We have Netflix to thank for a very important style of storytelling. It had already been around in some shows, such as Firefly, or some of the crime dramas, but Netflix is what has made it mainstream—the bingeable episodic story. As I mentioned, it was already around. Take the graphic Novel. A Graphic Novel might be a twice yearly release of a comic book, compiling six months worth of stories into one place, but aren’t we all thankful to be able to sit and read a perfect bound story in one sitting? Each episode/comic might be standalone, but you knew when you bought it, that there would be a cohesive arc across the entire Graphic Novel. 

Until Netflix, the vast majority of shows suffered under the burden of needing to capture the attention of their audience each and every week. Every episode of Star Trek needed to ensure if this was the ONLY episode you watched, you wouldn’t be lost and you’d know who each and every character was. Not any more. Take the Netflix Original series for the Marvel Knights such as Daredevil and Luke Cage. If you were young enough to pull it off, you could watch the entire season in one night. I was thankful each broke down into two separate arcs under the umbrella of a single story that would tie it all in together at the end. They took lessons from Graphic Novel storytelling, and told a full year of stories told in a single season. They could take their time with an episode in the middle with a ton of exposition, because they knew they had your attention, and you wouldn’t be at that episode without having watched the others. You were in the middle of your binge, and perhaps needed an escape from the excitement, (or relief from the adrenaline rush of the Hallway Scene in Daredevil Season 1, Ep. 2.)

Why do I bring all this up? Because of this, we now have “permission” to  use the same storytelling form. A novel can be episodic like the Netflix series, or the graphic novel. It was a form of storytelling I wanted to employ in Thrice. “If I was directing this book as a show, how would I break this down?” And so I kept that in mind when I outlined the book. Of course, rules and plans like this don’t always go according to the plan. But analyzing stories, and making plans are important, just as Sun Tzu said, (paraphrase) “Always make a plan, even though it will fall apart as soon as you get to the battlefield. But it’s the margin of the plan that prepares your mind for the battle.” Having a structural plan for my outline was important to me, and would provide the skeleton for the flesh of my outline to sit upon. And I’d like to think it’s the better for it, after these two and a half years of work I’ve put into it. 

When I wrote those five short stories I mentioned in my last post, I inadvertently discovered something about myself. I tend to switch beats every thousand words. Admittedly, a story beat is vague terminology. (And I think it is entirely different for every writer.) Those with history in the theater will say a beat is a “scene change” and a scene change is not designated by the script, but by when a new character enters, or exits—it occurs when the environment shifts. Other designations might be “when an answer to a question occurs.” I base my own “Beats” on “Something that can be written out in a Bullet.” And that bullet has to be something defining. Take the following beats of chapter one of my upcoming novel, Thrice.

  • Jovan beats man senseless
  • Jovan escorted to holding cell to await judgement.
  • Jovan confronts Medicae who didn’t save his sisters life.

The above chapter is 3000 words long. And each of those beats take up about 1000 words of the chapter. It has three beats.

I mentioned those short stories. They were each seven thousand words long. And each had seven beats, or turns. When I discover this, I was then able to better outline the novel I was ramping myself up for. I also discovered that my chapter lengths in long form (in this case epic fantasy) tended to run between 3500-5000 a chapter. (5000 word chapters were rare, and often edited down. But they too had 1000 word beats.)

Because of this, I was then able to look back and map out the total beats of that first draft I had written. I looked at which beats counted as “conflict” such as a fight, argument, or some other form of tension. In doing so, I also noticed where my story was lagging. Adding in a beat of tension to a few chapters where I felt more was needed, was easier to do.

I discovered I could go a step further. When I set about to challenge myself with the writing of Thrice, I made the conscious decision to write it as a much faster paced book than the Epic I had completed. I wanted a book that sat on the shortest edges of fantasy (70k words) that was paced more like a commercial beach read, like Dresden Files, or a suspense novel. This meant I had to challenge myself to write shorter chapters. I was going to write chapters that averaged 2500 words. And what did I find? By choosing to write shorter, I tended to be more concise. When I got long winded in a chapter, it might push up against 3500 words. And each beat still sat about 1000 words total. This meant I was able to create two long beats, and one short “drop” at the end of each chapter that kept the pacing of the book falling forward. 

Now, why are these beats so important? For one, if you can chart your own beats, you can better outline your work. It helps you plan out how things will go down, and helps you look at the story from a birds eye view and better break down where your story is lacking. The second reason is as a means of keeping your readers interested. With my 2500 worked chapters ,with a short “drop” at the end, chances are, I’m going to hold the attention of a reader. After two beats, they might say “I could put a bookmark in the book now and comeback later.” But then they leaf a couple pages to discover they’re only five minutes from finishing the chapter? They’re probably going to go that far, at least. I’d love for them to keep reading, but even if they stop, it’s much easier to pick a book back up and start at the top of a chapter. And if they forgot their bookmark, they can find the chapter by memory. 

So, what kind of beats do you write in? And how long are they? Look at the first few chapters of your latest draft, and chart out the beats. Write those beats out in bullet form on a sheet of paper. Then get out some color pencils. Highlight those what have tension, or even full conflict with various colors. Does your chapter one or two not have any? If your readers who have given you feedback, have felt the first three chapters didn’t hold their interest like they should, where do you feel could be the best spot to drop a beat in to pick it up? This week, save a draft of your novel, and try to put a beat or two into the work that perhaps wasn’t there before, and then read those chapters, and see if that helped. Let me know in the comments how that went, and how you like to measure your beats. 

~ Andrew