If you read comments in online writing groups, listen to podcasts, or read articles or blogs on the writing process, you've likely heard authors talk about beats.
A writer might say of a novel she's planning, “I've written out the beats.” An author giving advice might mention the importance of beats.
If you're not quite certain what a “beat” includes, you're not alone. Having written multiple novels plus a book on story structure, it's embarrassing to admit I didn't really understand this word everyone was throwing around. Outlines, plot points, scenes, yes. “Beats,” no.
Happily, in this episode of How Story Works, author and story expert Lani Diane Rich explains beats.
First, she talks about a narrative unit, which is a series of events that has meaning. So a beat, a scene, and a story are all narrative units. Second, a beat is the smallest narrative unit. So scenes are made up of beats. Stories are made up of scenes.
Lani also illustrates exactly what a beat is and what it does, which is what I found most helpful. Using a scene from a work in progress, she pauses after every beat to discuss why it's a beat and what it accomplishes or shows.
I hope this helps you plan or revise your own scenes and stories.