Beats is a Method acting term for breaking down the units of action in a scene. Beats can shift word to word. “Yeah, yeah” can have a beat change in the midst of the utterance if the first word’s intentions differ from the second (say surprise versus resignation). A single word, such as “fantastic” can contain a beat if the melody of the word changes in the midst of its utterance (say from celebration to irony between the syllables). Most often when an actor marks the beats on a script, she’s indicating shifts in emphasis, new tactics and objectives to be explored.
What is it I want?
What is it my characters want? Here, now, overall?
For purposes of character-driven literary writing, I prefer the expression “tonal shifts” to beats because in fiction the shifts are everywhere, not just in the dialogue and scene work. Yes, the most prominent example of beats would occur in what Joan Silber calls classic time, or scene work that relies on linearity, present time being, subtextual dialogue, and staging. Cassavetes’s Faces is a prime example of following the arc of the dialogue to understand what all the shifts in tone mean. And although this article focuses on dialogue within classic time tonal shifts, we writers have a host of tonalities at our disposal: those provided by short interior landscapes, alternating points of view of the authorial voice, varying discourses that inform the narrative, descriptive pauses, essayist ruminations, stillness, and the habitual tense, tunneling down from a repetitive ongoing reality to one where those repetitions are about to change with the gravity of a very defamiliarized scene or half scene. All of these craft techniques add to and shift the ongoing narrative flow in arresting ways. Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin labeled the competing voices or shifting tonalities in a novel as “heteroglossia,” a synergy of disparate discourses (those of medicine, law, factory workers, the police procedural, etc.) combining to create an artistic whole.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” has a very theatrical frame, allowing the narrative to escalate, shift its emotional levels, and open up on a series of dramatic reversals, reveals, and a haunting end beat.
In a way, it’s like a Cassavetes film. Okay, that might be a stretch, but follow my impulse.
A young estranged couple, Shukumar and Shoba, who have just lost a baby, have grown distant from each other. They eat in separate rooms. He spends evenings in his home office, allegedly working on his unfinished dissertation while secretly reading novels. She attends yoga classes to remove any vestiges of pregnancy: “Her stomach was flat again, her waist narrow before the flare of her hips, the belt of her robe tied in a floppy knot.” Both suffer depression. Suddenly they’re thrown together: planned power outages, due to neighborhood construction, create a newfound closeness in the couple. They share a series of candlelit dinners and engage in a game of withhold and reveal.
Under the dim glimmer of this new setting, Shoba suggests an unveiling: let’s tell each other something we’ve never said before. As night follows night, their stories escalate. Her stories: when they first started dating, she looked in his address book to see if he’d written her in; the time his mother visited, she lied. She wasn’t working late in the office—she went out for a drink with Gillian; she never liked the one poem that he published in a literary magazine: it was too “sentimental.” His stories: after their first dinner date he forgot to pay the waiter; the wedding vest she bought him as an anniversary gift he exchanged for cash; while she was pregnant he tore a sexy picture out of a fashion magazine and carried it around with him. These remembrances build to greater personal affronts, but what’s fascinating about their shared narratives is what isn’t said. What do Shoba and Shukumar have in common, what are their shared values? Idle conversations about vests, pictures, and poems, appear to be the wrong melody, the tone wonderfully slant.
Ultimately, Shoba shocks Shukumar with a hurting truth that spins the story with an emotional deflection or shift. Over their last dinner, she admits to needing time alone, and how on her way home from work she signed a lease for an apartment on Beacon Hill. Shukumar is “sickened,” knowing that the previous nights confessions were but a subterfuge. They even made love the night before, but all along she had been “preparing for a life without him.” Beat.
Shukumar is now driven by a new objective: get even, hurt her.
Lahiri’s choices have been grounded in tonalities (a desire to be playful, personal, and private) and narrative design (an advanced variation on “truth or dare” one-upmanship). Two characters were connecting but one of the two was holding back, repressing exposition: the fact that she was planning on leaving him. The second character—hurt, pained—responds to an act of perceived cruelty with a more vicious reveal, a much harsher tone, redirecting the moment back on itself.
All fiction, to some extent, relies on repressed exposition, withholding moments of narrative telling/insights from the reader. Think of how different Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” would be if the opening sentence were, “Jig wasn’t sure whether or not she wanted an abortion.” In “A Temporary Matter,” Lahiri establishes Shoba’s independence early on. Shukumar admires how she plans ahead: “It was typical of her. She was the type to prepare for surprises, good and bad. If she found a skirt or a purse she liked she bought two. She kept the bonuses from her job in a separate bank account in her name.” Because of Shukumar’s limited point of view, Lahiri is able to withhold the reveal of Shoba’s hunt for her own space. In a sense, her secretly looking for a separate apartment is an extension of her separate bank account, her desire for independence and privacy.