Beats and focal points walk the reader through a scene.
Writing a story, no matter what the length, involves having a concept and then executing that concept onto the page. While having a talent for writing can give an author a lot of leverage to succeed, the art of honing his or her skill cannot be denied.
Readers are not blind and can see through poorly executed writing. The audience knows from the first few pages whether a story will catapult them into another realm or leave them lying helpless on the table like a piece of rubbery bologna. A story must move. It takes him or her from one step to another and yet another.
As writers we cannot deny the importance of these steps. Sometimes referred to as the character’s action or reaction of a scene, the beats have a very important part to play in every step a story takes. Likewise, the focal point of a particular scene has the ability to alter the entire story afterwards.
In her book titled, The Scene Book, Sandra Scofield discusses beats and focal points. The beat is "...a small unit of character action or reaction." (42). The beats move a story along. These writing elements control the speed in which the reader is propelled through the scene. A good example of this usage is in Stuart Dybek's "We Didn't". Dybek's short story centers around the unconsummated love of two teenagers on a beach, the police, a dead body, and their decision to wait. Examining his short story helps us as writers understand the importance of character action/reaction, and where the story should go:
The two lovers are romantically entangled on the beach. Through beat usage we see the scene propel forward: " (beat 1) On my fingers your slick scent mixed with the coconut musk of the suntan lotion we'd repeatedly smeared over each other's bodies. (beat 2) When your bikini top fell away, (beat 3) my hands caught your breasts, memorizing, their delicate weight, (beat 4) my palms cupped as if bringing water top parched lips...(beat 5) I stripped your bikini bottom down the skinny rails of your legs, and (beat 6) you tugged my swimsuit past my tan...(beat 7) you whispered to me softly, 'I'm afraid of getting pregnant, ' and (beat 8) I whispered back, 'Don't worry, I have protection, " then, still kissing you, (beat 9) felt for my discarded cutoffs and the wallet which for the last several months I had carried a Trojan as if it was a talisman. (beat 10) Still kissing, I tore its flattened, dried-out wrapper, and (beat 11) it sprang through my fingers like a spring from a clock and (beat 12) dropped to the sand between our legs."
Dybek's effective use of beats brings us through the romantic entanglement step-by-step. The reader experiences the sensations and action along with the two lovers. The audience sympathizes with the man as he fumbles for the Trojan only to have it land in the beach sand. He or she remembers, and relates, to the desperation one has experienced in moments such as these. Dybek's use of action propelled the scene through tangible beats and if we compare this scene to Scofield's description of beats, he has effectively used this unit of character action or reaction to walk the reader through.
Scofield also emphasizes the importance of focal points. Beats move a scene along, but where are they going? A scene needs to have a destination; whether to uncover something about a character or to affect the entire story thereafter, it must have a "...Nugget. Moment. Apex. Focal point..." (54).
Without the focal point, the scene goes nowhere fast and leaves the reader feeling like that rubbery piece of bologna sitting on the table that nobody wants to eat. While the beats can bring the audience through, the writer needs the focal point to change things up and heighten the tension. One of the many ways to discover the inner workings of a character or characters is through the focal point. Referencing Dybek's beach scene once again we see the strength the focal point has.
The two lovers are still fumbling around in the dark trying to make it work when suddenly the woman realizes she hears something in the distance. She pushes herself up and he, still confused, notices what she was talking about " ...and then the beam of a spotlight swept over us and I glanced into its blinding light" (183). The police run across the beach as other lovers race out of the way. The flashlights flicker and dodge about as the officers run toward the water. At the height of the focal point the reader learns, along with the two young lovers, that within a short distance from them a pregnant woman had drowned.
This experience leaves the lovers affected. Their innocent lust has been shattered.
Dybek uses this drowning in the beach scene as a focal point to address the lovers' relationship. Everything before this moment was beautiful, romantic, and enthralling for the lovers. Everything after it is much different, particularly for the woman. Instead of the previous innocence of desire, she is focused on the ugliness of death. He also shows us the other side of the man. In the beginning, he was focused on having sex and by the end of the story he realized the importance of their friendship. Although the reader could analyze their relationship and speculate it would eventually wind up here, Dybek's use of the deceased pregnant woman allows us to see this unraveling in an unconventional way. What may take months in real time, he shows us within a few short pages. The focal point was the catalyst to the changes in not only the characters, but their relationship.
Talent on the page can only take a writer so far. Writing is a skill that must be honed and sharpened over time. Two of the many skills a creative writer must understand are the beats and focal points of a scene. Each of these elements are important. The beats bring the reader through the scene by character action and reaction. The focal point is the trigger to set off the rest of the story. Without these, the story, not matter how great in concept, will fall flat.
Dybek, Stuart. "We Didn't". The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. 2nd ed. New York, NY:Touchstone, 2007. Print.
Scofield, Sandra. The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer. New York, NY:Penguin Group, 2007. Print.
This article, written by Jenna Cornell, originally appeared on Hub Pages.