Mystery, suspense and crime novels are often praised as “riveting” “page-turners” that keep their readers up long into the night with their break-neck pacing and plot twists and cliffhangers that make it impossible to put the book down.
A couple months ago, I spent some time with The Couple Next Door, a much praised novel written by a Toronto teacher whose reviews came with all the right words. Like Gone Girl, Girl on a Train and others of its ilk, it just races.
I read it in about three or four days, then spent a couple hours dissecting it, going through chapter by chapter looking at its beats.
A beat is basically action and reaction: what’s happening, how does it change things?
If you’ve read the book, you know it’s about a couple who can’t find a babysitter, so attend a dinner party at their neighbour’s with their baby monitor, only to find their infant daughter missing when they get home.
Here’s a sample of the beat sheet I wrote:
- Anne & Marco at dinner party
- Babysitter cancelled, but neighbour allows no children, so baby is home alone
- Marco flirting with neighbour, Cynthia
- Anne depressed, unhappy
- Anne discovers baby missing
I did this for each of the chapters, noting when the action stopped and when it accelerated, how quickly one plotline was resolved or how quickly it morphed into something even more complicated.
What I wrote was a reflection of the book’s pacing: when things raced and when things took their time. I was surprised to see how often the author took a small break to remind readers of what had happened, who had motive and what was at stake emotionally. Surprised mostly because when I was reading it, I felt it raced with non-stop action. A pattern quickly emerged: these breaks in the action often consisted of characters reflecting on what had gone on. And, more importantly, how they felt about it. What it meant to them or how it affected them.
If you have a book that you’d like your own book to be like, try writing a beat sheet for it. See what’s happening inside that story – whether the action is incremental, when the author pauses, what form those pauses take. That kind of analysis can hold some interesting surprises.
When you’re revising, try a quick beat sheet for your manuscript. (When you’re setting up your story, it’s worth doing a beat sheet as well. It’ll help you see when you’ve got conflict and when you’re spinning your wheels!) In revision, write out your beats, then draw a little line out from that beat – the more intense the scene, the longer the line. Take a look at the peaks and valleys of the resulting lines. Is there variety there? While it might sound like a bestseller to keep the tension at 10, readers need a break to digest and to connect.
When you start in on the next draft, try building in a little space and see what it does to a chapter. Please, don’t ground things to a halt. Avoid being repetitive. But think about how you can deepen your story with a little reflection on the action and how your characters might grow and develop – aka, stand up to the break-neck speed of the action – if they were given a little breather to take it all in.
(Photo courtesy of SplitShire)