August 15, 2013 by Jen Cudmore
When I first heard the term “beat” at a writers conference, I had no idea what it meant. No, the term has nothing to do with that magenta colored vegetable.
Beats, spelled with an “A”, are physical behaviors that help the reader actually see the conversation taking place. For example, shuffling feet, sipping coffee, shifting nervously.
They are not to be confused with attributes, such as “he said” or “she asked”.
Beats are used for:
- Varying the pace
- Better explaining the situation
- Better expressing an emotion
- Tying the dialogue to the setting
Words of Caution:
+ Don’t describe every action. Some of them are understood, such as nodding when someone agrees with something. Readers need to use a bit of their own imaginations, so the author’s job is to give hints.
+ Vary the usage. You don’t need a beat after every spoken word. This will be more jarring for the reader and make it harder to follow the conversation.
+ Don’t repeat the same actions too many times. This can get annoying. In my early manuscripts I noticed that my characters often narrowed their eyes or frowned. I had to go through the entire story and cut most of those. (Keep in mind that if a character has a quirk, such as an eye twitch or constantly putting their hands on their hips, it’s okay to repeat these a few times. Just keep it to a minimum so you don’t annoy the reader.)
So, beats are bits of actions placed through a section of dialogue. Be sure to choose appropriate behaviors and space them in the right spot.
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