The scene: A man and a woman are discussing the future of their relationship.
Man’s objective: He’s very upset because he fears that she wants to break up with him.
Woman’s obj: She realizes that she no longer loves him. However, she has some feelings for him, and she doesn’t want to hurt him. As gently as possible she’s breaking up with him.
The scene: A mortgage banker has just informed an applicant that her request for a loan has been denied.
Applicant’s obj: She’s fallen in love with a house that she desperately wants. She’s trying to convince the banker to process the loan.
Banker’s objective: This applicant’s credit report shows a history of delinquent payments, and she just can’t take a chance on her.
The scene: Two hosts of a party have just said good-bye to their last guest. It’s two o’clock in the morning.
Player one obj: This person’s exhausted and would like to go to bed now and leave the mess until tomorrow.
Player two obj: This person is wide-awake and wants to clean up everything and recap the events of the evening.
THE EMOTIONAL BEAT
Whereas description captures the outer world, inner responses in a scene give a reader access to intangible thoughts and feelings. In an attempt to appear objective, many firsthand writers omit character responses and their writing is spiritless. Emotions and insights are like the close-up shots in a film. Without them an audience feels disconnected, at too far a distance…
In narrative, a beat is the unit of the characters’ state of being which leads to the next unit. If you studied composition in school, you were taught to write essays and papers by the logical development of ideas. You were taught to have a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph, to develop your main idea, paragraph by paragraph, and to draw a conclusion at the end. The basic unit of development was the concept of each paragraph.
That’s not how you do it in narrative. Yes, as in exposition, you want a development of your subject by units. You don’t want everything to be a blur, a jumble. But in narrative, the basic unit of development is the beat, not the paragraph. So you have chapters, scenes and within the scenes, beats. Each beat is a micro-realization of the state of awareness of the feelings and thoughts of the characters, which evolve beat by beat by beat.
–Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story
THE TRUTH OF THE MOMENT
The job of the actor is to analyze the text for action and then live truthfully and fully under the imaginary circumstances of the play. To do the latter you must learn to recognize and act upon the truth of the moment, or that which is actually happening in the scene as you are playing it. An actor can very easily set in his mind exactly how a scene should be played. This is not the purpose of text analysis, nor is it desirable in terms of execution. The difficulty of executing an action lies in dealing with that which is actually happening in the other person. You can’t execute your action in general; you must stay in tune with the responses you are receiving. This requires a great deal of bravery due to the fact that you can never know exactly what is going to happen next. You must learn to embrace the moment and act on it according to your objective.