Beats are morsels of action scattered throughout a scene. They help your reader to visualize the dialogue taking place. They can be used link dialogue to settings and characters, for example ‘he threw the glass into the sink’, or, ‘he wiped the smudge of chocolate from her face’. They can affect the pace of the dialogue. Beats can bring dialogue to life.
This is an excerpt of the piece I put in for editing:
‘Please Diane; don’t play games with us, you have to tell us what she said. You want your daughter back don’t you?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Then tell us Diane.’
‘Why, did she tell you not to talk to us?’
‘Then why Diane, why won’t you divulge anything.’
Do you see how fast that dialogue is taking place, there is no emotion, no sense of place. It’s a bit flat.
Here’s the piece again after I added beats:
‘Please Diane; don’t play games with us, you have to tell us what she said. You want your daughter back don’t you?’ the Inspectors voice echoed around the room.
‘Of course I do,’ she patted her eyes with a handkerchief.
‘Then tell us Diane,’ the Inspector shuffled impatiently in her chair, it was three o’clock, two hours had passed already.
‘I can’t,’ Diane’s gaze dropped to the table.
‘Why, did she tell you not to talk to us?’ The Inspector slammed her pencil down on the table.
Diane shot up from her chair, ‘No.’
The Inspector looked up at her, ‘Then why Diane, why won’t you divulge anything.’
Diane's shoulders sagged.
See how much better that sounds. In the second passage you get a sense of the setting, the two women are sitting down. They are in a bare room, hence the echo. There is a build-up of tension, the Inspector is getting irritated, the interview has lasted a long time. Diane is obviously in turmoil. The inspector has sparked a reaction in her, which is why she jumps up from the chair.
5 Things I have learnt about beats:
1. Beats work best when there is a natural pause in the dialogue. The best way to find a natural pause is by reading work out loud.
2. The longer the beat, the longer the pause.
3. The dialogue still needs to sound authentic, if there are too many beats readers will become irritated, so it is best to try to strike a balance.
4. Readers don’t need every bit of the action described to them in great detail, it is better to let them use their imagination to fill in what you leave out.
5. Beats can help to vary the pace of the dialogue.
I hope you've found this post informative.
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