Beat is one such word.
If you check a dictionary, you’ll find an extensive list of definitions. Since I took lots of piano lessons as a kid, I tend to think of beat in relation to music. Like in maintaining the correct beat which had been hammered into me by several piano teachers.
Thus, to me beat had to do with the tempo of a piece of music. The rhythm.
During my journey to published novelist, I went down the screenwriting rabbit hole. Imagine my surprise to see the word beat used interchangeably with plot points and turning points. Then I read Robert McKee’s Story and he had yet another definition: “A beat is an exchange of behavior in action/reaction.”
Oddly, I can’t find a dictionary that defines beat in any of those screenwriting terms.
Frankly, none of the screenwriting definitions of beat clicked with me. I think my primary definition of beat kept getting in the way. Not that I worried about it, after all, I wasn’t writing a screenplay.
When I was editing one of my novels years ago, I was introduced to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It's a great little book that keeps you on track while editing your way through a final draft.
It also gave me a definition of beat that completely changed how I wrote dialogue. Their definition was easier for me to grasp because it married well with music.
In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a beat is a descriptive sentence or sentences inserted before, after, or during the dialogue section. It is not a dialogue tag such as “said,” that establishes who is talking, but instead comes into play after the reader knows who is talking and describes a character’s response or action.
If dialogue is the audio, think of beat as the video.
The reader not only “hears” the character, but can also “see” the character. In this context, a beat is a well-timed pause in the dialogue, a succinct but descriptive sentence filled with deeper meaning, that expands the scene.
Revisiting the dictionary, we find a definition of beat: it contains a rhythmical flow or pattern. Using beat in this fashion makes it easy to see how a well-written dialogue beat helps the rhythm of dialogue flow.
To me, beats are key components of writing dialogue. For decades writers used overworked descriptive dialogue tags (loudly, determinedly, sweetly) in order to show characters’ emotions. Beats offer a much better way to do this.
I love using beats for two reasons:
They make descriptive dialogue tags unnecessary. They reduces the number of times I need to use the ubiquitous “said.”
Here’s an example from a scene in my short story “The Courtship of Serena Smith.” The heroine is petting the hero’s dog.
“It’s in her face and coloring,” Serena said sadly. Her fingers slid from Mollie’s head to the distinctive ridge of hair running down her spine. “And the ridge. She looks a lot like my Bandit,” she said in a choked voice. “He was honey color, too. With four white paws and a white tipped tail.”
But I wrote:
“It’s in her face and coloring.” Her fingers slid from Mollie’s head to the distinctive ridge of hair running down her spine. “And the ridge. She looks a lot like my Bandit.” The woman’s words caught in her throat, coming out a little ragged. “He was honey color, too. With four white paws and a white tipped tail.”
I dropped the descriptive “said” tags in favor of focusing on what Serena is doing and how she sounds as she speaks. My goal is to keep the reader in Serena’s point of view by using descriptive beats that best connect the reader to Serena’s emotional state.
Dialogue can be used in multiple ways to enhance storytelling–everything from advancing the plot to revealing goal, motivation, or conflict. (I actually have over two dozen uses of dialogue in my She Said, He Said: The Power of Dialogue ebook) Dialogue coupled with beats offer a variety of ways to deepen the emotional connection between the characters and the reader. If you’re a novelist whose exposure to beat is trying to fill out a Beat Sheet, keep in mind, beat has more than one meaning.
If you’re a novelist whose exposure to beat is trying to fill out a Beat Sheet, keep in mind, beat has more than one meaning.
Once we assign the word “beat” to the job of enhancing dialogue, it a short step into understanding, as Browne and King wrote, that a beat is the “literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as stage business.”
A deeper dive which we’ll take in an upcoming blog.