IN THESE ARTICLES I often talk about the large pivotal elements that shape a story—the turning points, the pinches, the mid-point, and so on.
But these structures, important as they are, form only the macroscopic aspect of your story. The fuel that turns the engine over lies in the details, in the dramatic beats that make up your individual scenes.
Dramatic beats, we are reminded, are small but significant actions or events that form the sinew of a scene.
In a scene in which a murder occurs, for example, a character pacing around the room does not constitute a dramatic beat; spotting the dagger behind the curtain, which is to be used in the murder, does.
But what sorts of dramatic beats keep our readers and audiences glued to their seats, and how can we best write them?
For one, we can craft them in a way that creates suspense. For another, we can introduce the element of surprise.
Or, we can do both.
Twisting your Dramatic Beats
A twist inevitably contains an element of surprise. It is an event or action that the reader does not see coming. Include at least some beats in your scenes where one or more of the following occurs:
1. A lie is exposed.
2. A loss of resources occurs.
3. A trust is betrayed.
4. A new problem arises.
5. A plan goes wrong.
6. A new character is introduced.
7. A character swaps sides.
8. Unforeseen consequences of past actions arise.
9. A new motive is revealed.
In Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, Colonel Hans Landa’s reputation of ruthlessness drives one of the longest and most suspenseful scenes in the entire movie.
At the start of the film, Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa insists on being introduced to each of the dairy farmer’s daughters individually, heightening the suspense.
Although LaPadite at first resists admitting that the Dreyfuses are hiding beneath the floorboards of his house, Landa eventually ferrets the truth from him through a series of compliments, threats, and innuendoes.
The scene utilises some of the techniques mentioned above:
A new motive is revealed—Landa did not come to LaPadite’s farm house to close the book on the case as he at first claims, but to catch him out.
A lie is exposed—Landa is able to ferret the truth out of LaPadite.
A new problem arises—LaPadite knows that if he continues hiding the Dreyfuses his own family will be executed.
A trust is betrayed and a character swaps sides—LaPadite is forced to betray the Dreyfuses.
A plan goes wrong—LaPadite’s plan to hide the Dreyfuses under his floorboard is exposed.
Well-crafted dramatic beats contain enough twists to keep your readers and audiences interested in your story.