10 Keys to Writing Story Beats in Novels (with Exercises)

10 Keys to Writing Story Beats in NovelsKey 1: A Story Beat is the Smallest Unit in Fiction

The definition: A beat is the smallest story unit in fiction. Individual words are like atoms. Story beats are the molecules, the real building blocks of the story world. There are different categories or types of story beats including a line of dialogue, a moment of action, a moment of reaction, a moment of inaction, a visual image, an emotion, a setting, a theme, or an instance of meta-storytelling.

A beat is often a sentence long, though sometimes it will be half a sentence or two to three sentences.

A group of beats together builds a scene; a group of scenes builds a chapter; a group of chapters builds a novel. But if the beats aren’t working right, the novel will crumble.

moleculesA metaphorical depiction of molecules, from The Golden Book Encyclopedia, 1959. Image Credit: cori kindred, Creative Commons license

We use story beats naturally, but when we analyze them consciously it allows us to improve them. For example, dialogue beats often follow each other, and if we just have a series of dialogue beats it speeds up the pace of the scene. It’s also useful to interrupt a series of dialogue beats with an emotion beat or an action beat, and sometimes doing so isn’t optional, or we will lose or frustrate our readers.

I’ve tried to create a comprehensive, yet in-depth look at beats in this three-part blog post series. Each blog post includes several writing exercises.

Part 1: Intro to Story Beats (this post)

  • Key 1: defining a story beat
  • Key 2: the beat sheet.
  • Key 3: the pause or inaction beat.
  • 2 Writing Exercises

Part 2: Action Beats, Dialogue Beats, and Beat Variation

Action Beats Dialogue Beats & Beat Variation

  • Key 4: in-depth on action beats.
  • Key 5: integrating dialogue and action beats.
  • Key 6: varying your beats (and the three beat rule).
  • 2 Writing Exercises

Part 3: Emotion Story Beats

Writing Powerful Emotion Beats in Fiction

  • Key 7: using emotion beats to connect your reader to the character.
  • Key 8: using emotion beats that are distinctive to your story world or character.
  • Key 9: advanced emotion beats.
  • Key 10: complex reaction beats.
  • 3 Writing Exercises

Key 2: Use a Beat Sheet to Outline your Story

What is a Beat Sheet? A beat sheet is a sort of outline or sequencing of your story, using a list or bullet points. The term is used primarily in screenwriting that has been borrowed by novelists.

Save the CatYou can think about a beat sheet as your story skeleton. The beats referred to in the beat sheet are actually bigger-picture than the beats I’m discussing in this blog post. If you’re interested in creating a beat sheet, I strongly recommend the Save the Cat. The book focuses on screenwriting, but it works great for novel structure as well. Another useful resource is novelist Dan Wells’ seven point plot structure, which you can view in a series of youtube videos.



Key 3: Incorporate the Pause or Inaction Beat to Imitate Life, Build Tension, and Give Reaction Space to your Reader

As writers, we want our characters to always be doing things. Yet sometimes a pause can be powerful, or is the natural reaction of a character.

There’s a great example in The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The main character, a young Indian boy named Piscine (nicknamed Pi), decides that he wants to be Christian, Muslim, and Hindu. As luck would have it, all three of his religious leaders run into Pi and his parents at the same time.

Pause beats are used masterfully throughout the passage:

The Life of Pi

        After the “Hellos” and the “Good days”, there was an awkward silence. The priest broke it when he said, with pride in his voice, “Piscine is a good Christian boy. I hope to see him join our choir soon.”
        My parents, the pandit and the imam looked surprised.
       “You must be mistaken. He’s a good Muslim boy. He comes without fail to Friday prayer, and his knowledge of the Holy Qur’an is coming along nicely.” So said the imam.
       My parents, the priest and the pandit looked incredulous.
       The pandit spoke. “You’re both wrong. He’s a good Hindu boy. I see him all the time at the temple coming for darshan and performing puja.”
       My parents, the imam and the priest looked astounded.
       “There is no mistake,” said the priest. “I know this boy. He is Piscine Molitor Patel and he’s a Christian.”
       “I know him too, and I tell you he’s a Muslim,” asserted the imam.
       “Nonsense!” cried the pandit. “Piscine was born a Hindu, lives a Hindu and will die a Hindu!”
       The three wise men stared at each other, breathless and disbelieving.
       Lord, avert their eyes from me, I whispered in my soul.
       All eyes fell upon me.

The intensity increases throughout the passage with each pause. Sometimes conflict in dialogue occurs at a machine gun pace, but often it’s in little spurts, with pauses in between.

The most common type of pause is actually the use of a dialogue tag. Now admittedly, a lot of dialogue tags aren’t actual pauses—they’re just orienting the reader, telling us who is speaking. Yet sometimes dialogue tags are used to create a short pause, a short beat for either the characters or the reader, simply by where they are placed.

For example, take The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson. It’s an awesome heist/political intrigue novel set in middle school:

“Maybe I should talk to Carmen,” Keith said. “Persuade her to change her mind.”
“Or maybe you should just let it go,” Wilton said. “With Kelsey on your side, there’s no way Gaby can win.”






Here the dialogue tags are performing their basic function: letting us know the speaker. Yet both tags also create a pause. In part this imitates the natural pauses in human speech. By adding a dialogue tag, it implies a longer pause than a period would create. In the above example, both pauses show a progression of thought, and add emphasis to key parts of the dialogue.


Image by Tommy Wong, Creative Commons license

Exercise 1: Pauses

Write a dialogue between two characters (your own or someone else’s) where the pauses are as important as what is said.

Exercise 2: Analyze a Scene

Choose a scene from one of your favorite books and analyze how the author uses beats. Does she use lots of action beats? Do they always follow dialogue with emotion beats? When are setting beats used and to what effect? Etc.

Read More:

Part 2: Action Beats, Dialogue Beats, and Beat Variation (Keys 4-6)

Action Beats Dialogue Beats & Beat Variation

Part 3: Emotion Story Beats (Keys 7-10)

Writing Powerful Emotion Beats in Fiction


10 Keys to Writing Dialogue in Fiction


10 Keys to Writing Dialogue in Fiction

Original paragliding image by Dorin Paslaru, Creative Commons license