word craft




When I was a high school upper­class­man and had already com­mit­ted to a life in the­atre (as only an ado­les­cent can do) I was an avid read­er of Harold Clur­man, the high­ly influ­en­tial New York direc­tor, and crit­ic. I also read anoth­er crit­ic (Pulitzer Prize win­ner) Wal­ter Kerr, whose book, How Not to Write a Play, I devoured. 

How Not to Write a PlayImbed­ded in their under­stand­ing of the the­ater was the notion of “beats,” a kind of rhyth­mic struc­ture that made, they said, for good the­atre. It was the sum total of these beats that cre­at­ed the plot. 

In essence, these “beats,” move the plot for­ward by cre­at­ing spe­cif­ic moments of char­ac­ter rev­e­la­tion, achieve­ment, or under­stand­ing. Such ticks, all in all, cre­ate a plot in which all the char­ac­ters evolve towards a full res­o­lu­tion of the play’s basic conflict.

Now, when I went on to Anti­och Col­lege, and was allowed in my fresh­man year to take a course in play­writ­ing, you may be sure I jumped at the opportunity. 

My pro­fes­sor, Paul Tre­ich­ler, (who was influ­en­tial in devel­op­ing region­al the­atre in Amer­i­ca) had a sin­gu­lar approach to teach­ing play­writ­ing. He cre­at­ed a form that we stu­dents were required to fill out in which we were to break down the plays we were attempt­ing to write into scenic “beats.” Even for a one-act play, there might be thir­ty beats. 

These “beats,” that my teacher required were no dif­fer­ent than what Clur­man and Kerr saw as essen­tial to nar­ra­tive structure. 

It should come as no sur­prise that I was hap­py to adopt this sys­tem to write the plays I was attempt­ing to create. 

Jump ten years lat­er. I gave up writ­ing plays but turned to write books for young people. 

But so embed­ded in me was that sys­tem of writ­ing, and cre­at­ing nar­ra­tives for nov­els, that I still used that sys­tem of beats. 

Indeed, the struc­ture of my nov­els is such that (at least in cre­ation) there are often short chap­ters. To be sure, at a cer­tain point those short chap­ters are often blend­ed, but they didn’t begin that way. 

I don’t believe there are rules for writ­ing. What­ev­er works for you—and pro­duces good writing—is all you need. That’s the way I found my rules. 

I, as a very young writer, found my way using that the­atri­cal “beat” sys­tem. So it was that Richard Jack­son, my long-time edi­tor, once said to me, “You have nev­er stopped writ­ing plays.” 

I am cur­rent­ly at work on a new nov­el and have not been hap­py with the way the plot has been unfold­ing. What did I do? I broke it down into its “beats” and estab­lished a nar­ra­tive move­ment that worked much better. 

The beat goes on.

6 thoughts on “Beats”

  1. Con­grats on the new nov­el! Any idea on the pub date or per­haps a work­ing title, so we can look for­ward to its launch?


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