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Get the Beat

February 6, 2012

You’re getting better at writing scenes. You’ve learned to include brief bits of action to break up dialogue. Sometimes called “beats,” these actions can also serve as speaker attribution. But they also have purposes beyond the merely mechanical.

While I would never suggest you get stuck on finessing beats in your early drafts, I encourage you to focus on them during revision. The way you handle beats can make or break or scene, reveal you to be a pro or an amateur, and enliven or dull your writing.

How do you use beats? Take a close look at a scene or two in your work and find out. Using a highlighter or colored pen, mark all the beats and consider them in light of the following:

  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 affect pacing, and dilute the speech. I have read drafts so busy with action beats, the scenes are unintentionally comic. The writing creates a picture in my mind, but it’s a picture of frantic moving about! On the other hand, no beats at all might make the reader feel she is experiencing disembodied voices floating in space. As in all things, it’s about finding the right balance.
  1. What is the effect of beat placements or long versus short beats? A long beat could delay a character’s response and make her seem to hesitate without having to actually state she was reluctant to answer. Short or no beats can speed up a scene. Reading the scene out loud might help you detect when beats are enhancing or working against the rhythm you want to achieve.
  2. Does the action 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 the what is taking place in the scene, not merely because the author needs to break up the dialogue or attribute a piece of speech.
  3. 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, is boring. In my experience, writers who use these generic stage directions—and let me attest that many aspiring writers do—tend to overuse them. Use the “find” function in your word processing program to locate  “grin” and “nod” and the others. You might be surprised to see how you’ve made your characters into goofy bobble heads.
  4. Are your beats fresh? Early drafts are often full of clichés, because pat phrases come to us easily. There is no shame at all in that. Think of clichés as place markers, and root them out or replace them in revision. Are your characters merely dialing phones, lighting cigarettes, inhaling or exhaling, looking out windows, or doing similar routine things that anyone could do anywhere? Stale beats sap the energy from your writing.
  1. Do your beats reveal character or advance your story? Write beats that are specific to your characters and their circumstances. The generic beats described in #4 & 5 are not only stale and boring, they 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.

Mary Ann de StefanoMary Ann de Stefano is a writer, editor, and writing coach with 30 years of experience in publishing and writing consulting. She does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.

  1. February 6, 2012 9:36 am

    This is a great post, Mary Ann. You’ve done an excellent job of explaining the purpose of “beats” (I’ve never heard them called that, but I like it!) and how to use them effectively. I think I’ll be printing this for use later when I’m in the revision stage of a work.

  2. Mary Ann de Stefano permalink*
    February 6, 2012 10:35 am

    Thanks, Julie. Easier said than done, of course.

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