What is a beat? And what is its purpose? A beat is a little bit of action that can involve physical gestures. They are used to remind you of who your characters are and what they are doing. An example of a beat is:
“Where are you going?” Charlie grabbed her arm, his fingers digging into her flesh.
They can increase the tension where needed or they can give the reader a bit of relief where the tension is really great.
A reasonable balance is necessary or you can interfere with the flow of the scene. You have a scene where the dialogue is building the tension (example: an argument that is increasing in tension and building toward a critical moment such as a murder). Too many beats can interfere or disrupt the tension and make the murder scene less exciting. This can damage the flow of your scene and keep your scene from building. In other words, it can slow you pacing. The result can be the loss of your reader’s interest. So your goal should be a proper balance between dialogue and beats.
Interestingly beats can be used to vary the rhythm of your dialogue. Remember, good dialogue has an ebb and flow to it. The areas where the tension is high you need to cut the beats to a bare minimum. If you have two high-tension scenes in a row, you should allow your readers to relax in the next scene with some quiet conversation containing more beats.
If you are not sure just where to put a beat, read your scene out loud. Where you find yourself pausing between two consecutive lines, insert a beat.
Beats can be used to define your character. A good example of this is body language. It can allow breathing room in an emotionally tense scene. To reinforce the point I’m trying to make, beats can accomplish three things: 1) They can increase tension; 2) They can allow breathing space for the reader; 3) They can define your character.
In looking over your scene(s) there are some questions you should ask yourself:
1. How many beats do I have? Try highlighting them.
2. How often am I interrupting the dialogue?
3. What are the beats describing?
4. How often am I repeating a beat?
5. Do the beats help illuminate the character?
6. Do the beats fit the rhythm of the dialogue? Read it out loud.
Faye M. Tollison
Author of: To Tell the Truth
Upcoming books: The Bible Murders
Member of: Sisters in Crime
Writers on the Move