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.