Scenes and Beats
Two types of scenes. Most of the scenes I write fall into one of two types: Action scenes in which the point-of-view (POV) character acts toward a goal and encounters conflict, and reaction scenes in which the POV character reels from a setback and decides what to do next.
Each type of scene has a typical structure. For an action scene, the structure is:
- Goal: The POV character has an immediate goal (called the scene goal), and acts toward the goal.
- Conflict: The character hits an obstacle, usually in the form of an opponent, another character whose goals conflict with the POV character's. For the bulk of the scene, the POV character and the opponent struggle with each other, each to attain their goal.
- Disaster: The POV character either succeeds or fails to achieve the goal. Most action scenes end not only in failure, but in disaster: The character is worse off at the end of the scene than at the beginning.
- Reaction: The POV character reels from the preceding disaster. This may include an emotional reaction, an rational reaction, or both. Usually the emotional reaction comes first.
- Dilemma: The character calms down enough (perhaps just barely enough) to explore options for what to do next. All of the options are bad.
- Decision: The character chooses the least bad option and commits to it. This becomes the scene goal for the next action scene.
The conflict in an action scene proceeds in conflict beats. You can think of a conflict beat as starting with either the POV character’s action or with the opponent’s (or environment’s) action. Here’s the POV-character-first version, which I think of as an Action-Result beat:
- Action: The POV character takes action toward the goal.
- Result: The opponent acts against the POV character.
- Stimulus: Something happens to which the POV character must respond.
- Response: The character acts in response to the stimulus.
In a reaction scene, the dilemma proceeds in dilemma beats:
- Forward: The character thinks of another possible action toward the goal.
- Back: The character realizes the disadvantages of that action.
Further reading. I learned these most of these ideas from Dwight Swain and two other writers who have expanded on Swain’s work:
- Techniques of the $elling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.
- Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham.
- Randy Ingermanson's Advanced Fiction Writing web site--in particular his article on "Writing the Perfect Scene". Randy also has a helpful blog.
- What I call an action scene, Swain calls a Scene (capital S).
- What I call a reaction scene, Swain calls a Sequel.
- What I call a Stimulus-Response beat, Swain calls a Motivation-Reaction Unit (MRU).
Also, other people use the term beat in other ways.