The Four Movements of the Story Beats

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By James R. Hannibal

In a previous blog I told you about story beats—an author’s path through the woods. You don’t have to stay on the path, but knowing where it lies gives you the freedom to wander. These story beats are a well-documented component of the human psyche. I believe they were placed within us by a loving Creator to help us connect with His story.

Among the story beats, some are foundational, like base drum beats. Others form the eighth notes and sixteenth notes of the melody. But all are arranged in four movements, each with their own beginning, middle, and end. This blog will only scratch the surface of movements and beats. To go deeper, please join me for a discussion of story creation at this year’s ACFW conference.

Movement 1: Orphan

We connect with stories that begin with an isolated hero—separated in some way. Does this sound familiar? It should (see Isaiah 53:6). Our separation had a backstory, just as all heroes have a backstory when they arrive page one. It should come as no surprise that readers like to dive in at this moment.

The orphan stage establishes your character’s norms, needs, and desires. For example, in The Gryphon Heist, Talia Inger is a rookie spy isolated by failure. Her dreams do not match the reality she faces. She is also a former foster kid struggling with bitterness over her father’s death. On the plot side, Talia desires an Agency post at Moscow Station. On the character side, Talia needs to let go of bitterness. She does not realize it, but she can only be whole if she learns to forgive.

Movement 2: Wanderer

A nudge, a knock at the door, or maybe a kick in the pants near the end of Movement 1 pushes our hero into the story. She goes wandering into a new world, a little disoriented.

For Talia, banished to the backwaters of Eastern Europe, her first mission is neither what she hoped nor what it seems. A security job protecting new technology rapidly escalates into investigating a bombing and stopping an attack on Washington D.C. Talia grasps for control. To gain her bearings she must depend on her civilian liaison, Adam Tyler, a man she’s regarded with disdain since the moment they met.

After testing our hero, Movement 2 both builds to a crescendo and descends into a darkness where change is wrought. Luke Skywalker falls into the bowels of the Death Star and finds his mettle. Perseus battles Medusa and wins her head. In the epic setting of the London Shard, Talia comes face to face with the source of her bitterness in the form of a lost memory. In the same scene, Tyler takes a bullet for her. This sacrificial act opens her heart to him.

Movement 3: Soldier

Change has been wrought. Our hero is a new creation, now able to take command of her situation—a soldier. Some call this seizing the sword. In The Gryphon Heist, Talia returns from London with the elite team of thieves she’ll use to head off the story’s mysterious villain. On the character side, she returns with new knowledge to aid her search for answers in her father’s death. But our hero’s transformation is ongoing. New trials lead to new epiphanies. The movement ends with a second crescendo. Talia identifies the shadow she’s been chasing, and identifies her father’s murderer. If she can catch him, she’ll have choice to make—kill or forgive.

Movement 4: Hero

The trials and boons of Movement 3 transformed our soldier into a hero, and now she’ll march to victory. She’ll finally run as one running to win the prize. Skywalker stops the Empire. Perseus gets the girl. Talia stops the villain’s attack and afterward makes her fated choice.

The true victory of Movement 4 is often not the victory our hero desired in Movements 1, 2, or 3. It is something more profound. For millennia, the story beats have led storytellers to this distinction, and as Christians, we know why. Victory does not come from gaining whatever we desired when our journey began. Real victory is found in the one true Savior who nudges us out of our orphaned state, leads us through our wandering, transforms us into soldiers, and brings us home as heroes.

The rhythmic beats of a story are arranged in four movements, each with their own beginning, middle, and end. @JamesRHannibal #ACFWBlogs #writing #amwriting Click To Tweet

Former stealth pilot James R. Hannibal is the author of the award-winning Nick Baron covert ops thrillers for adults and Section 13 mystery-fantasies for kids. His debut Christian spy thriller The Gryphon Heist arrives from Revell on 3 September.



Comments 1

  1. Thank you for this blog post. I have struggled with how to apply the structural beats to my character’s internal changes but I can relate to the Orphan, Wanderer, Soldier, and Hero. It helped me to find the external beats of her journey as well.

    (Looking forward to getting a website going soon)

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