Finding Your Story’s Beats by Ara Grigorian
Stephen King has said time and again, if you want to be a better writer, you have to read a lot and write a lot. I will humbly add one more task to your to-do list. If you want to be a better storyteller, watch more movies.
Okay, okay, set down the pitchforks and torches. Yes, we all understand that movies are never as good as the books. And no, we're not trying to write a screenplay, we're trying to write better books. So what am I really talking about?
If you’re writing commercial fiction, where pacing, strong plot points, and increased tension in your selected genre matters, then our brothers and sisters who write scripts can teach us plenty.
This past February, I taught a workshop at the Southern California Writers’ Conference in San Diego and again recently at a local high school in Los Angeles. The goal: help you find your story’s key beats and their timing.
GAME OF LOVE is my debut novel (May 2015, Curiosity Quills Press). But before I got a publishing deal, and before my agent became my agent, I realized something was missing. I’d get requests for fulls based on the query and first five pages, but something would fizzle.
This is what I did…
I selected nearly a dozen movies that were in my book’s genre, or had characters and situations that aligned well with my book. Why movies and not books? Simple: in ten hours I can watch five movies. In ten hours I can read a good chunk of one book. My goal was to learn, to dissect, and find the patterns, fast! Efficiency and effectiveness are critical to the author who also has a full-time job or other competing priorities.
After the third movie, the patterns emerged. By the tenth, I saw exactly what was missing from my book. I was missing key beats, and furthermore, those that I was hitting, I was hitting them late in the story line. Pacing and powerful, distinct scenes that propel the story forward – that was the secret to getting my book noticed.
First of all, what’s a beat? Per Wikipedia (the source of all truth), a beat is the timing and movement, referring to an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the goal will be pursued by the protagonist. Key word is, alter. It needs to be big, powerful.
In my workshop, to drive the point home of these key beats, we dissect movie clips. For this post we will analyze one of my favorite movies, Notting Hill (NH) with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant and a few scenes form The Hunger Games. Spoiler Warning: I give away the ending!
Let’s jump in and analyze the most important scenes:
1. Opening Image/Disturbance: The opening scene needs to set the mood, style, and stakes. This is also where we get to meet our main character(s) and their “before” world. Notting Hill opens with a collage of clips where Julia is bombarded by the flash of cameras. A radio personality says she is the “biggest star” by far. The song, “She” plays in the background and if we’re listening to the lyrics we hear, “She may not be what she may seem.” We very quickly understand she’s incomplete. Immediately after we are introduced to Hugh’s character. An unsuccessful bookshop owner who was once married but is now alone, with hopes for romance.
In less than three minutes we get the world of these two characters. We also see that these characters can’t go on like this forever. It is unsustainable. Change, radical change is needed. How quickly have you set up your characters? Furthermore, how obvious are the stakes and the need for transformation?
Read through your manuscript, how quickly are you planting the seed for your reader? Are you then sprinkling the story with situations that revisit this theme?
3. Catalyst/Inciting Incident/Trouble Brewing: This is where the main character’s world is thrown off balance – a life-changing moment. In Notting Hill, Julia walks into Hugh’s store where they first meet (a small incident). Shortly after she leaves, he accidentally spills orange juice all over her (a bigger incident). She goes to his place to change (definitely merits a Facebook post!). Then to really throw his world into a tailspin, she kisses him. That is the catalyst moment. He is hooked.
Make sure your catalyst isn’t just a plot device but tied directly to the story and the theme.
Do you have a scene that’s this big where your main character makes a decision that is profound and impossible to turn back from? What propels the call to adventure in your book?
5. Mid-Point/Mirror Moment: This is a critical scene because this is where the dynamics of the story change. After the break into two, the scenes that follow are fun. They show us the promise of the premise. The main character lives in the upside down world of the choice that’s been made. In Notting Hill, Hugh experiences the world of the celebrity while Julia lives in his simple world. But after all that fun stuff a key scene is needed that shows the bad guys are getting ready to ruin the party. Time clocks appear here. In Notting Hill, Hugh discovers that she still has a boyfriend and in a beautifully shot scene on the streets of London, then on a bus, and finally in his bedroom we see it on his face -- he is taking inventory of the mess that is his life. In Hunger Games, after all the training and the fun of the capital, the games begin. She’s on the platform, scared for her life.
What happens halfway in your story? Is there a moment where your main character is thinking, what have I done? Maybe even stares into the mirror wondering who is that person reflecting back at her?
6. All is Lost/Dark Night of the Soul/Lights Out: A scene where the main character is now officially worse off than when the story first started. Feels like total defeat. In Notting Hill, when he finds her again during a shoot, he overhears her with another actor. She dismisses him and says, “I don’t even know what he’s doing here.” He finally gets it and leaves. She then finds him and tries to explain why she said what she said, but he’s done. He can’t take the pain anymore. In a dramatic scene, she says, “And don’t forget, I’m also just a little girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” She leaves and Hugh is left stunned.
This is a critical scene because this is where humility will bring the main character to his knees. And from this humility a new idea will rise. The idea that will force the start of the final act.
7. Break into Three/Second Doorway of No Return: A solution is found. The old world, the old way of being dies and a new world emerges. In Notting Hill, he calls his friends to tell them what happened. Surrounded by his friends, he realizes that love is worth the pain of uncertainty. He realizes he needs her. And thus, they break into act three.
Your main character’s life is on the line (the alternative is death – professional, emotional, psychological). How big is your scene? Does the reason for the decision to go for it tie in with the theme?
8. The Final Buildup and Battle: This is where you typically see the hero go up against the clock. He gathers the team, suits up for the challenge, executes the plan, only to be faced by another major challenge. But after digging deep finds a way to get to the final battle. Typically the main character will handle the bad guys in ascending order. In Notting Hill, it’s a chase scene from one London Hotel to another until he finds her at her last press conference before she leaves the country. In a comedic scene he pretends he’s part of the press and asks, in front of all to hear, if she would consider staying if he admitted that he had been a “daft prick.” She does reconsider and a montage follows, to the music that opened the movie, we see footage from their wedding.
How does your story end? Is the final scene a bookend to the opening scene?
For this post, I highlighted nine story beats. You can easily identify 15, 30 or 40 if you invest a bit of time with the methodology of your choice and a day or two of back-to-back movies. I assure you, you will never watch a movie the same way again. And you will be a much more effective storyteller in the genre of your choice.
About the Author:
He is an alumnus of both the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and Southern California Writers' Conference (where he also serves as a workshop leader). Ara is an active member of the Romance Writers of America and its Los Angeles chapter.
Ara is represented by Stacey Donaghy of Donaghy Literary Agency.
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About The Book:
Gemma Lennon has spent nearly all of her 21 years focused on one thing: Winning a Grand Slam. After a disastrous and very public scandal and subsequent loss at the Australian Open, Gemma is now laser-focused on winning the French Open. Nothing and no one will derail her shot at winning - until a heated chance encounter with brilliant and sexy Andre Reyes threatens to throw her off her game.
Breaking her own rules, Gemma begins a whirlwind romance with Andre who shows her that love and a life off the court might be the real prize. With him, she learns to trust and love… at precisely the worst time in her career. The pressure from her home country, fans, and even the Prime Minister to be the first British woman to win in nearly four decades weighs heavily.
As Wimbledon begins, fabricated and sensationalized news about them spreads, fueling the paparazzi, and hurting her performance. Now, she must reconsider everything, because in the high-stakes game of love, anyone can be the enemy within… even lovers and even friends.
In the Game of Love, winner takes all.
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-- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers