On learning genre beats in story telling

Reading books to learn their beats is a surreal exercise. I’m currently 3/4 of the way through the second paranormal noir thriller I’ve read in two weeks, and my brain has been lining up the scenes of each to see where they match. By the time I’ve hit my goal of reading ten of these, I’ll have a strong sense of the genre and hopefully be able to write my own.

It’s a rather abstract thing, to notice that the main character briefly making out with a werewolf she thinks she hates is the same beat as the PI’s cop friend taking care of him after his ass was beaten to a pulp. But I can see it, and I’m debating watching a bunch of old noir mystery films to take the same kind of notes.

I think the key to doing it well is that people who don’t understand story structure don’t notice the similarities, and anyone trying to study it has to ask if a scene definitely is a certain beat. I’m sure there’s more to it that I haven’t figured out yet, the stuff that’s particular to paranormal fiction, to protagonists of a certain gender (I’d love to find a book that plays around with that).

Beats are important to a genre; if they aren’t done well, you get one of two responses, with readers complaining of it being “formulaic,” or even worse, beats were missed and the story didn’t feel right and failed to entertain.

One thing I’ve noticed and will be paying attention to is that the main characters are some variation of irrational and just plain stupid about some things. In the first book of The Dresden Files, Harry Dresden made a couple of incredibly stupid decisions about what he did and did not tell the police, which contrasts so much with all the other ways that he’s smart that I just could not believe his reasoning for it. In Night Shift by Lillith Saint Crow, Jill Kismet is both batshit insane and an idiot, but she’s been so consistently crazy and stupid that I’ve come to believe the ridiculous decisions she makes. I’m curious to see if this pattern holds in the next book I read.

It’s a fun game to break down these stories and figure out how they work, but I may never again be able to just casually read this genre without thinking about their structure. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when I was younger this genre was definitely a fun form of non-challenging escapism. I may have to find a new form of brain junk food.

Feature image: Photo by Elti Meshau on Unsplash