Elizabeth: Beat Refresher

As I mentioned last week, I’ve recently been working my way though an iPod full of writing podcasts that I have accumulated over the past several years.  The most recent one was a 2014 StoryWonk Sunday podcast called Dodge ex Machina.  The podcast, which featured Lani Diane Rich, is now defunct, but the insights on story and craft and a whole lot more are still valuable.

This particular podcast provided a great example, via an improv session, on how to structure the beats in a scene.  I found the reminder very helpful, so I thought I’d share the information here, just in case anyone else out there would like a refresher.  It’s also a fun exercise that you may want to do on your own, or may want to try with an actual scene you are working on (or may be stuck on).

So, let’s get started.

The scene they worked on in the podcast was based on these two randomly generated characters:

  • He’s a naïve superhero with a short temper
  • She’s a bitter Human Resources manager with an MBA from Harvard

Now, in the podcast there was some brainstorming abou what the conflict was between the two characters and they eventually settled on the simple premise that Sally, the protagonist, has a form that she needs him (Captain Cosmos) to sign.

Sounds simple, right?”

Unfortunatley, he’s a busy super-hero and he’s been avoiding signing for a month, so Sally is forced to hunt him down to get him to sign the papers, which have to be on her boss’ desk by the end of the day.

As the scene starts, Captain Cosmos has just rescued a box of kittens from a fire and is about to have his picture taken by the local paparazzi.

He’s grandstanding and wants to show off for the press, she needs him to sign the papers, but he won’t because the press is watching – they can’t both win, so that’s the conflict.

In the first beat, she grabs him by the arm, interrupts his moment, and says, “I need you to  sign these papers.”

He says, “no, no, I sent those to your office a week ago.  Go check.”  Then he dismisses her and turns back to the camera.

She’s trying to remain perky and upbeat but really she is just tired. Her kid has a recital.  Her husband’s birthday is the next day.  She’s got stuff to do, plus it’s Friday afternoon and the crosstown traffic is crazy since some other superhero is busy saving a bunch of orphans on the 105.  She doesn’t have time for Captain Obvious and his need for media attention.

Sally refuses to be dismissed and grabs his arm again. “Well, just sign this one anyway. If the other copy turns up later, we’ll just toss it.”

He pulls her aside and says “Listen, I just saved 12 cats, but there’s a guy saving orphans across town.  I need to do this media thing now before they lose interest and go away.”    He trys to play on her sympathy, but she’s having none of it.

Instead, she says, “well just sign these real quick and I’ll get out of your way and you can get back to your moment.”  She hands him a pen.

He tosses the pen away.  ‘Oops, I’ve got nothing to sign with.  We’ll have to do this another time.”

She rolls her eyes at him.  “I’m from HR.  I have a purse-full of pens and dozens more in the car.”    She pulls out another pen and hands it to him.

He’s frustrated now, and the camera crew is starting to pack up their gear.  “Why does this have to be now?  I’ll come in and take care of it in the morning.”

She refuses to be dissuaded, reminding him that she’s been trying to get his signature for a month.  “My boss needs these papers by the end of the day.  No exception.”

He doesn’t want to sign the papers (for Reasons) so he tries to charm her into going away next.

That’s the final straw for Sally.  “I just slogged through 48 blocks of traffic to get here.  I’m in uncomfortable shoes and  and I have a dozen other things I need to do before the end of the day.  If you think in any universe . . ..(she gets louder and louder) . . .you are charming enough to . . . .”

And to shut her up, he kisses her.  He doesn’t just give her a peck on the check, he makes a big production about it and the flashbulbs pop.

When he sets her on her feet, she glares at him.  “Now you have 2 forms to sign.”.  She pulls another form out of her purse (a well-prepared HR person) and hands it to him to sign.  “You can sign them both or I’ll tell them (the news media) what the first form was for.”

At that point he gives in, signs the forms, and she wins.

As the scene closes and he walks off, robbed of his big moment, she spies the box of kittens there on the sidewalk.  “Damn superheroes, always saving kittens and then leaving them behind.”  She picks up the box of kittens and takes them to the local shelter.

So, that’s the scene.  It starts off with a conflict that only one of them can win.  Things escalate, beat by beat, as she tries to get him to sign the papers and he tries various ways to get out of doing just that.  She persists, he resists, and eventually she the emerges the winner.

Now obviously a scene would have more details and information in it, but I found this simplistic example to be a good refresher on how to move conflict in a scene.  I’m going to go back to the scene I was just working on to see if I can actually pull out the beats and see the escalation.  I’m hoping so, but not confident.

So, what would you have done with Captain Cosmos and Sally from HR?  Feel free to share your ideas in the comments or to provide us with another set of characters we could do some improv with in another post.

3 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Beat Refresher

  1. So the biggest thing I remember about beats is that they represent changes in behavior that escalate in an attempt to achieve the scene goal (asking/yelling/punching or asking/weeping/jumping off a cliff).
    If that’s the case, the behaviors are:
    1) Sally grabs his arm and asks.
    He deflects.
    2) Sally again grabs his arm and asks, a tad more insistently.
    He pulls her aside and attempts to play on her sympathy.
    Sally’s behavior doesn’t represent an escalation, but his does.
    3) Sally hands him a pen and promises to be out of his way.
    He tosses the pen away.
    Her behavior, again, doesn’t feel like an escalation to me, his is a small escalation.
    4) She rolls her eyes, hands him another pen.
    He whines.
    Her behavior remains unchanged. I’d argue his actually de-escalates.
    5) She tells her boss needs them by EOD and that he’s had a month now.
    He kisses her.
    Her behavior is unchanged, but his is a HUGE escalation.
    6) She threatens him obliquely with a sexual harassment charge.
    He signs.
    If you were depicting this as a two-line chart, hers would be flat all the way to #6, then spike. His would be level 1, level 2, level 2.5, level 2, huge spike to level 8, maybe, and then level 0 (capitulation).
    I generally escalate my characters’ behaviors in tandem, but this makes me realize that one can rely on persistence while the other dances around.
    Good stuff!Thanks!

    • Glad you enjoyed it Jeanne. I’d love to hear some thoughts about ways Sally could escalate as well. Mentally I see her getting more and more frustrated.p, but that’s not really on the page here.

  2. Oh, this sounds like a lot of fun! I’ve always been intrigued by writer-improv games, like the Letter Game (that produced Cecelia and the magic chocolate pot stories).

    If each person secretly comes up with a character, I think you get a much bigger bang when the two random worlds collide (possibly). So, let me take a couple of random characters. I’ve got Ivanhoe in my bag, so let’s say Character One is a King Arthur-like figure who has just grumpily woken up from his centuries-long nap. The second I’m taking from the textbook I’m teaching next period: “My party starts at three.” It’s a teen girl who is having a birthday party, and is bound and determined to get the best guest of all: King Arthur! Oh, this does have some potential. (-: At least for me!

    I really wonder what other people would come up with if given the hints “Ivanhoe” and “My party starts at three.”

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