Self editing 4 fiction #8 Master of the Beat

Beats are those small pieces of action within scenes and dialogue that help the reader to identify with the scene.

They balance the narrative and dialogue, and inform the reader about the actors’ traits etc. – they are also used in place of speaker attributes quite a lot:

“I didn’t mean to upset you, honestly,” Roger said as he gently took my hand.

can become:

Roger took my hand. “ I didn’t mean to upset you, honestly…”

Useful though these beats are for speaker attributes and to season the narrative, we must make sure we don’t “do them to death” and/or echo them overtly. Here are a few popular beats that come into this category:

raised his brows
cleared her throat
shook his head
walked over to the window
looked out the window
looked up
looked down
stared into the distance
scratched his chin
steepled her fingers

You get the idea… So we should always be on the lookout for echoes when using beats; one of the biggest culprits is ‘nodded’ – try doing a search for this word (and others) when you’re editing, and don’t be surprised when you find characters nodding all over the place and in painful proximity. To initiate a “Beat”  search in MS Word, press the F5 key and select “More” > “Reading Highlight” > “Highlight All” or to navigate them one by one, select “Find Next”.

Try to inject a bit of originality with your beats – to find inspiration, engage in a bit of “people watching” or take in a movie with an eye out for mannerisms and how you can coin them.

But even with clever, appropriate and original beats, we must ensure we don’t clog the narrative with them and disturb the flow of the narrative or erode the tension within the dialogue.

One of my favourite examples of how an edit can rack up the tension in a scene is from one of my favourite self-editing books – the timeless and priceless Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (purchase HERE). Below is an example of an early draft of Fran Dorf’s A Reasonable Madness followed by the final edit:


"Laura's illness is very complex," I said. "If you'd just–"

"My wife obviously has a screw loose somewhere," he said. "I was under the impression that the family is informed when a person goes crazy."

I sighed. "Sometimes that's true," I admitted.

He said, "But you don't think my wife is crazy, or what?"

My frustration was mounting. "I wish you'd stop throwing that word around so casually," I snapped.

"I don't give a goddamn what you wish," he said. "It's obvious to me that my wife should be in an asylum."

What an odd choice of words, I thought. "There are no asylums any more, Mr. Wade," I pointed out.

He got up, walked over to the window and looked out, then turned back to me.

"Whatever," he said. "A hospital, then."

I took off my glasses, rubbed my eyes. "Why do you think she should be in a hospital?" I asked him.

"Delusions. You've heard of them?"

"Once or twice." I said sarcastically, beginning to lose it. "Why don't you tell me about Laura's?"

"Thinking things that are obviously ridiculous," he said. "Misinterpreting everyday events and people's behavior as having something to do with her-with this power she thinks she has. Oh, but I forgot. You believe in witches."

Now take a look at the passage  as finally edited:

"Laura's illness is very complex. If you'd–"
"My wife obviously has a screw loose somewhere," he said. "I was under the impression that the family is informed when a person goes crazy."
"Well, yes," I said, "but–"
"But you don't think my wife is crazy, or what?"
"I wish you'd stop throwing that word around."
"I don't give a goddamn what you wish. It's obvious to me that my wife belongs in an asylum."
An asylum?
"There are no asylums any more, Mr. Wade."
"A hospital, then. Whatever."
I took off my glasses, rubbed my eyes. "Why do you think Laura belongs in a hospital?"
"Delusions. You've heard of them?"
"Why don't you tell me what you think those are, Mr. Wade."
"Thinking things that are obviously ridiculous," he said. "Misinterpreting everyday events and people's behavior as having something to do with her-with this power she thinks she has. Oh, but I forgot. You believe in witches."

As can be seen, per our earlier article on dialogue, we have lost the unrequired speaker attributes (I said, he said, I admitted, I snapped, I pointed out, he said, I asked him, I said sarcastically). The fewer interruptions help with the dialogue flow, but, more importantly, we have fewer beats and the main character is no longer telling us his frustration was mounting (which is obvious) and the thought attribute (what an odd choice of words, I thought) is now gone – replaced by the succinct An asylum? in interior monologue style.
Better still, Mr. Wade no longer takes the hackneyed trip to the window to look out of it and the main character’s early sigh is removed and followed by more natural dialogue and Mr. Wade’s interruption, which goes a long way to creating the crackling tension in the scene.

To conclude, there is no finite formula for how many beats to put in a scene, but beware of inserting a detailed running commentary if an actor is performing a task during the scene – allow the reader to exercise their imagination to fill in the gaps. Beats are useful to inject pauses in a long dialogue exchange (if used sparingly) and to slow the narrative flow to give the reader a break from relentless narrative action. It goes without saying that beats can help to define your characters – be they nervous, belligerent, confident, arrogant, clumsy etc. Try to avoid, or at least be frugal with, common, clich├ęd beats – especially involving “look” – look, looked, looking is one of the most overused triplets in novel writing. If you don’t believe me, do an F5 search for “look” in your MS and see for yourself...

Next up: Sophistication

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  1. That example from 'Self Editing for Fiction Writers' is one of my favourite - the redrafted scene is so powerful. Thank you for reminding me about it (off to find my battered copy on the shelf - long overdue for a re-read!)
    My guilty over-used beat is definitely "smiled". I have very smiley characters and I haven't found a substitute word yet...

  2. Yes, a great book that deserves a going over, every now and then.

    Smiles eh? We do tend to smile a lot; as babies we smile at the big people so as they don't eat us -- and from there on out we never stop grinning.

  3. Great post! Any hints/thoughts on scenes with more than two characters? I find a lot more beats start to creep in when I have to make sure the speaker is clear.

  4. The most important thing is with dialogue is that each actor has their own distinct voice, and possibly vernacular. So if we are well into the book (and characters) we can often know who's speaking by what they say and how they say it.

    Having said that, In a scene with many actors there is usually more going on, and so more beats are inevitable.

    Let's take a look at an early scene portion of mine that features Scottish, English of several dialects and New Yorkers. This scene introduces the characters so there's a lot at stake to keep the reader on board and define them in a digestible way (not sure if I succeeded totally):

    Vic returned to the bar to find Gene and Carmen bringing up the rearguard of a thirsty, bulging queue. They smiled and waved when he caught their attention.
    “Hey, Vic. The room’s just great,” Gene enthused. “And the bed…what can I say?” He grinned at Carmen. “It’s more than okay for a couple of weary travellers.”
    “We really can’t thank you enough,” Carmen added. “It’s so relaxing here in every way. I love your Scottish hospitality.”
    “I’m English actually, but it’s right what you’re saying. This place, the people, well…truly enchanting, that’s all. And the scenery, when you draw back the curtains in the morning you’ll see why I like to stay in the bridal suite.”
    “So, Vic – what’s the thing that brings you to Lochailort?” Gene asked. “The scenery? The wildlife? The girls?”
    Vic laughed. “It’s a long story, Gene – best served up with beer. We’d be delighted if you’d both join us over in the nook, if you can suffer four old fools…”
    They weaved their way through the revelry to the table. With a scraping of chair legs the three men stood up and greeted them warmly. Vic made the introductions and Harry pulled out the newly acquired carver for Carmen. Sandra appeared with a notepad, a glass and a bottle of Belhaven for Vic, then took orders from the rest of the party. Moments later she returned with their drinks.
    “Club class or what?” Gene said. “You guys have one smooth operation going here.”
    “Plenty of practice,” Gordon explained. “Fifty-three reunions so far, according to my slide rule.”
    Norman gave an affirming nod.
    “It’s not just Saint Andy’s day, you know,” Harry said, “it’s Winston Churchill’s birthday as well – mind you, he’s been chasing Hitler round hell since sixty-five, so now we drink to his adventures in Operation Afterlife.”
    Gordon raised his glass. “To Operation Afterlife!”
    They clinked and chinked and drank to the diabolical campaign.
    “What is it you guys get together for?” Gene asked.
    “We finished our training here during the war,” Harry said. “Mostly in Arisaig, a few miles up the road. Bloody hard work it was, too.”
    “Hey, we were up there only today,” Carmen said, “in the visitor centre. I even bought the book there – Special Operations Executive. Wow, you’ll just have to sign it for me.”
    Harry laughed. “We didn’t write it, you know, and the book doesn’t tell anything like the full story.”
    Vic gave Harry a look and turned to Carmen. “What part of the States are you from?”
    “Brooklyn, New York.”
    “So what brings you both to bonny Scotland?”
    “Part of our tour around Europe,” Gene said, “Kind of a honeymoon break.”
    Gordon stood up, glass in hand. “To the newlyweds! Long may they prosper in marital bliss.”
    The toast was met with glee.
    Carmen giggled. “Why thank you, Gordon.” She took a slim camera from her pocketbook. “Gene, honey, take some pictures of me with these brave and charming soldiers.”

  5. Just read all 8! Thank you for this.
    In the process of editing now!

  6. Glad to be of service Christine. Once you have edited you can remove any formatting nits by using the search and replace facility in Word (there's an article in the sidebar: Eradicate MS nits in minutes)

    In addition to what's in the article, MS word places apostrophes backwards if you use them to shorten the beginning of a word such as 'em (them) so you search by typing in a space, then an apostrophe, then from the special menu select "any character" and keep clicking "find next" until you check/fix them.

    The way to get the ' the right way round in 'em, for example, is backspace the ' out then type p'em; then remove the p (or Word will just place it backwards as you type it in)

    Good luck!

  7. Great stuff, Stef (and great series). #8 really points the finger at what's become my biggest pet peeve. This is what gets me shouting at so many books (worse, the books never listen).

  8. It's too easy to use a stock beat (look out window) Cary and that's why a reader probably deems them as invisible (overuse) Why not describe a bluebottle buzzing in the window and have the actor go over after a while and let it out, or even swat it, according to his make-up...

    I'll have to catch up with your Alcyone books and promo too...doing quite a lot of offline stuff right now, hence why the next in this series is late...

  9. I actually am doing the opposite on my editing, trying to break up large blocks of dialogue without any beats or description. I think it makes the conversation feel disconnected and isolated from the narrative. I'll have to review this to find the right balance

  10. It's the same task (proportion) either way round, Nigel. Though I think you'll find an extra gear when adding beats rather than subtracting...