Monday, January 12, 2015

B is for Beats

Ana talks about Beats in writing 

In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King define “beats” as “the bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a character walking to a window or removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes—the literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as “stage business. Usually they involve physical gestures, although a short passage of interior monologue can also be considered a sort of internal beat.”

Too many “beats” can describe in too much detail what a character does down to the last detail. The details are longer than the dialogue, so the repartee of the dialogue is too slow, maybe even lost.

Too few “beats” means a section of dialogue lacks anchoring, in both setting, action and who is speaking.

So what’s the right balance?
1.     “Beats allow your readers to picture your dialogue taking place.”
2.     “Beats” jumpstart a reader’s imagination.”
3.     “Beats” define the action without overdefining it.”

“One situation that almost requires a beat is when your dialogue changes emotional direction—when your character drops a pretense, say, or has a sudden realization in the middle of a line.”

Try to edit out repeated beats. Make sure your characters aren’t repeatedly smiling or grinning; looking into each other’s eyes; staring at their hands.

Make each beat illumine the POV character. If their movements, reactions, or inner thoughts are unique to them, this will define their individual personalities and make them come alive in the reader's mind.


  1. To be quite honest, I've never heard the term 'beat.' I think I get the balance right but having read your post I shall definitely look out in future for either too many or two few beats. A good post, Anna.

  2. At present, I'm editing out too many smiles and grins from my WIP!
    Actions can help to avoid dialogue tags, but if there are too many, a novel starts to read like a list of stage directions. As with most things, less is more!

  3. I find that I have a great ratio going and then suddenly wham, I mess it up and it becomes a list of stage directions, like Paula said. And then there's always the "IKEA instruction manual" during sex scenes. :)

  4. I find I write long pages of dialogue and then have to go back and add those beats (I've never used that term before but I like it.) so my characters aren't speaking in a void.

    As for those actions instead of tags, I had one mss where my editor was 'annoyed' because my hero kept winking. I had to lose a lot of those! :)