Getting the “Beat” Right

I certainly didn’t know that a ‘beat’ is a brief bit of action which is included in dialog.  I thought it was a no-name, clever way of attributing some words or thoughts to a character without having to include ‘s/he said’.  For example:

John scowled.  “I don’t agree with that!”

Julia continued to peel the onions.  “I know you don’t, but in your heart, you know I’m right.”

In the April issue of The Florida Writer, Mary Ann de Stefano, the editor, gave a one-page lecture on the use of beats.

Mary Ann de Stefano

She said:  “The way you handle beats can enliven a scene when they reflect a character’s emotions and desires in fresh ways or dull your writing when they are used in a rote manner.” She suggested the following six tests of a writer’s use of beats:

  1. How often do you break up your dialogue with beats?  Do you sprinkle beats or lay them on with a heavy hand?  Too many beats can make dialogue unnecessarily busy, negatively affecting pacing, and overshadow the character’s speech.  On the other hand, no beats at all might make the reader feel she is experiencing disembodied voices floating in space.
  2. What is the effect of beat placements or long vs short beats?  A long beat could delay a character’s response and make her seem to hesitate without actually having to state that she was reluctant to answer.  Short beats or no beats can speed up a scene.
  3. Does the action beat come out of the character’s need – or the author’s?  If your character is going to get up out of her chair and move around the room, she needs to do it for reasons arising naturally from what is taking place in the scene, not merely because the author needs to break up the dialogue or attribute a piece of speech.
  4. Do you use the same beats repeatedly? Do your characters frequently pause, nod, shake their head, stare, shrug, glance, grin, smile, chuckle, laugh, wince, raise eyebrows, blink, tear up or sigh?  Please tell them to stop.  Any repetition in your work, unless carefully and consciously done well for effect, can be boring.
  5. Are your beats fresh?  Early drafts are often full of clichés, because pat phrases come to us easily.  Think of clichés as place markers, and root them out or replace them in revision.  Are your characters merely dialling phones, lighting cigarettes, inhaling or exhaling, looking out windows, or doing similar routine things that anyone could do anywhere?  Stale beats can sap the energy form your writing.
  6. Do your beats reveal character or advance your story?  Write beats that are specific to your characters and their circumstances.  Generic beats are missed opportunities.  A well-written beat is  meaningful.  It can betray a deception, convey an unspoken understanding, or reveal an emotion or character trait.  Beats can show us the scene’s setting, build tension, create suspense, or provide comic relief.  Put them to work.

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