she says because she has realized Kary has something she wants. If things work out for Kary, Kary will have the final vote on who plays ‘Meggie’ in a movie, a role that Bianca covets.

      It leads to a piece of dialogue where Bianca suppresses her natural instincts and ingratiates herself with Kary (‘it’ is the novel Prairie Fires which Kary wrote, and director Grant wants Kary to turn into a movie for him):
      ————
      “It is, Peter. It is.” She thought furiously—had she said anything to screw the pooch? “And Grant wants you to do the screenplay adaptation, too.” She put on her most beseeching woman-to-woman face for Kary. “I’ve always wanted to play Meggie. Ever since it first came out, when I was too young.” She glanced at Grant. “And you’re trying to make Grant give you the final word in selecting the actors.”

      “Meggie? But she’s too old for you.” Kary looked flustered. “I mean, you’re too glamorous for Meggie…”

      Bianca laughed. “I dirty up good.”
      —————

      In summary, you figure out what an app means in general (OS Inhibitor Approach) by reading the Dramatica term definitions. You decide what this will mean FOR YOU, in the context of YOUR story. You assign the app to a Chapter and Scene (since I’ve decided it has to do with Bianca, she has to be in the scene). Then you figure out which beat you are going to put it in, and turn it into a bit of story (dialogue, in this example).

      And whatever you get, prompted by all this, is unique to your story. I can’t imagine not having Bianca suck up to Kary because she wants the role.

      It seems arbitrary, but by the time I got to assigning apps such as OS Inhibitor, I already had the higher level apps assigned, a basic plot laid out from the Signposts and Journey apps, and knew my characters. It’s an iterative approach in which I end up with a list of scenes that have to happen, and a small set of appreciations that I’ve assigned to each Scene and beat, and THEN the imagination kicks in and provides the actual piece of dialogue.

      Because you’re working with a single storyform, the pieces seem to fit. I spend a fair amount of time chewing over the apps’ definitions before actually writing the scene/beat, asking myself how the heck I’m going to encode an OS Inhibitor of Approach – and then something pops into my head. Armando Saldaña-Mora’s book Dramatica for Screenwriters does a far better and more systematic job of explaining exactly this process. Storyform->appreciations->scenes->encoding->(actual piece of writing).

      It becomes second nature after you’ve done it a number of times. But it is definitely non-intuitive when you first start. I like the depth of plotting that it pulls from my brain, and the way all the pieces end up fitting together after I’ve made the effort.

      Sorry to be so long-winded, read Armando’s book if you’re going to plot with Dramatica, and realize the story all comes from you and not the theory.

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