Tag Archives: Dramatic beats

Dramatic Beats and Turning Points in Stories

A dramatic Beat and Turning PointsA dramatic beat is a small but significant knot of information in a story.

Beats generally take the form of an event or action resulting in a reaction. Although a beat provides additional information, it is not strong enough to spin the story in a different direction.

Consider the protagonist in a story getting ready to meet his fiancé at a restaurant. He opens the door to find his mother standing outside. She’s come for a visit. He politely informs her that her visit will have to wait as he is already late for his date. His mother leaves, somewhat disgruntled.

The unexpected arrival of the mother and her having to leave constitutes a single dramatic beat.

The number of beats can be as low as one or two in a short scene, to five or more in a longer one. There is, however, no set number. Importantly, the rate of beats in an entire story varies from genre to genre. Art cinema and literature typically has a slower rhythm than mainstream films and novels.

The Dramatic Beat and Turning Points

A turning point, by contrast, is new information that is so forceful and, often, surprising, that it turns the story in a new direction. Things can no longer continue as they are.

“Turning points are beefed-up dramatic beats that turn the direction of a story.”

In our above-mentioned example, imagine our protagonist opening the door to have his mother reveal to him that his fiancé has just told her that she’s leaving him for another man. In a love story, that would constitute a turning point – a beat on steroids that changes the direction of the story.

Not all turning points come from outer events. Sometimes a sudden insight about some hitherto hidden truth about a character’s life can turn the story on its head – as in Benjamin Vlahos’ realisation about his true ancestry in The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

Summary

The dramatic beat is a small but significant unit of action and reaction in a scene. Turning points are beefed-up beats that change the direction of the story.

How to Write Story Twists: The Craft of the Dramatic Beat

In these posts, I often talk about the large structural elements that make up the overall infrastructure of a story — the turning points, the mid point, and so on. These structures, important as they are, in that they steer and turn the narrative at crucial junctions, however, do not constitute the bulk of your story. The brick and mortar of your story lies in the details — in the large number of dramatic beats that makes up your scenes.

Dramatic beats

Dramatic beats

Dramatic beats, we are reminded, are small but significant actions that make up a scene. In a scene in which a murder occurs, for example, a character ambling around the room doesn’t constitute a dramatic beat; his spotting the gun under the table, which is to be used in the murder, does.

The question now arises: what sorts of dramatic beats keep our readers glued to the page, and how can we best structure such beats?

For one, we can fashion them in a way which creates suspense, as has been mentioned in a previous post. For another, we can introduce the element of surprise. Or, we can do both.

Twists to Keep your Readers/Audience Interested.

A twist, by definition, contains an element of surprise. It is an event or action that the reader does not see coming, rendering it fresh and unpredictable. Plan your scenes to contain at least some beats in which one or more of the following occurs:

1. A betrayal of trust.
2. A loss of resources.
3. A lie is uncovered.
4. A new problem arises.
5. Unforeseen consequences of past actions arise.
6. A new character is introduced.
7. Trust is betrayed.
8. A character swaps sides.
9. A plan goes wrong.
10.A new motive is revealed.

In Inglorious Basterds, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Colonel Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) 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 sense of implied threat. Although LaPadite (Denis Menochet) at first resists admitting that the Dreyfuses are, in fact, hiding beneath the floorboards of his house, Landa eventually ferrets the truth out of 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 torture him and catch him out; a lie is uncovered — 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 misfires.

In Summary

Organising your scenes’ dramatic beats according to some of the above-mentioned suggestions is an effective way of ensuring that each scene contains enough twists to keep your readers and audience interested.

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