Telling Stories: Three beats

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.Raymond Chandler had a rule which is appropriately called Chandler’s Law.  When a writer has forced himself into a corner, have a man burst through the door with a gun in his hand.  Even if that turns out to be an absolute brain fart, the event is absolutely going to get the plot moving again, if for no other reason than the simple fact that having people burst in the door with guns generally changes the tenor of conversations at even the snootiest of events.  “I say, Fitzgerald, there’s a gentleman here with a firearm!  Do you believe he’s bitter over some tedious old affair that no one remembers?”

You might not be a fan of Chandler’s work, but he knew how to keep a story moving, and it leads nicely into the three-beat structure which I’ve been teasing for a couple of weeks without explaining.  Roleplaying scenes have a beat, a certain cadence and flow, and the three-beat rule is all about making sure that the scene keeps moving no matter what.  It’s about keeping things humming along at a decent pace without being breakneck, and thinking about scenes less in terms of “here is the one thing I am doing right now” and more in terms of “here are the actions and here’s why anyone should care.”

You frequently cannot, to be fair.

It’s easier when there aren’t many moving pieces to massage, if you can make it happen.

In a scene with two people, a single beat is one set of statements and response.  I talk, you talk.  If you’ve been paying attention, you know as well as anyone that there’s a sort of unspoken rule wherein other people have had enough time to read what your character said, think about it, formulate a response, and then type it out and hit Enter.  It’s a little longer when more people are involved, but there’s still a certain threshold wherein it seems increasingly obvious that the other person has gone away from the computer or, worse, started browsing Tumblr.

That cadence is the key, that steady forward motion and interaction.  When it goes flat, people get bored, but when one person is moving too fast the whole thing starts to fall apart.  So your goal, always, should be to keep that beat steady and forward.  One hit after the other.  And a scene, itself, should have a beat that it’s moving to.

A three-beat scene is just what it sounds like, and it’s one of the cores of making your roleplaying moving.  Simply put, if nothing’s happening after three beats, it’s time to move on.

That doesn’t mean that a man needs to burst in with a gun as soon as the third beat rolls around, but it means that you need to keep the conversation moving rather than just idly circling.  But it’s more than that.  Three beats works as both a superstructure as well as an internal structure.  The scenes you set up work best with three beats of roughly equal length, as well – a setup, an intensification, and a resolution.  Legend of the Five Rings laid out its adventures in a similar format, but I prefer to use the idea of beats simply because it’s a bit more universal than the aforementioned game’s challenge-focus-strike.

For example, let’s say you have a plot you want to run wherein a character gets injured and needs to be healed via esoteric means.  Three beats suggest themselves immediately.  First comes the injury, the diagnosis, and the research into how the character can be healed.  Next, the complications, the challenge of finding what’s necessary.  Lastly, the actual process of healing that character and the fallout which results from whatever methods the characters settled upon.

Yes, you might not stop the sacrifice, but you have to feel like you at least had the shot at it.

You need enough time to react, but you also need enough time to feel threatened.

Individually, you can see how this breaks down.  The inciting scene consists of the injury, the realization of its severity, and the collapse.  Then you move on to a scene in which the character is examined, the initial attempts at solving the problem fail, and it becomes clear that there needs to be more done.  Some of these scenes can be short, but they can all be handled directly, and realizing that they need to flow forward gives you an idea of how to force things to keep moving.

Rather than dwelling on a given moment, if three beats pass in a given part of the scene without anything new developing, move forward.  Push things onward.  Keep things acting at a cadence whilst also leaving enough space for people to react.  It’s not about pure speed so much as it’s focused around keeping a pace that is neither headlong nor conservative.  Things keep changing, but they change at a managed pace.

Using a three-beat structure is, of course, partly a matter of preference.  But it also means that conversations focus on productivity rather than slow setup, which is only interesting when it’s, well, interesting.  If a scene takes twenty minutes of walking, it should be because something interesting is happening during the beats of that scene.  Once you start looking at your plans in terms of beats, you recognize the differences between quieter scenes that are still eventful and stuff that’s just filler.

I’ve said before roleplaying is not the same as storytelling, but the fundamental methods are similar.  You have to keep people engaged and keep things moving, not circling around the same plot points over and over until everyone just wants things to be over.  Bad roleplaying either moves too fast for people to react, or (as I’ve seen far more often) too slowly for anyone to keep paying attention.  Both drive people out of the setting and cause unpleasant ramifications when you try to keep interest over a longer period of time; if you can’t react, you feel irrelevant, and if you’re too bored, you just won’t show up for the next round.

Keep the beat.  Make it sing.

Next week, I want to talk about making satisfying starts to whatever roleplaying plotlines you’re exploring.  The week after that, let’s talk about weddings, and all the drama that can be mined out of them – which isn’t always the same as love.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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