10 Beats

When applying the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology, which demands that writers stop using narrative summary to pass 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 back-story.

This is natural.

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

However, this can create problems. The renewed reliance on dialogue means that writers will find themselves writing scenes, which contain much more dialogue than they would have in the past.

Long sections of dialogue, especially between two people can quickly become daunting for a reader. The back-and-to creates an almost hypnotic rhythm and the reader can begin to 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 – can soon become tiresome.

That’s where beats come in play. ‘What’s a beat?’ I hear you shout. Here’s a section of dialogue, which contains a beat:

“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you?”
John looked about 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?

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, they will force the reader 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. A vehicle to add descriptions of people and places.
  3. Place for characterization.

Let’s look at these in order.

Controlling pace is pretty straight foreword. Sections of dialogue can skip along at a right 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 wider 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 with slower sections, the light and dark, so to speak. In these situations beats are your friend.

The second reason for using beats is to add descriptions. Whenever a reader comes across a new location or character you should be adding descriptions. The problem is that you don’t want to dump long paragraphs of flowery prose. Instead, you want just enough for them to paint a picture in their 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 car park of the pub. It was dark and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the car park and made a circuit before coming to a stop in front of John.

The driver let the window down, 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, shuffling back slightly 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.’

‘Ahh…’ 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 car park. John watched the car leave, making a mental note of the number plate.

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

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

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

‘No,’ said John shuffling back slightly 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 is dissects dialogue it is, technically, a beat] ‘You sure mate?’

‘Yeah,’ John said. ‘I am sure.’

‘Ahh,’ 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 suggest John is considering his next actions. 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 taxi said driver and pulled out of the car park. John watched making a mental note of the number plate. [BEAT: John watches the car and makes a note. This is his back-story 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’s a balance. Too many beats and the dialogue drags, not enough and it whips by. Ultimately, it is your choice.

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