Beats come in four types: action, reaction, setup, and deepening. A beat can only ever be one type. Most scenes are dominated by 1-2 types of beats, though they can easily include all 4.
Action beats are when a character actively pursues their agenda, working towards a goal or purpose. In any scene it’s important to know what the character is actively trying to accomplish, and why.
Reaction beats are when a character responds impulsively. Something has changed, and the character reacts without thinking it through. A reaction can be as simple and brief as a pause, a sound, or a question. In rare instances, times of intense emotion, such as grief over the death of someone important, a character may continue to react for several minutes.
The key to reaction is surprise and uncertainty. It’s a reflex, an instinctive, impulsive response. The more significant the change, the longer the reaction can take.
Many forms of physical training, such as professional sports or combat, aim to create a specific response to a given situation, such as disarming an opponent. In a fight the character doesn’t have time to consciously analyze the situation. Instead they simply react. This is why many veterans of prolonged combat respond differently when someone surprises them.
Setup is the most utilitarian beat; establishing background information that audiences need in order to understand later aspects of the story. Setup beats are often nested within a minor conflict or character deepening, to keep audiences from becoming bored.
Deepening beats are when character relationships change; either because more information is revealed about a character, or because two or more characters share an experience or work together towards a goal. Knowledge and experience both help characters better understand each other, which in turn helps them better translate words and actions into meaning.
Deepening beats are often laden with strong emotions. They can be very powerful, but like spice, the key is to use them carefully. Too much can distract from the plot, and overwhelm the audience, leaving them numb to the significance of the moment.
Hook & Prompt
Every beat is either action, reaction, setup, or deepening, but some are also hooks or prompts. A hook is a strong opening beat that pulls readers in quickly; while a prompt encourages readers to keep going.
Examples of hooks include:
A line of dialogue-“Good to see you.”
Foreshadowing-I never knew he was there.
Action-Catherine burst into the room.
Question-What happened here?
Of course not every scene can or should begin with a hook, but if it’s the first scene of the story, or if the point of view has just changed, a hook can help pull readers in before they have a chance to lose interest.
Prompts help readers understand that the story isn’t over yet. This is particular important for longer stories, over 5,000 words. Audiences will need to take a break, and it helps if the author create natural stopping points. When creating a prompt, decide whether your goal is to convince the audience to keep reading, or come back after a break.
Examples of prompts include:
A threat, which immediately pulls readers back in.
As she walked into the room she saw him, gun pointed right at her.
A sign or omen, which hints without revealing what is coming.
Outside the rain battered the windows, as the wind howled.
Other possibilities include a question or mystery left unanswered, a major decision being made, or a significant piece of new information.
Keep in mind that a scene also needs to resolve its own conflict, either permanently, or temporarily. But if the story isn’t over, make sure to include some kind of prompt or reminder so that the audience knows to keep reading.
Perspective & POV