Writing Tip #2: Using Beats To Strengthen Characters And Setting

(editing)
#2

Another thing I’m working on as I finish up Augustina is using beats to identify my speakers.

What is a beat?

A beat is a pause in dialogue. For example:

My arm itches.” Greg scratched it on cue. “Oh man, I hope it’s not poison ivy.”

The beat in this case would be, “Greg scratched it on cue.” It identifies the speaker is Greg without having to say, “Greg said.”

I love using beats for many reason. Identifying the speaker is just one of them.

“Said” is basically invisible.

It’s true that the word “said” is invisible to most readers. If I had used “Greg said” instead of the other, most readers wouldn’t have noticed the words other than to subconsciously register who spoke.

But when I first started writing, I got so sick of the word ‘said.’ I wanted to substitute it with every possible alternative dialogue tag. Greg shouted. Greg whispered. Greg hummed. Greg hissed. I don’t know. There are a million possibilities.

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But I quickly learned that all of those dialogue tags aren’t invisible to the reader the way “said” is. They pull the reader out of the conversation for a brief second–which is fine sometimes, but only sometimes. Paragraph after paragraph with people shouting, yelling, and even whispering can cause the reader to feel disjointed and tired. Pretty soon, they’re skimming your book, and that’s not good.

Dialogue tags should be used sparingly–which is extremely hard to do.

But beats. :) Beats are fun. Beats aren’t telling the reader how something was spoken. They’re a sneaky way of letting the reader know who is speaking, while enriching your story.

Beats are an excellent way to SHOW and not TELL the story.

For example, take these two sentences:

1) “Get out of my room!” Amy shouted. “I never want to see you again!”

Or…

2) “Get out of my room!” Amy hurled her book at him, knocking over her polka-dotted lava lamp. “I never want to see you again!”

Example #1 uses a dialogue tag. Technically, the word “shouted” isn’t even needed because with the exclamation points, shouting is implied. (By the way, use exclamation points sparingly!) Even if we used, “‘Get out of my room!” Amy said angrily,” it’s the same effect.

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But in Example #2, the reader sees more than shouting. They know Amy was reading, she’s the kind of girl to own a polka-dotted lava lamp, and she’s so angry she nearly sacrificed her favorite lamp in her fit of rage. 

#2 anchors the reader to the setting. It allows them to see the room and feel her emotion.

It’s SHOWING, not TELLING.

So how do you write a proper beat?

1) Know the setting

Visualize it in your mind. Place objects in the setting. Glass of milk. Shoes. Dead branches. Whatever. And then give your characters specific clothing or jewelry. When you know the specifics, you can use them in beats. 

2) Know the emotions

Your scenes should have emotions, but you must understand them. Amy is angry. So ask yourself, What do angry people do? Throw books? Fold their arms? What? What if she was nervous? What do nervous people do? 

3) Know your characters

90% of communication is non-verbal. Show that in your beats. People back up when they’re scared. Their mouths twitch when they lie. We are constantly giving off millions of clues about what we’re really thinking. Your characters should too.

But even beyond that is certain people have certain habits or mannerisms. Really knowing your characters helps you to pick the right beats for them. Old ladies pat people’s hands. Teen boys fist bump. Flirty girls flip their hair. Whatever it is, know your characters.  

Beats are a lot of fun to write. It’s going that next level in your book. 

However…

Like all great things, moderation, moderation, moderation. Only use a beat if you need it. For example, it would be ridiculous to say, 

“Get out of my room!” Amy noticed she hadn’t dusted under her bed for awhile. “I never want to see you again!”

If Amy is that furious, dust is the last thing on her mind. Know your characters and only use beats to build your scene, build your character, or build your plot.

Having a beat in every paragraph is just as exhausting as he shouted, he hissed, he hummed. Many paragraphs don’t need any beats or dialogue tags. Try going without. Let the reader fill in the blanks. Or if you need them, alternate methods. Sometimes use “she said,” sometimes use a beat. And a few wild times, use “she whispered.” 

Beats combined with simple dialogue tags (mostly saids, as boring as they are), will help your book come alive. 

How do you use beats? Do you have other alternative ideas for dialogue tags? Share your thoughts here.

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8 thoughts on “Writing Tip #2: Using Beats To Strengthen Characters And Setting”

  1. One of the things I do in every round of edits is take out dialogue tags. I overuse them like crazy in my first draft writing. I think it’s my desperate desire to avoid being like Hemingway and, y’know, fail to clue the reader in on who’s speaking. I usually have to go back and add beats later on.

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    1. That’s what I’m doing right now. I finished the first draft and started noticing how many annoying dialogue tags I have. We all have this irrational fear that readers won’t know who’s speaking or something. :) The other thing is my readers do a lot of looking and turning. Very annoying. I’m trying to use beats to change things up.

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