A beat is a unit of conflict.
Actually, there are many definitions of “beats” in writing fiction, but for the purposes of this series, beats are a unit of conflict, analgous to the acts in a story. They’re a tool for finding out what’s wrong with a scene, for strengthening a scene, but probably not for writing one. If you’ve written a scene you think is great, don’t bother with beats. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if a scene isn’t working, then looking for beats is an excellent way to tighten and focus it.
You begin as you always begin with linear structure analysis (let’s stick with Barney and Bea from the previous Scene Definition post):
Who’s the protagonist? Barney
What’s his goal?Bea. He’s crazy about her.
Who’s the antagonist?Bea.
What’s her goal:To preserve her reputation. She’s crazy about Barney, too, but she knows what he’s up to.
Now ask yourself where Barney and Bea are at the beginning of the scene (frustrated and afraid) and where they are at the end of the scene (in each other’s arms and beginning to trust each other). How are you going to get them there?
Barney, to get his goal, is going to have to convince Bea to trust him.
Bea, to get her goal, is going to have to convince Barney to protect her.
The first beat starts the Barney vs Bea conflict by disrupting their stable lives:
So Barney wins, and this scene propels the story forward since we still don’t know what’s going to happen with the Lodge Dance.
The scene has accomplished the goals of every scene: it’s changed character, moved plot, and set up expectation for the next scene.
If a scene seems flat, compare the beginning of the scene to the end of the scene. The character should have changed, even just a small but significant change, and the plot should have changed, too. If not, rewrite the end so that the changes you want have taken place. Then break the scene down into beats to see show how the shifts in character and plot progressed.