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.