Beat Marking: What Prose Editors Can Learn from Theater and Scripts

There is no singular right or wrong way to approach editing, which is why there is immense creativity and personalized approaches. It also means that editors can pull inspiration from a wide variety of sources and mediums. I’d like to draw attention to theater and scripts as a powerful source for improving your editing skills with plot, characterization, and dialogue.

Scripts don’t describe a scene in elegant prose but instead rely on sparse stage directions, short setting descriptions, and powerful dialogue. This restrained form is a great asset. For example, several theater companies might put on Hamlet, but each production will look totally different. The directors, designers, and actors have all read the same text with wildly different creative interpretations based on their own experience and taste.

Think of your reader as the director of the book. Although a novel or memoir will have a more detailed description, there will still be ambiguity. If a reader gets to fill in or “direct” those details and their overall reading experience, they will be able to more actively participate in the story. Their interpretation of the manuscript is wholly theirs, making it much more enjoyable and helping them immerse in the story.

Beat Marking: The Best Technique to Steal from Script Analysis

While not every script follows a linear or three-act structure (especially scripts that push against white, western writing standards), there are still “beats” in each one. Beats are the moment of a change in a scene; they are the beginning and end of an action. A beat mark might be the breath someone takes to recenter themselves in an argument or the long moment of silence as someone processes news of a loved one’s death. The biggest beats are entire scene transitions, where stagehands come out to rearrange the set, the lighting changes, and the actors take a new position—all of which indicate the passage of time. These are comparable to the white space on the page between the close of one chapter and the opening of the next. There is a musicality to them that helps control the pacing of a scene.

Most of a script is dialogue, which means it must be good enough to captivate an audience, but good dialogue is notoriously hard to write. Beat marking helps identify when a character is changing tactics to get what they want or when they are changing as a person altogether. It can help identify when character motivations or actions aren’t lining up logically or when something is missing. By analyzing the script in this way, actors and directors glean important information about what drives the character, what mannerisms they have, etc. It requires reading into the subtext and playing it out on stage because there are no long descriptions about a character’s profile, especially none that an audience can read. The front matter of a script might tell you someone’s age, their occupation, and their relationship status with another character, but that’s probably it. Every bit of characterization that comes from the text is written into their actions and speech, which makes a great resource for editors and writers who need to practice the “show don’t tell” rule.

Actors often mark the beats in their script by hand. You could try this exercise in the manuscript you’re editing to get a sense of when things change and the characterization of each character. It will force you to pay attention to cause and effect and what events trigger the next character choice. You’ll be able to feel out what the pace actually feels like to read and what could be improved in the manuscript to make the beats flow better.

Here is a more in-depth guide to script analysis and marking beats to get started. Happy editing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.