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Beats, Part 2: Character Enhancement

Last week, I discussed the dangers of overusing beats. Though we must use them, we must also be careful to place them at the right spots in our narrative’s dialogue.

Another “beat issue” we need to avoid is this: writing trite. Trite words and phrases and figures of speech are easy to spot. They’re the first things that come to our mind while we write. Why? Because we’ve heard them so much and read them so often, they’re stored in our subconscious and usually pop out on the page during our writing process. Using them in our first draft is fine, but we do well to change them during our revision.

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What are some trite beats? A few examples: he smiled, she shrugged, he laughed, she giggled, he clenched his fists, she sighed, he frowned, etc.

Personally, I think using such beats occasionally is fine, but they shouldn’t be prevalent in our story.

Good beats enhance our characters. They are fresh, original. Through well written beats, readers gain a better understanding of our story’s actors, which is why we need to know them intimately ourselves. Readers will observe their personalities, quirks, character traits, likes and dislikes, etc.

Here are a few examples:

John spooned the whipped cream off his strawberry shortcake and disposed of it in a sandwich bag. He wrung his hands. “Ah, now I can enjoy my dessert.”

Here, instead of telling readers in a straightforward manner that John doesn’t like whipped cream, they first see this by his beat and then by implication through his dialogue.

“I’ll be back.” Jane crept over to a corner in the library, pulled out her cell phone and punched in the number. The sign at the library’s entrance said “no cell phones.” Well, she wouldn’t get caught.

Here, we learn that Jane doesn’t abide by the rules. The library she’s in does not allow cell phones, but what is she doing? She’s using one! Without our telling readers she doesn’t care about rules, they observe this trait through her actions.  

One more “beat issue” to avoid: do not use them after a tagline(speaker attribution), such as in the following example:

Wrong: “I’ll be back,” Jane said. She walked down the hall to answer the doorbell.

Correct: “I’ll be back.” Jane walked down the hall to answer the doorbell.

Use beats, by all means! But use them carefully and wisely, and write them in a fresh manner.

Till next week, everyone.

Beats, Part 1: Don’t Beat Me Too Much!

Many years ago, I visited a theme park. Though I can’t remember which one, I do remember this – a child constantly banging on a toy drum. I don’t know what his parents who accompanied him were thinking, but I know what I thought. Annoying!

Likewise, if we use too many beats in our writing, they can annoy our readers. Then again, if we don’t use beats, our characterization suffers. Just as a professional drummer in an orchestra or band knows when to hit his/her drum and when not to, we professional writers should learn when to “beat” and when not to. We must be careful to avoid “beating too much.”

What is a beat? It’s a character’s action/body language sprinkled in amidst his/her dialogue. Here are two examples. The beats are italicized.

Betty frowned. “I don’t like what I’m seeing, Carl.”

Betty bit her nails and paced back and forth. “Carl, I’m…I’m not sure we can get married.”

If beats come before or after every line of dialogue, though, they get irritating.

Look at this example:

Betty bit her nails and paced back and forth. “Carl, I’m…I’m not sure we can get married.”

“Why not?” Carl opened his refrigerator and got a bottle of water.

“Because I’m not sure I love you.” Betty stopped pacing and lowered her hands.

“What!” Carl slammed his refrigerator door. “I love you, Betty. You know I do.” He set his water on his kitchen counter.

“Well, I…er…” Betty stared at the cabinets behind him, her face twitching.

Carl stepped closer to her. “Are you seeing someone else?”

Betty let go a gut-wrenching sob. “No-o-o!”

As Betty’s and Carl’s dialogue continues with added beats, even though there is conflict, it gets tiresome to read.

Now then, let’s read this same dialogue without the beats.

“Carl, I’m…I’m not sure we can get married.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m not sure I love you.”.

“What! I love you, Betty. You know I do.”

“Well, I…er…”

“Are you seeing someone else?”

“No-o-o!”

No beats– the dialogue is thin and just lingers in the air. A beat or two would deepen it. A third example demonstrates this.

Becky bit her nails and paced back and forth. “Carl, I’m…I’m not sure we can get married.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m not sure I love you.”.

“What! I love you, Betty.” Carl grasped Betty’s hands, his blue eyes pleading.  “You know I do.”

“Well, I…er…”

“Are you seeing someone else?”

“No-o-o!”

Learning when to use beats takes practice and also a sense of timing. Do use them in your writing, but don’t pound readers with them like banging away like on a toy drum.

Tag, You’re It! Some Rules Regarding Taglines

Taglines, also known as speaker attributions, have one literary function. They identify which character is speaking. That’s all. Here are a few rules regarding their use.

1.       Don’t use multisyllable taglines. A simple “he said/she said” is usually all that’s needed.

          Reason: Multisyllable taglines, such as “he remarked” or “she  insisted,” will jerk readers out of our story because they  draw attention to themselves. When we use simple taglines, such as  “said” and “asked,” readers tend to gloss over them. Thus, they   “disappear.”

2.       Don’t use adverbial modifiers, such as “John said angrily” or “Sue said happily.”

          Reason: Well-written dialogue doesn’t need them. If John is angry,   show that in his dialogue or if Sue is happy, show that in her dialogue. Dialogue, after all, is one of those ways we follow that old literary maxim “show, don’t tell.”

3.       Sometimes we’ll need to use volume taglines such as “he shouted/she shouted” or “he whispered/she whispered.” When we use volume taglines, keep them simple.

          Reason: Because dialogue is showing, not telling, it’s impossible to show a character’s speech volume. Thus, volume must be told.

4.       Don’t use taglines with every line of dialogue.

          Reason: This gets tedious to readers after a while.

5.       Spend a lot of time getting to know your characters: what makes them tick, education, hobbies,  personality, how they speak, etc. Writing their biographies is a good way to accomplish this.

          Reason: If each character has his/her own unique speech patterns, pet words and  phrases, and so on, this will help avoid overusing taglines. Why? Because readers will immediately know which character is speaking

A Final Thought: Do use taglines. Readers need to know which character is speaking. Just be careful when using them, and don’t overdo it.

Story Openings, Part 2, More Opening Techniques

In last week’s post, I stated that the action opening is the best opening because it begins in the middle of things, that is, in the middle of events happening to a character.

However, not every novel must open this way. The one rule about a good opening is this: it must always hook the reader and cause him/her to want to read more.

Here are two more types of openings:

1.         Opening lines. If written well, they can draw us in immediately. One of my favorite opening lines comes from Louis L’Amour’s novel, Sackett’s Land. Here’s what Mister  L’Amour wrote:

It was my devil’s own temper that brought me to grief, my temper and a skill with  weapons born of my father’s teaching.

            What makes this opening work? It not only hooks us, it also packs lots of important information into one concise sentence.

            a.         We’re introduced to the main character, and by the third paragraph we learn his   name is Barnabas Sackett. Since Barnabas is telling us the story, it’s written from his point of view.

            b.         The Hook. Barnabas has come to grief, but we must read on to find out what kind of trouble he’s in and how he got into it. We have a hint of danger, that something  is about to happen.

            c.         We learn three things about Barnabas, all relevant to his story. We learn (1) that  he has a temper, (2) he’s skilled with weapons, and (3) his father taught him how  to use them. L’Amour sets the stage for future events.

            d.         L’Amour’s narrative style continues for several pages before dialogue begins. Though Barnabas is writing about past events, he’s not writing backstory. Why not? Because backstory interrupts a story’s progress. Barnabas’s story doesn’t do that. He’s writing from another setting, looking back on past events, and these   past events are the story. The hook is that Barnabas will tell us some exciting  things that happened to him. Also, we see lots of action in the opening scene.

2.         Description. I’m not contradicting my previous post. Throat-clearing happens when we write numerous pages and paragraphs of static description before we get into our story. Static description is description without movement, like looking at a statue and listing its features. However, if we write our opening description  correctly, we can use it. A good descriptive opening has three features: a feeling of  action or movement, introduces at least one character, and it must be brief. Here’s how I started Book 2 in my Southern Sons-Dixie Daughters series, River Ruckus, Bloody Bay:

As the British steamer Bahama rounded forested Hog Island, she entered Nassau’s harbor and Master Alexander Jessup, Confederate States Navy, widened his eyes.  Side-wheelers and sailing sloops, screw steamers of every length and tonnage, hundreds it looked like, crowded it. British, Yankee. And blockade-runners, easily recognized by their long, low profile, squat masts, and bluish-white or lead color meant to blend in with the dawn’s light. Designed for speed, Alex had seen some of them under construction in Scotland during his recent stay in London.  

     Sails furled, they gently rocked on its clear as glass swells. Several ships steamed out, their funnels streaming smoke. Nassau caught his eye. The warm tropical sunrays bathed an array of buildings painted various colors and swaying palms; ladies twirling parasols, their escorts alongside, strolled its nearby beach. No longer was it that sleepy little Bahamian village he’d remembered from before the war.

     A half hour later he and Stribling worked their way up a curbed, people-packed walkway beneath royal poinciana trees’ brilliant red-orange canopies and past colorful limestone buildings. The whole island of New Providence, Alex recalled, was mostly limestone. Buggies jostled and maneuvered up a macadamized road. Some passersby curiously eyed the cast net draping Alex’s sea chest. A train of wagons carrying boxes stacked atop boxes marked “C.S.A.” headed for the wharves.

     “I imagine they’ll be loading those crates on one of our runners,” Stribling said. “They’re certainly not trying to hide whose side they’re on.”

And so the dialogue continues between my characters, Alex and Stribling, as we move into the story. The Hook: an exotic location that plays a key role in America’s Civil War.

Till next week, friends, thanks for visiting my blog!

Story Openings, Part 1, Don’t Clear Your Throat

Every novel has its own basic structure. It comes in three major parts: the opening, the middle, and the end.

Though all of these parts are important, but the most important part is the opening. If our first sentence or paragraph doesn’t hook readers and draw them into our story, they’ll likely put down our book and look elsewhere for entertainment.

One common mistake is called “throat clearing.” In novel writing, it means loading the opening pages with lots of information—backstory, flashbacks, description, and/or too many characters, for example. It’s “coughing up” words before we actually write the story.

When writing openings, think about our favorite movie. What was its opening scene? How did it hook us? I mention movies because that’s one of the main mediums we authors are competing against. Of course, we must also consider our favorite books. Study their opening lines. How did they motivate us to keep reading?

The best opening is the action opening. It begins in medias res (in the middle of things). These openings can start with something spectacular, such as an earthquake, or something seemingly innocent such as a knock on a character’s door. It can also include dialogue. We must either see a character in action or hint that something is about to happen. Also, be sure to mention your character(s) names as soon as possible.

In my Civil War dog story due out this fall, Squire, Tales of a Mascot, I didn’t “clear my throat” by writing lots of narrative background information and description while building up to the main story. Instead, I jumped right into the action. Here are the novel’s first two paragraphs:

“Well, I’d sure as sand say he is going with us.” Jesse Webb sauntered down the wooden steps of his father-in-law’s brick furniture store.

His wife folded her arms, her emerald green hoopskirt spanning its slatted walkway. “Oh no, he’s not.” Her hazel eyes narrowed. “Besides, how could you take the most popular dog in Coughlin? He might get killed.”

Like a man just ambling through the day’s hours, Jesse faced her. Amused, his lips curled up in no great hurry. Then he spoke. “Seems I’d say you’re more worried about Squire than me, dear Rachel.”

In my three opening paragraphs, I did four things:

1.       I introduced the main characters: Jesse, Rachel, and their dog Squire.

2.       I identified the setting, the town of Coughlin.

3.       I created conflict between Jesse and Rachel.

4.       I hinted at future danger for both Jesse and Squire.

Later, we’ll learn what that danger is—Jesse and Squire are going to war.

Instead of clearing our throats when we begin our story, let’s jump right into it!

Next week: Part 2, More Opening Techniques.

Blonde versus Blond

I have a confession to make: the words blonde and blond have sometimes given me trouble.

In British English, blond is masculine and blonde is feminine. However, in American English blond is the correct spelling when it’s used as an adjective whereas in British English the gender spelling always applies.

American English: Suzie has blond hair. The blond girl playing golf is Suzie.

British English: Suzie has blonde hair. The blonde girl playing golf is Suzie.

If these words are used as nouns in American English, they keep their appropriate gender spelling.

Examples: She’s the blonde sitting at the table. He’s the blond smoking the pipe.

Until next time, friends, keep on writing!



Books and Providence

Herman Melville, 1819-1891

“…the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.” Herman Melville, White-Jacket (1850)