My novels are usually emotional reads with inspirational overtones and some humor thrown in the mix. I love writing dialogue the best, and I also enjoy putting action in my scenes. Beats are the little bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a character walking to the window or removing her glasses and rubbing her eyes—the literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as stage business. Usually beats involve physical gestures. I love anything dramatic and I used to direct high school plays so talking about beats is something I enjoy! I hope you’ll like today’s writing workshop.
Beats enable your readers to visualize the action of a scene while revealing a character’s personality. One simple sentence can define a character. An example of this is: He blew his nose on the blanket. Beats remind your readers of who your characters are and what they are doing.
Short passages of interior monologue can also be considered a sort of internal beat.
I’m giving a snippet from my book, Never the Same. It’s mainstream/women’s fiction and this particular scene contains beats showing a great deal of tension. Beats in this excerpt also show the teenager, Tori’s emotional state and how Kim reacts to the girl. An example of internal beats from Kim’s internal monologue also conveys her character when she realizes the plane flight is doomed.
She knew now what had caused her earlier uneasiness. Oh, dear God, she was going to die today. She wanted to go back home, be with her family, see her brothers and have her sister Laura bring her children. Her parents were in Florida and even though she wasn’t especially close to them, she wanted to hear their voices. She shoved her hand into her purse and located her Advair Diskus. After opening it, she put the mouthpiece to her lips. She breathed in her dose of medication. She closed the inhaler before returning it to her purse.
After the passengers finished removing their items, Jillian instructed, “Fasten your seat belts and put your head on your arms.”
Tori’s hands were shaking so much she couldn’t fasten her belt. “Kim, I’m so scared.”
Kim clicked the belt for her. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Thanks for caring about me.”
Kim squeezed Tori’s hand. “You remind me of my daughter, Gaby. When we get out of here, I want you to meet her.”
“If you make it and I don’t, tell my boyfriend, Ryan Stafford, and my dad how much I love them.”
“Do the same for me with my family.” She loved Steve, Gaby and Jason. She might die and never see them again. Why hadn’t she canceled this trip?
Kim made the sign of the cross. Lightning flashed so close to the window that she jumped. She grabbed one wrist with the other and, leaning over to tuck her head, coughed hard. With her head in her lap to brace for impact, she felt tightness in her chest. Oh no. Not an asthma attack now. She peeked to be sure Tori had her head down.
The plane descended gradually toward the runway. A violent burst of air hit the plane, and Kim was yanked back up hard. Her insides were jerked enough that she felt sick to her stomach.
“It feels like my guts were ripped out,” Tori said.
The plane was falling like a rock, and she was going to die. Her whole life she’d been a control freak and always put her job ahead of her family. And now, in what was probably her final moment, she knew what was important to her. Her loved ones. Nothing else mattered any more.
Her chest tightened and her heart felt heavy. She prayed, Dear God, I don’t want to die. I’ve been so selfish and want another chance. If You spare my life, I’ll quit my job and be a better wife and mother.
The nose of the plane dived, plunging toward the hard runway. Purses and briefcases slid along the floor, and Kim winced when a briefcase slammed into her ankle. The doors of the overhead luggage compartments flapped open and luggage flew out, thumping against seats, walls and people.
Beats are great in increasing tension when you write dialogue. In chapter one of my chick-lit mystery, A Fiery Secret, I used beats to show the mounting romantic tension between Catherine, the investigative reporter and the sports editor, Jake. I’m not going to post this excerpt because it’s here if you want to read it. I posted it for one of my recent contests.
I like to show deep emotion by dialogue and using beats. In my book, No Greater Loss, the prologue is a good example of beats making a difference.
Prologue: NO GREATER LOSS
She heard her name. Recognizing her husband’s startled voice, she sat up. Jennifer didn’t feel his warm body when she moved her hand around the bed. She glanced at the clock radio and saw the time was one forty-five a.m.
He’d called her name so Brad must be here. Maybe he’d called her from another room because he needed help with Christopher.
She scrambled out of bed, and saw Christopher sleeping peacefully in his cradle with the night-light casting a soft glow. After she searched the home, anxiety knotted inside her. Why wasn’t he home? He knew how she felt about his riding the motorcycle at night.
By five a.m, she knew something was wrong. Brad would never worry her like this. She stared at the phone, trying to decide whether to call her uncle or her mother-in-law.
When the building’s front door buzzer sounded, she sighed with relief. Thank God. Thinking he’d probably forgotten his key, she hurried to release the security lock to let Brad in. “Hello, come on up.”
“Jenny, it’s me. Uncle Ryan.”
Her uncle was a frequent visitor since he was the priest at nearby St. Mary’s Church in Marietta. But why would he be here at this time in the morning?
She opened the apartment door, listening to two sets of heavy footsteps on the flight of stairs. Uncle Ryan must be helping an intoxicated Brad up the steps. What would she do without her Uncle Ryan? She didn’t move to go see, but waited in silence.
After a few long seconds, Uncle Ryan appeared with a state highway patrolman by his side. She put a hand over her mouth, stifling a scream. Uncle Ryan grabbed her in such a tight squeeze that the little breath left in her lungs swooshed out of her body.
“Jenny…” Uncle Ryan’s voice broke, then he continued, “around two o’clock, Brad was in an accident.”
With grave eyes, the patrolman said, “Your husband was dead when I arrived on the scene.”
Jennifer stared at Uncle Ryan. “I’ll call Claudia. It can’t be Brad.”
“Your husband had Father Ryan’s number in his wallet,” the patrolman said. “I called him to identify the body.”
She stared for a moment at the patrolman, wishing he’d go away. But he remained standing stiff. She couldn’t bear to look at his sympathetic face any longer, so she turned away to grab her uncle. She sobbed, “I can’t live without Brad.”
Uncle Ryan held her tightly in his arms. “Christopher needs you, Jenny.”
If good beats come easily to you as a writer, be careful not to get carried away. Beats allow your reader to picture your dialogue taking place. As with other forms of description, you want to give your readers enough detail to allow them to picture the action and yet enough leeway so they can use their imaginations. You want to define the action without using too many beats. If your dialogue is taking place over dinner, for instance, you don’t want to describe each time a character picks up a fork and takes a bite of food.
I know in No Greater Loss before one of the revisions, my editor mentioned how I had Luke chewing and swallowing a lot while he spoke. I substituted other beats. And in some spots, I cut beats and leave the dialogue stand alone without any new ones. You want to have a balance in your writing when it comes to using beats.
I have a brief excerpt from a dinner scene which is in Never the Same. This is where they are discussing Kim’s desire to have another baby. Kim doesn’t know Tori is pregnant. It’s from Tori’s point of view. The beats in this passage show Tori’s shock when her dad talks about a pregnant girl after he’d told her to keep her mouth shut about her pregnancy.
Her dad pulled a piece of bread off his little loaf. “This bread’s delicious.
Everything is good.” He paused for a moment. “I know someone who’s thinking about putting her baby up for adoption.”
Tori choked on her food and frowned across the table at her dad.
Kim gave Tori a concerned look. “Are you all right?”
She sipped a few swallows of milk, trying to clear her throat. “Some food just went down wrong.” She couldn’t believe her dad would open his mouth and so casually mention knowing someone with an unwanted baby. He hadn’t wanted her to mention her pregnancy to Kim. But now he knew Kim was thinking of adopting, he was ready to give her baby away.
Kim wiped her mouth with a napkin and stared at her father. “When’s the baby due?”
“August,” Tori answered.
Her dad pinched his lips. “I’ve talked about this girl to Tori. She doesn’t think the girl should give her baby up for adoption, and I do because she’s young and unmarried.”
Beats can be a powerful and efficient way to convey your characters. You want to write beats that are fresh. Haven’t you read scenes in which the characters are forever looking up, looking down, down at their hands, or looking into each other’s eyes? I’m afraid in my first drafts, I used the following too many times: raised eyebrows, lots of staring at each other, exhaling deep breaths, and eyes filling with tears. My editor told me to find unique beats to convey my characters.
So where do you find good and original beats? Get in the habit of watching people in all kinds of settings such as church, sporting events, shopping, restaurants, and notice their body language, how they move, the gestures used that reveal their emotions and personality. Notice what they do with their hands when they’re bored, with their legs when they’re relaxed, with their eyes when they are nervous.
Sometimes I might use the same beat with a character a few times. For example, Tori in Never the Same, twists her silver ring around her finger whenever she’s nervous.
When you’re using beats, you’re showing instead of telling so that’s a good thing. In other words, don’t write, “John was angry.” Show me his anger instead. For example, write: John pounded the table with a clenched fist.
Well, that’s it for today. Happy Wednesday, everyone! I want to get busy on my Mallory book while Amanda’s in school (school started today) and Tom’s doing his therapy at the hospital. The house is nice and quiet. I’ll share a picture of Amanda in her new clothes tomorrow. She was ready for the bus early and waited for 30 minutes.