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
frowned
shrugged
chuckled
sighed
cleared her throat
nodded
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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Other Self Editing articles:

Self editing 4 fiction #7 ~ Interior Monologue
Self editing 4 fiction #8 ~ Master of the Beat
Self editing 4 fiction #9 ~ Sophistication