Beats and plot points aren’t the same thing, though they sometimes sound as if they ought to be. Basically, plot points are about content; beats are about rhythm. Beats make a pattern; plot points make a causal chain. They support and depend on each other, but they’re not the same.
In acting, where the term comes from, beats refer to the natural pauses that occur when something in the scene changes direction. If a character is making coffee and then answers the phone, that’s at least two beats; if the phone conversation starts off funny and then suddenly turns serious, that would add another beat…as I understand it, anyway.
Try to translate that to writing and you get another one of those ways of analyzing scenes that sounds great on paper, but isn’t much use for actually creating the scenes. Not directly, anyway.
What got me going on this was a little book called “Hamlet’s Hit Points,” written by Robin Laws for the stated purpose of helping gamesmasters do better storytelling. The book begins by describing a rather overly-complicated system of classifying story beats into different types and sub-types, and then proceeds to analyze of Hamlet, Dr. No, and Casablanca according to the author’s system.
He does not, however, advocate applying the system directly to one’s game. When you’re gamesmastering, you can’t do that, because your gamers never, ever follow whatever script you had in mind. They’ll take your serious dramatic scenario and turn it into low comedy in about ten minutes; they’ll refuse to follow the lures you lay out for them and head to the bar to consult instead of rushing off to rescue their buddy from the dungeon; they’ll decide to go shopping to kill time while their new super-weapon is being built, instead of heading off for another adventure; they’ll find a political solution to what you’d planned as an action problem and knock all the diplomats through the wall when you’d planned a nice frustrating round of political negotiating. Much the way many of one’s characters work when one is writing.
Running a role-playing game is about three parts careful planning (two of which will be useless, but you don’t know which two, so you have to do all of it), two parts method acting, and four parts improv (with a hefty dose of stand-up comedy, though if you’re lucky, one of the gamers will be the comedian and you’ll only have to be the straight man). A lot of what happens, you make up in the moment, changing plans on the fly as you react to what the gamers have decided to try and to the random dice rolls. You don’t have time to stop and think about whether you’re working with the A plotline or the B plotline, or whether what’s going on is action or reaction. You certainly don’t have time to think “Now, we just had a nice action bit, so next should come the reaction,” and even if you did, the players would probably ignore you if you tried to make them follow that kind of script.
What you can do is hone your instincts, so that when you are riding the chaos that is an intense gaming session with fifteen people all clamoring for attention at once (or worse yet, plotting something quietly at the far end of the table where you can’t hear them and start working out a counter), you will make the right decision in the moment.
And that – honing the storytelling instinct – is what the author of “Hamlet’s Hit Points” is trying to do with his system of beats and resolutions. His idea is not that people will build scenes and stories consciously and deliberately in this way; it’s that people will analyze already-existing stories until the rhythm sinks into their subconscious, so that when they’re making things up in a white-hot frenzy, they’ll have a better rhythm.
Which is, of course, why the whole thing appeals so much to me. (Well, that and the fact that I love that kind of analysis, and it makes such a good distraction from, you know, actually writing something.) Because for me, and for most of the writers I know, writing the first draft of a scene is a lot like riding the chaos of a gaming session. You don’t need a system; you need good instincts. The main difference is that with writing, you can patch some of it up in revision; with a gaming session, if you want to “fix” something, your only hope is that all your gamers will have really bad memories (and that trick never works…)
Most of the writers I know have been training their storytelling instincts since forever…by reading everything they can get their hands on. Still, the idea of working at it a little more deliberately, a little more consciously, appeals to me (certainly a whole lot more than a lot of the rules and directions and systems for writing fiction that I’ve ever run across).
Which brings me back to beats, and analyzing writing according to a system originally invented for actors. It is, as I said, not directly useful for constructing scenes (or at least, it isn’t for anyone I know. There’s probably somebody out there that it works for, though. If you’re that person, ignore that last sentence). As a way of training one’s instincts, or even just spotting places to improve in the second draft, though it might just be worth trying.