11 Beats in Dialogue

When applying the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology, which demands that authors stop using narrative summary to pass along backstory and plot, they will find themselves naturally gravitating to dialogue. They will write more dialogue than ever before, and they will try to use this dialogue to divulge key plot elements and backstory.

This is natural.

Dialogue is the most powerful tool in the author’s toolkit. A well-written section of dialogue will push the plot forward and develop characters, while dragging the reader deeper into the novel.

However, this can create problems.

The renewed reliance on dialogue means that authors will find themselves writing scenes which contain much more dialogue than they would have included in the past.

Long sections of dialogue, especially between two people, can quickly become daunting for a reader. The back-and-forth creates an almost hypnotic rhythm, and the reader can miss the nuances of your writing. This can be further exaggerated when applying the only-use-said technique.

He said; she said; he said; she said. … It can soon become tiresome.

That’s where beats come into play. “What’s a beat?” I hear you shout. Here’s a section of dialogue which contains a beat (we’ve already seen this when talking about three-dimensional characters):

“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you?” John looked around in an exaggerated motion, before leaning in and kissing his sister on the cheek. “You’d better open it quick. It’s not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”

Now here’s the same example without the beat:

“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you? You’d better open it quick. It’s not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”

See?

In this context, a beat is a section of action within dialogue. In the example above, John looks about and kisses his sister.

A beat dissects a section of dialogue, momentarily lifting the reader from the sequence. If used correctly, the beats will force the readers to renew their attention to the conversation, as the dialogue is stopped and started.

Beats can be used for three distinct purposes:

  1. To control pace.
  2. As a vehicle to add descriptions of people and places.
  3. As a place for characterization.

Let’s look at these in order.

Controlling pace is straightforward. Sections of dialogue can skip along at a good old pace. If two characters are exchanging short sentences, pages can whip by, as the reader absorbs what is being said. The problem here is that you don’t always want the pace to be fast. Perhaps you just want the reader to pay more attention, or you are trying to balance the overall pace of a scene. It might even be that you are separating two sections of action with a section of dialogue. For the action to have true impact, it needs to be sandwiched between slower sections, the light and dark. In these situations, beats are your friend.

The second reason for using beats is to add description. Whenever a reader comes across a new location or character, you should be adding description. The problem is that you don’t want to dump long paragraphs of flowery prose. Instead, you want just enough for the reader to paint a picture in his or her mind’s eye. However, if you are dealing with a complex location or a major character, you will want to layer in additional description, a line or two at a time. This is where beats can be extremely useful. We will look at using beats for description in more detail in the next section.

The final reason is characterization. If you have developed a complex character profile, you will be well aware of a character’s internal influences. You will know in any given situation how the internal voice will influence the external words and actions. Beats are a great way to show this.

Look at the example below, we have seen this before, but let’s look at it with new eyes:

John stood in the parking lot of the pub. It was dark outside, and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the lot and made a circuit, before coming to a stop in front of John.

The driver let down the window, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights. “You order a taxi?” His voice was tinged with an Oriental accent.

“No,” John said, taking a small step back from the car.
The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio, speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to hear. The driver leaned over again.

“You sure, mate?”

“Yeah,” John said. “I am sure.”

“Ah …” the driver said. “Do you want a lift anyway?”

“Aren’t you supposed to only pick up planned fares?” There was a pause. “It doesn’t matter. I am waiting for my sister. She’ll be here any moment.”

“OK,” the driver said and pulled out of the parking lot.

John watched the car leave, making a mental note of the license plate number.

Here’s the same example, with the beats highlighted and explained:

John stood in the parking lot of the pub. It was dark outside, and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the lot and made a circuit, before coming to a stop in front of John. [BEAT: This is description delivered via narrative summary.]

The driver let down the window, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights. [BEAT: This is a description before dialogue. The dark skin SHOWING the reader that the driver is not white.] “You order a taxi?” His voice was tinged with an Oriental accent.

“No,” John said, taking a small step back from the car. [BEAT: Internal voice says he mistrusts Chinese people; this is reflected in his actions.]

The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio, speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to hear. The driver leaned over again. [BEAT: This is really a section of narrative summary, but, since it dissects dialogue, it is, technically, a beat.] “You sure, mate?”

“Yeah,” John said. “I am sure.”

“Ah …” the driver said. “Do you want a lift anyway?”

“Aren’t you supposed to only pick up planned fares?” There was a pause. [BEAT: Slows the pace. Also suggests John is considering his next action. It is up to the reader to decide what John is thinking.] “It doesn’t matter. I am waiting for my sister. She’ll be here any moment.”

“OK,” the driver said and pulled out of the parking lot.

John watched the car leave, making a mental note of the license plate number. [BEAT: John watches the car and makes a note. This is his backstory at work, forcing John to think the worst of the driver, who may be Chinese.]

The final thing to say about beats is for them not to be overused. Long sections of dialogue are good. You do want to create a rhythm and allow the reader to become comfortable with your writing style. Yet there should be a balance. Too many beats and the dialogue drags; not enough and it whips by.

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Beats in Dialogue Copyright © 2018 by BubbleCow. All Rights Reserved.

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