Toothless Letter B

Beats. The term is used around the writing industry a fair bit, but what actually are they? For instance, I went through nine books that I own on writing craft last night, and although all of them mention beats at one point or another, only one of them actually has a chapter explaining what they are.

For those of you who are interested the book is Self Editing for Fiction Writers, and it’s a pretty darn good book regarding editing and how to approach it.

So what are beats? Beats are the bit of action interspersed throughout a scene. A moment of action, reaction or inaction. For instance, a character walks to a door, rubs their hands, lights a cigarette, dives behind cover, freezes in the headlights, things like that. If you think of a play, that has stage directions telling the actors what to do physically, and beats of the literary equivalent of this. Most of the time these will be physical actions, but you can also have internal beats, very short internal thoughts the character has. Or they can be internal actions or emotions, such as a character’s stomach flipping, getting butterflies, or limbs going faint, which isn’t obvious to other characters, but draws the reader into the situation.

What are beats use for? Variation in dialogue mostly. Look at a passage in a book, or something you have written. Take out all actions, descriptions, beats and otherwise, just leaving the dialogue in there. It can go on, and on, and on, and on, and get really boring and confusing for the reader, so you add in beats, little bits of action, to break up dialogue. It also helps the reader picture the scene in their head. Say you’ve got two people talking in the kitchen, add in beats such as “The foam sloshed over her arms as she wiped the plate.” and you can tell one of them is doing the washing up. “He reached the table and turned round until he had walked to the wall again.” – the other person is pacing. It gives the reader those little hints they can use to build up and picture the scene in their head as they read.

Show versus TellHowever, beats can be overused. If you provide every single little detail, then you leave nothing for the reader to fill in: “She sponged off a plate, then set it on the draining board. Then she scooped up some cutlery, dipped them in and out of the water a few times. ‘I don’t see why you have to do what John tells you to.’ She said, letting the cutlery fall to the draining board with a clatter, as she picked up the next plate.” Isn’t that boring? Overuse of beats slows everything down, they interrupt the flow of what could be some snappy dialogue, and it’s not fun for the reader. One of the hints that I have picked up in my short writing career is that secretly the reader wants to work. They might not realise it, but they want to do the work in imagining the scene, figuring out what is happening in the physical world of the book, guided by beats that highlight the important bits to them. giving them too much information limits their imagination and involvement. And besides, if it’s something routine like washing up, then most people can picture what happens pretty easily.

Something else beats can do is show character. Body language is a powerful way of conveyed a character. A shy person is more likely to have folded arms, be standing in a corner, whereas your tough biker will probably swagger into the room. So they have a nervous habit of bouncing their leg? Do they smoke? Play with their hair when they talk to people? Adding in beats here and there throughout the story with character traits can be an excellent way of showing character.

So what’s the balance that you are looking for? There isn’t a hard and fast rule, you’ve just got to look at what is written on the page and think about the impact it has on the reader. Your aiming for enough to keep dialogue lively, to give the reader enough hints to build the scene in their head, but not so much that you drag and slow the story. And whatever you do, avoid cliches. Does your reader really want to read how ‘They gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes.’ every time your two loves interests meet each other? No, they don’t. And watch out for repetition as well, don’t overuse beats. Sighing or eye rolling are two that I tend to fall into overuse with and have to cut rigourously when it comes to editing time.

bigpicture3The best way to fine tune them? Read them out loud. Yes, really, take your story, open it up, and start reading it out loud. Can be to a partner or friend, can be just to yourself, but reading it aloud gets you to hear the rhythm of the words you have written, and really is an invaluable tool when trying to get the right balance between beats and dialogue.

After reading this, you can probably see that you are already using beats in your work. Most people, myself included, were using beats far before they know the technical term for what they are actually writing. (Actually, this applies to quite a lot of what I do. I can write things perfectly well, but ask me to explain what I’m doing and you get a long line of ‘ums’ thrown your way. Kind of a reason I choose this theme, it’s helping me as much as it is helping you!) But, if you need some inspiration, pick up a favourite book, find a bit of dialogue and see what beats are used in there. Take out highlighters and use them on your own work to pick up where you have been using beats, and where you might need to cut or add some in. And really do read it out loud.

So those are beats. Tiny little portions of action, emotions or thoughts that add to (mostly) dialogue to help set a scene or character. Hope the B post was informative 🙂