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[This is the first in a series describing the basic building blocks of narrative, as they appear in the beat analysis system underlying Hamlet’s Hit Points. (Seek context here.) Look for the series to appear mostly Friday-ish.]

Narratives exert a hold on us by exciting our hopes and fears. They accomplish their effects by arranging its moments, or beats, in a series of setups and resolutions. By becoming aware of these patterns in other narratives, we can sharpen the impact of the group-made, spontaneous storylines that arise in our roleplaying sessions.

The two most essential story elements, as seen in our Hamlet breakdown, are suspense and dramatic beats. Both of them engage our emotions by inviting us to fear bad outcomes for the characters we identify with, and to feel a vicarious sense of victory when they achieve good results. Suspense beats revolve around physical jeopardy and the pursuit of external goals. Dramatic beats place our heroes in emotional conflict; their goals are internal. Genre narratives tend to be procedural, built largely or exclusively on suspense beats. Character dramas rely, eponymously enough, on dramatic beats.

Both types of narratives are supported by informational beats. These set up the beats that evoke our hopes and fears, by providing us with the context to care about the central characters’ goals and understand how they’re pursuing them.

Just as the two primary beat types appear in a narrative rhythm of up and down moments, of victories and defeats, the three informational beats create their own patterns of conceals, teases, and reveals.

A question beat introduces a mystery we want to see solved. House’s patient of the week displays an inexplicable new symptom. The Batman wonders where the Joker is hiding. Miss Marple notices that the young heiress appears to be hiding something. As information-seeking creatures, unanswered questions make us uneasy. This frustration serves as an emotional down beat.

A reveal provides information, orienting us and reducing our sense of confusion. Thirteen discovers that the patient was living in a dry cleaning plant. Batman finds distinctive soil samples at the site of the Joker’s latest murder spree. Miss Marple finds a letter hinting at a blackmail plot.

Reveals often register as up beats, but if the news they bring is bad for our sympathetic characters, our satisfaction at knowing may be tempered or overwhelmed by our concern for them.

Reveals are most satisfying when they answer questions we’ve already been prompted to pose. Think of this as a set-up / punchline structure; another example is the greater elation we feel during a suspense or dramatic up beat if it was preceded by a previous defeat.

When not preceded by a previous question, reveals can feel like tedious exposition. Dollops of information we know will be important later, but which we haven’t been emotionally keyed into, quickly tax our attention. These bare reveals can be made more engaging by folding them into dramatic scenes.

The third information beat is the pipe beat. The term comes from a screenwriting metaphor, which compares the act of concealing information which becomes important later to installing plumbing beneath the floorboards of a house. It surreptitiously plants information which at the time seems tangential, or to relate to some other point. Later its true relevance will be surprisingly revealed.

Next week: information beats and roleplaying.


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