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Beats: Pesky Little Things, or, Explosions

Beats are strange little elements of writing fiction. Think of a metaphor for your story. Say it’s a beautiful roll top desk. It takes skill, creativity, great materials, and tools to make it. For a story, beats are basic tools, not to say they can’t be used with great finesse. For a fuller description of beats see the excellent website:

Usually each beat is followed by a reaction.

Reactions to beats are important for characterization:

By others describing character,

By setting (his desk, his wife, his house, his dog),

By dress,


Ways of speaking, eating, smoking , chewing gum



Physical appearance,





Motivation-reaction units (MRU”s). Swain is the one credited with this clunky amplification of beats. (Motivation is Swain’s unnecessary word for beat).

Randy Ingermanson unpacks this concept of Swain’s as follows:

Motivation=beat, for example, “A lion leapt out of the bush.” Usually an event that could be seen (or smelled, touched, tasted, or heard—be fun having a beat involve all of your five senses at once, think horror movie in a movie theater, where, while eating popcorn, the seats shake and odours are let loose in conjunction with the sights and sounds in the film, or more simply, a salt water drowning with sharks.)

For almost every beat, you need a reaction. Reactions may have three parts, one may be omitted, but the sequence should be followed.

Motivation = beat. For example, “A lion leapt out of the bushes, running right for me.”


A) feeling, dramatized not told, e.g., “I dropped my coffee cup.”

B) reflex reaction (“In a heartbeat, I grabbed my rifle and fired.”)

C) rational reaction (speech, e.g., “Die, you nasty beast.”)

Here’s another example I pulled out of Chapter 1 of James Patterson’s book titled Juror No 3. The chapter, which is three pages long, is all courtroom scene. Remember James and his underlings have sold 375 million “copies” worldwide.

Motivation = beat: “I fastened the jacket of my suit, purchased at Goodwill. The button popped off into my hand.

A) (An “Oh no!” feeling is implicit, I guess.)

B) (reflex) I slipped the button in my pocket,

C) (rational reaction) trying to look like having a button pop off was totally cool.”

Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything was Different, By Chuck Palahniuk. This recent book (2020) is a memoir that describes advanced ways of how the tools of writing fiction are used. It’s a masterful book on writing, as no other. He talks less about beats; instead about textures, which have to do with the reactions that follow what he calls Descriptions, which he uses as a term for motivation= events= beats. Here’s an example:

Description (=beat, event, motivation).

A) Instruction.

B) Exclamation (combining feeling and reflex)

Description: A man walks into a bar and orders a margarita.

Instruction: Easy enough. Mix three parts tequila and two parts triple sec with one-part lime juice pour it over ice

Exclamation: and--voila-that’s a margarita.

Chuck obviously doesn’t follow the MRU rules with exactitude. But note his expertise. The first sentence is in 3rd person. The instruction is in 2nd person, and the exclamation is in 3rd person. Chuck is playing with us, showing off his virtuosity. He illustrates that reactions to beats come in all sorts of elegant ways, or “textures.”

Think of Beats and Reactions as notes that compose a whole symphony. They’re tools that you use to build your novel into a masterpiece.

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