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Beating Your Dialogue Senseless

The older I get, the more I learn (that’s a positive spin on the older I get the less I know), especially when it comes to writing. At the risk of shocking you with my ignorance and shaming myself, I’m going to share something I recently learned about writing.

Beats.

I’d heard of these things called beats but I was too busy worrying about adverbs, and commas, and voice, and point of view, and pacing, and arcs to concern myself with beats.

Then I came upon Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. An entire chapter was dedicated to beats because, it turns out, they are very important.

Beats are the bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a character walking to a window or removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes—the literary equivalent of what is know in the theater as “stage business.”

Why are beats important?

  • They make dialogue more interesting.
  • They allow the reader to better imagine the scene.
  • They vary the pace of the dialogue.
  • They tie the dialogue to the setting and characters.
  • They convey they character.

FYI-Beats are different from dialogue tags (also referred to as attributions). A dialogue tag is a small phrase either before, after, or in between the actual dialogue itself—”I love you,” he said.

Although I didn’t know the term for it, I used beats in my writing. Lots of them. I assumed (you know what they say about assuming) that the more description I used in a conversation between characters, the easier it would be to visualize it. But I had trouble coming up with variety in the beats. My characters did a lot of grinning, glancing, and sighing. Consequently, I spent much time coming up with different ways to describe grins, glances, and sighs. Then I came across this gem: Too many meaningful glances, or smiles, or nods can make the descriptions feel repetitive and unoriginal. Had Melanie Card actually written this for me?

It’s an eye opener to read a passage that has too many beats and compare it to one that is just right. Take the conversation below, a modified excerpt from Jojo Moyes’s After You:

“Mum’s entire life has been family time. Why can’t you let her have some time to herself?” Treena asked.

Dad pointed his folded up newspaper at Treena. “You did this. Your mammy and I were perfectly happy before you started telling her she wasn’t,” he said accusingly.

Granddad nodded in agreement.

As Dad continued, his voice grew angrier. “It’s gone all pear-shaped around here. I can’t watch television without her muttering, ‘Sexist’ at the yogurt ads. This is sexist. That’s sexist.”

“One two hour class,” said Treena mildly, not looking up from her books. “On a Sunday.”

“I’m not being funny, Dad,” I said, “but what about those things on the end of your arms?”

“What?” Dad looked down then back at me.”What?”

“Your hands,” I said, pointing. “They’re not painted on.”

He frowned at me then threw a hapless look at Granddad.

“I’m guessing you could make lunch,” I told him. “Give Mom a surprise when she gets back from her poetry class.”

Treena and I glanced at each other as Dad jumped from his chair and began to shout. “Me make Sunday lunch! Me! We’ve been married thirty years, Louisa. I don’t do bloody lunch. I do the earning and your mother does lunch. That’s the deal. That’s what I signed up for!  What’s the world coming to if I’m there with a pinny on peeling spuds on a Sunday? How is that fair?”

“It’s called modern life, Dad.” He’d come into the twenty-first century kicking and screaming.

Compare that with the actual passage from the novel:

“Mum’s entire life has been family time. Why can’t you let her have some time to herself?”

Dad pointed his folded up newspaper at Treena. “You did this. Your mammy and I were perfectly happy before you started telling her she wasn’t.”

Granddad nodded in agreement.

“It’s gone all pear-shaped around here. I can’t watch television without her muttering, ‘Sexist’ at the yogurt ads. This is sexist. That’s sexist.”

“One two hour class,” said Treena mildly, not looking up from her books. “On a Sunday.”

“I’m not being funny, Dad,” I said, “but what about those things on the end of your arms?”

“What?” Dad looked down. “What?”

“Your hands,” I said. “They’re not painted on.”

He frowned at me.

“I’m guessing you could make lunch. Give Mom a surprise when she gets back from her poetry class.”

Dad’s eyes widened. “Me make Sunday lunch! Me! We’ve been married thirty years, Louisa. I don’t do bloody lunch. I do the earning and your mother does lunch. That’s the deal. That’s what I signed up for!  What’s the world coming to if I’m there with a pinny on peeling spuds on a Sunday? How is that fair?”

“It’s called modern life, Dad.”

The first is an example of the overuse of dialogue beats, and as Janalyn Voigt points out, “It’s enough to wear out a self-respecting character, not to mention any hapless reader who might wander into such a hyperactive story world.”

Even though the second example has less description, it’s more vivid and interesting than the first example. And there isn’t one grin, glance or sigh to be found.

It’s the job of the writer to orchestrate the beats to their particular scene. High tension scenes should have fewer beats. Dialogue in quieter scenes where the writer is letting the reader catch a breath, can be interspersed with pauses or beats. The trick is to read aloud, listen to the rhythm and fine tune it. I’m learning to fine tune the melody of my beats and trust the reader’s imagination to add the harmony. No more beating them over the head with a timpani mallet of grins, sighs, and glances.

Additional resources:
Scribblers Tips-Beats in Dialogue
Writer’s Digest-How to Amp up Dialogue with Emotional Beats

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9 comments on “Beating Your Dialogue Senseless

  1. Very interesting and informative.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Huh. I use beats in my writing, too. I never liked just saying “he said” or she said.” It seems so banal. So I might write, “I never believed you really meant to hurt me,” Mindy spoke to the vase of lilies on the table.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So true. It seems that writers either nail dialogue or struggle with it. I find the biggest problem is over doing dialogue tags. Not every dialogue tag has to have a ‘he said she said’

    I usually only use tags unless there’s an action relevant to the scene, or its become confusing as to who’s talking.

    Great article. Your blog is super. 🙂

    Like

  4. So glad I found this post. I am writing my debut and always enjoy reading interesting tips. Dialogue is so hard to get right but I definitely agree about not overdoing the tags. Will be thinking carefully about my beats from now on!

    Like

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