Of Pen and Ink – Beats, Scenes and Sequences

A question emerges, and I have to ask it not only of myself, but of others: We often use the term scene when we talk about our stories. But do you write your fiction novel in scenes, sequences and beats?

Screenplays are assumed to be written thus, but I often wonder about other forms of story. They can all share some of these traits and benefit from them, as pacing and development is as important in a book as it is in a movie or play. But in a novel – as with any form of story – what comes first? Form or function?

I’ve got a copy of Story by Robert McKee, which I picked up on a whim after researching story and characterization. The exact way that all these pieces come together varies depending on your source. But in my understanding:

Beats are the smallest piece of structure, an exchange of action/reaction, whether its two characters having a dialogue, man vs. nature in a struggle to survive, or man vs. himself in conquering his fears and inner demons. Incidentally, a ‘beat’ can also refer to a pause in dialogue or action in a movie or play.

A scene is a collection of beats. A beat helps to turn a scene, as beats are exchanged, something changes. A character’s emotion, position of winner/underdog in a fight, all kinds of things. A scene turns if, at the end of the scene, we have flipped a value of some sort, so things are now different than when they began.

Scenes in turn (ha! I made a funny) can make up a sequence. Again, sequences help turn something, but on a larger scale. And all of these things can culminate in acts, chapters, or what have you. Consider this:

  • Scene 1: We may see a character wealthy and living the good life, just coming into the office on Monday morning. He shakes hands with a few of the newer execs in the break room. On his way to his desk, he’s called over by his boss.
  • Scene 2: His boss informs him that they have to cut some fat from the company payroll. His accounts were floundering in the last quarter, so he’s getting the axe. They try to do this on Fridays, because research shows people take the news easier, but it was late notice.
  • Scene 3: The now unemployed exec is cleaning out his desk, where he checks his voice mail on his office phone – it’s his girlfriend, telling him she’s going to be out of town for a couple days. Good, at least he’ll have a chance to find out how to break the news to her.
  • Scene 4: He’s in the parking garage carrying his box of belongings to his red Porsche…which has just been hit by a grey Mercedes backing out across from him. The driver speeds off down the ramp before he can catch a license plate. Not that it matters much – his company parking privileges had been kindly revoked before he was given his pink slip, and the security guard has left a parking violation on his windshield.
  • Scene 5: On his way home, he decides to stop at his girlfriend’s apartment and feed her cat – the least he can do while she’s away. He pulls up just in time to see her leaving her building – and climbing into the passenger seat of a grey Mercedes. He pulls up recklessly on the sidewalk and rushes up to her window to speak with her. She seems very surprised to see him, and awkwardly apologies that ‘things aren’t working out.’ He looks briefly to the man in the driver seat – he’s one of the newer execs at his office. She says good bye and the car speeds off. He takes notice of the scratch of red paint on the rear fender.

This is in no way intended to be a good example of beats or scenes. And obviously, in a movie all this can happen in five minutes. In a book, it may take two or three chapters. It all depends on how much we have to tell in between.

Some times a scene ends on the same value that it began – when this happens, nothing has really changed. These help identify areas that are fluff or exposition or purely character-related. In screenwriting, anything and everything could get cut in favor of trimming down the script. In a novel you sometimes need to be just as brutal, but a little exposition is necessary here and there.

What do you think? Do you organize your book into scenes like so many of us do? And, if so, do you organize those scenes in such a way that they turn and push the story (and hopefully the reader) ever onward? Or do you just organize them in a way that makes sense?

~Meredith Purk

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2 thoughts on “Of Pen and Ink – Beats, Scenes and Sequences

  1. I write linearly and don’t general write scenes separately and then connect them like some other writers I know. But there is definitely a sense of scene in the pacing and how the chapters break, and each is a mini story in that something has changed, or ‘turned’. I never thought of it quite like that before, but that’s exactly when I feel satisfied to move on from one chapter to the next.

  2. Exactly! I often write rather linearly myself, with the exception of specific events that stand out clearly in my mind. Those ones that play like a movie, and I have to write them down, and then I have to write TO them so I can weave them in. When I’m done, I step back with fresh eyes to read it again, then I move things around and tweak to give that pacing and turning. Many times I block things into scenes only after they’ve been written.

    I do outline some to try and plan my story. I use index cards and the like to scribble down specific events I think should happen, and number them according to the sequence I think they should occur. (Which often changes during my rewrites). And I agree, there is a sense of satisfaction when it feels right, and it helps me pick up and move on to other parts of my story.

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