Don't miss a freebie, deal, or new release.Join Now!
banner with headshot and name

Lightbulb moments

Writers who talk about structure often reference the concept of story beats. Like beats of music in a song, story beats are the little moments that are strung together to make a novel or screenplay.

But I never quite understood how long a story beat was until I started reading STORY by Robert McKee. He’s the first author I’ve read that clearly defined it, and he basically said that a beat is one unit of cause and effect. Or action/reaction. Which made me think of Dwight Swain’s motivation-reaction units. Hmm.

In other words, every time someone says or does something and the other character reacts to it, that’s a beat. Or the character sees, feels, hears, tastes, or smells something and reacts to it with thought, action, or both.

Lightbulb moment.

I love how the more books I read, the more concepts overlap and gel together to solidify an idea I hadn’t yet grasped.

Another one that I didn’t think I’d seen in quite this way before—but, of course, the next day I saw the concept mentioned in Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES—was the idea of taking the character from one state (or charge) to its opposite. For example, when we talk about character arc, we’re taking our character from unloved to loved, or afraid of fire to able to run through fire, or risk-averse to daring.

So – to +, or the reverse. Boiling it down to two opposing charges really clarified things for me. Such a simple but powerful idea that should make it easier to put the character arc into words and see quickly if it’s really a change.

McKee believes we should not only do this for the whole story, but for each scene, sequence (a string of scenes with its own climax, like a chapter), and act.

I can envision + and – signs alongside my goal/conflict/disaster notes for each scene, and going through my outline when I’m done with the first draft to make sure I flipped the character’s circumstances or way of thinking. Somehow it’s easier when you break it down to employed/unemployed, married/divorced, safe/unsafe, sad/happy, hot/cold, poor/rich.

I’m only on chapter two of STORY, so I expect to have more lightbulb moments along the way.

Had any of your own lately that you’d like to share?

Photo credit: LAPTOP IDEA © Yanik Chauvin |

Tell your friends!


  1. Curtis



    Whew. I’m glad you’re liking STORY. I’m glad it is working for you.

    I agree with you about McKee’s action/reaction, Snyder’s charge – to + and Swain’s motivation-reaction units. I made the same connection you did when I read Swain’s book. I think all three are talking about the same thing.

    Scrivener has been my latest light bulb. Spent the last two days working through it. Most amazing program that manages words I have ever seen. It is the only program I have seen that functions the way the person who uses it thinks.

    Keith has solved the most difficult problems for the random, inductive thinker and the deductive, structured thinker with the same program. Blew my mind.

    You do not have to bend yourself to fit it. Other than pushing the requisite button it can be shaped to fit you the writer. I mean it blew my mind.

    I fiddled with it so much and for so long and in so many different ways today, I actually got it to crash. 🙂

    • Reply

      Hey, Curtis. I wondered if this one would bring you out of hiding. 😉

      I’m so glad you’re finding the joy and wonder of Scrivener! The flexibility of it is what I love so much too. Keith is brilliant, for sure.

      Did you report the bug/crash? Have fun playing! I just upgraded my MacBook to a shiny new Pro and have spent the last two days transferring files, apps, and settings. Love it!

      • Curtis


        I did.

        When Scrivener crashes it puts up a screen with two Tabs. 1. for reporting what you were doing. Tab 2. contains the sequence of code at the crash. Then you push send.

        Nothing like a new Mac.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Kathy! I know I need to go back and reread some of the early books I picked up. I’ll bet a lot of this was in there and I didn’t notice because everything was so new that I was overwhelmed.

  2. Reply

    Very interesting! I’ve been brainstorming a short NaNo novel about a watersprite. Your post has me thinking that after he or she is banished from the underwater kingdom and has spent the whole book trying to be allowed back, he’ll decide to stay on land when given the choice. That feels better to me. Now I just need a reason…

    I swear being pregnant has killed my creative side. It’s like my body is too busy creating a little human to work on anything else. I’ll be lucky if I can get this novel outlined, but it’s just a little something for fun. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Conflict theory « The Edited Life

  4. Reply

    I read McKee’s story about two years ago and actually outlined the whole book so I could quickly refer to its message. I agree, it was among the best books I ever read on Story – and exactly how conflict , moving our character from positive to negative and back, the change that must occur in a story — all clearly spelled out with examples from great movies. I’ll never watch a movie the same way again either!. I couldn’t put this book down.

    • Reply

      Thanks for bringing me back to this post, Linda. I was just looking for something in SAVE THE CAT last week and came upon this idea again. I had forgotten about it somewhere along the way and need to get back to it. 🙂

  5. Reply

    Isn’t it interesting how over time McKee’s + / – charge idea has slipped into the gray matter and informs our writing.
    Really helps dialogue. It ceases to be liner.


    Him: I’m going to the store. +
    Her: O.K +

    Becomes this:
    Him: I’m going to the store. +
    Her: Looking like that? –

    Her: The marcus aurelius has compromised the shift lever in the dynamic over drive and stalled out the elliptical input. +

    Him: Huh? –

    Push/push back

    Now, the liner is easy to spot. After three pages of this ( +) , then this (+) , then three more like the last two (+), the writer might need to at least have the bad guy pop his mark at the Ice Cream shop. Finally, a ( -, +) combination that creates tension. Tension has to come from somewhere after a string of +, +, +,. Or, there is no story. I think +, +, + Or, -, -, -, are lists not story. It is also not life. Nothing goes on one + after another. I think this +/- is key to any kind of writing, even prose.

    P.S. I’ve spared you the rest of this idea development. 🙂

    • Reply

      Nice examples, Curtis, and something I definitely need to keep in mind more when I’m writing. It seems like every time I take in some new aspect of writing craft, I lose a few others. 😉

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.