Over the last couple of installments (here and here) I discussed structure as something that mostly takes care of itself if you manage the dramatic rhythms of your roleplaying session on a beat-by-beat basis. Now it’s time to break that down a bit.
Our first step is to nail down what we mean by a “beat.”
Like a lot of creative jargon, the word “beat” as it applies to storytelling varies by user and circumstance. In acting parlance, each change of thought or tactic within a block of dialogue represents a separate beat. In screenwriting the term more loosely encompasses any single significant story point. A brief scene may exist to convey only a single beat. Longer scenes contain several. Each turning point within a scene is a beat.
In the turning points terminology I’m slowly bashing about on my blog, beats fall into two main categories: dramatic and procedural.
A dramatic beat changes a character’s emotional condition. In fiction, a medium well equipped to depict characters’ inner lives, this change might be entirely internal. In more dramatic or visual media, including film, comics and roleplaying sessions, this must still find some sort of external expression, through dialogue if not by action.
- Tarzan falls in love with Jane.
- Wilson, feeling betrayed by House, distances himself from him.
- Despite Sam’s love for Brigid, he won’t play the sap for her.
A procedural beat alters the character’s status in regards to his external, physical goals.
- Tarzan rescues Jane from a crocodile.
- House rules out lupus as a possible cause for the patient’s symptoms.
- Sam lulls an armed Gutman into thinking he’s no threat to him, so he can call the cops as soon as he and Cairo leave the room.
Dramatic works like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Revolutionary Road or There Will Be Blood lean heavily, sometimes exclusively on dramatic beats. So do certain character-driven comedies, like Juno, Clerks, or Step Brothers.
In most of the genre material that roleplaying draws its inspiration from, procedural beats outnumber dramatic ones. See Star Wars, X-Files, the Conan and Sherlock Holmes cycles, and the Indiana Jones movies. Genres dominated by procedural beats include cyberpunk, espionage, horror, mysteries, super heroes, space opera, war, and the western. The older a piece of serial fiction, the more likely it is that dramatic beats disappear altogether.
Wherever possible, a piece that mixes dramatic and procedural beats dovetails the two, so that the character’s achievement of his external goals affects his inner emotional state, and vice versa. This enriches the emotional impact of the work, while at the same time making our analytical task of separating the two more difficult. The more elegantly constructed a work of fiction is, the harder it is to spot the construction.
In roleplaying terms, a beat is best defined as a single situation and its resolution. It typically breaks down into three parts:
- The situation is presented to the scene’s viewpoint character—in an RPG, this is a player character or characters.
- The character responds to the situation with an action intended to resolve it.
- The character either succeeds or fails.
Each component of a beat can be summed up as a question:
- What’s the problem?
- How does the character try to solve it?
- Does he succeed?
The resolution of one beat typically leads to a new situation, either immediately or after transitional material. In an RPG, transitions generally consist of GM narration.
The transition can be expressed as a fourth question:
4. Now what happens?
Procedural beats might be informational in nature:
- Situation: Martin Harvesson’s car breaks down.
- Response: Martin attempts to use his knowledge of mechanical repair to identify the cause of the breakdown.
- Resolution: Martin discovers that engine has been deliberately sabotaged.
- Situation: Unless he can get his car restarted, Martin is alone on a deserted road, known to be a haunt of degenerate cultists.
- Response: Martin attempts to use his mechanical repair ability to fix the car.
- Resolution: He finds that the car is too badly damaged to repair without replacement parts.
In action-oriented genres, fights serve as the archetypal procedural beat:
- Situation: Martin seeks help from the residents of a nearby farmhouse, only to be attacked by its degenerate occupant.
- Response: Martin fights back, using his wrench as a weapon.
- Resolution: Martin knocks out the farmer, and is now free to roam about his property.
Beats consisting of verbal conflicts between two characters may be procedural or dramatic. The character initiating the exchange is the petitioner; the one in a position to give him what he wants is the granter.
In a procedural dialogue beat, the hero wants something practical from a secondary character without being especially emotionally invested in the outcome. Almost invariably, the PC will be the petitioner, and an NPC the granter.
- Situation: Martin tries to convince a little girl he finds in the house to guess why her daddy might have attacked him. His tactic is to appear reassuring.
- Response: The girl’s resistance appears to be rooted in her fear of her father.
- Resolution: By promising to rescue her from the horrors of her father’s farm, Martin secures her cooperation. She tells him about the bad man in the goat mask who comes around whenever the moon is full.
Occasionally the PC might be trying to withhold information or some other practical consideration, becoming the granter, with an NPC as petitioner.
In a dramatic dialogue beat, one character pursues emotional power, which can be attained only by wresting an equally emotional concession of some kind from another. Here the PC might be the seeker of emotional power, or be the reactive character, attempting to retain emotional power.
- Situation: Ricky wants to establish his dominance over Williamson, which he will attempt by colorfully browbeating him in front of his employees.
- Response: Williamson rebuffs the browbeating by logically rebutting the accusations Ricky is making against him.
- Resolution: Withered by Ricky’s accusations, Williamson folds, establishing Ricky as the cock of the walk.
Next time, we’ll look at dramatic and procedural dialogue beats in action, by examining the famous conclusion of John Huston’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon.