Stronger dialogue plus a “beat…” More than rhythm.
Beats are those pauses in dialogue, layers of speech, thought and/or action. Providing a “beat” can rev up the tension, rivet attention to the character, reward the reader with an aspect that movies, films, TV and video games don’t.
WHAT ARE BEATS?
Thoughts. A thought is a beat. It’s when the main character is engaged in a scene; there’s a pause, and the main or POV character pauses for a thought, a reason or memory or a new decision. Something like this:
Frenchie shouldered him and Catherine tagged behind, Papa’s last words, “…get a room by the dock,” forming a kernel of hope. (A MEMORY)
Will would not cause us this pain…” She choked and couldn’t go on for in telling Jean Paul, the truth hit her. (Reasoning)
Actions (gestures) are beats:
The cook, short and wiry, wiped his hands on a gray rag tied about his waist. “We’re not going’ to hurt you, mon petite, nor your sister.”
Facial expressions are beats:
Catherine bit her lip. “This is exciting. Did you feel the boat move? She responds just like my papa´s horses.”
THE ABSOLUTE BEST way to develop a voluminous vocabulary of thoughts, gestures, facial expressions (drawn from my experience of years of journalistic reporting and writing, watching people so I can write them in a way the reader can see, hear and imagine):
- Study people.
- Include yourself. What are the gestures you use when wanting to make a point in an argument, when wanting to show fear, when wanting to override fear with confidence you didn’t quite believe in.
- Strangers in a café. Glance around (don’t stare as your Mom might say and as mine often did), but what are they doing while they’re talking.
- Can you surmise what emotion they’re expressing with the combination of words and actions? Then you can guess what their inner life might look like, what kind of person they are, what kind of values, what kind of emotional scars.
- Do gestures and facial expressions match the personality they exhibit? Or, not? Then, if you’re a fiction writer you’ve lots of room to imagine why and why not.
- BEATS ALSO SERVE AS TAGS OR LABELS AND CAN
- Appearance—tall, short, handsome, ugly, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, young, black, well-groomed or sloppy, old or young, good posture or bad.
- Speech—individualizes. Habitual expressions such as “Well, now…” or “so…” or “Looking at this football wise…” Speech reflects background, experience, occupation, social status, psychology, etc. etc. etc.
- Mannerisms—scowl, flutter, hand-rubbers, ear-lobe tuggers, eye-dodgers, buttonholers. The doodler, the nail-cleaner, the pipe-puffer, the gesticulator and the seat-squirmer.
- Attitude—habitually apologetic, fearful, irritable, breezy, vain or shy, obsequious or habit of command.
BENEFITS OF BEATS:
- Deliver emotional content for the scene, of the character or characters.
- Turn up the tension by slowing the scene at a critical moment.
- Provide breathing space in an emotionally tense scene.
- They distinguish and individualize the people in our stories.
GUIDELINES FOR WIELDING A DEFT HAND WITH BEATS:
I BELIEVE IN ONLY ONE RULE FOR WRITING: “Don’t Lose the Reader.” That applies to dialogue and beats, too, such as:
DON’t let your character chatter away…our readers won’t listen (read) them anymore than we do when trapped by such a chatterbox.
HERE’S A TEST! Take a chapter, or scene. Highlight all the beats.
- Too many? Too few? Interrupt the pace? Scene needs texture, resonance?
- Are more of them actions? Or thoughts/inner monologue?
- What do your beats describe? Everyday actions such as dialing a phone, buying groceries? How often do you repeat a beat? Are your characters always looking out of windows or lighting cigarettes?
- Do your beats help illuminate your character? Are they individual (particular) or general actions anyone might do under just about any circumstances?
- Do your beats fit the rhythm of your dialogue? Read it aloud and find out.
- Have you used thoughts to explain what your dialogue shows? Have you used thoughts or narrative summary to tell a reader what the character is feeling?
Thanks for joining me today at scribblers.tips and this discussion about the “silent” components of dialogue (conversation), thoughts and physical actions (face, hand, walk, etc.) I also thank one of my guides, actually THE BEST guide for crafting dialogue and which I’ve used to write this blog (as well as experience of course),Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.