Sunday, December 27, 2015

Writing Basics: Beats in Dialogue

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When we write stories, we have this awesome idea crafted in our minds before our pens even touch the page (or fingers punch keyboards, your preference). In our rush to get the story on the page, we forget to slow down and make our stories pleasurable for readers to, you know, actually read. Often, we forget to convey basic things like what our characters look like, or placing our characters in the setting, or where a pause in dialogue should be. And that is our hardship as writers: battling against what we want to show our readers and what we actually show them.

Because this disconnect exists between what we think we are writing and what we are really writing, our readers may find themselves brutally dislodged from our stories (or worse: completely bored with them).

If you want to immerse readers in your story, you need to make sure you are conveying your vision. Otherwise, readers will build a world around your story -- a world which, chances are, is very different from the one you intended.

One thing you should consider if you want to craft a story for your reader -- instead of leaving her floundering alone in a sea void of details, grasping for some colorful, creative bit of flotsam or jetsam to wrap her arms around -- is the way you present dialogue.

This may seem like a simple thing: if you want your characters to say something, you have them say it.


Dialogue should be anything but simple. Yeah, yeah, you want the words themselves within the dialogue to be relatively simple because such execution would mirror the way people actually speak in the real world. But the way you use dialogue? Well, that should be pretty darn complex.

What do I mean by "complex"? Do I mean that you should find unique and creative ways to embed your dialogue, or that you should use dialogue in place of action or description. No! What I mean is this: you should be using dialogue with intent.

It almost sounds like I am accusing you of a crime, right? As if I am dragging you before the literary court of law and proclaiming, "Your honor, this woman had every intent of using dialogue!"

It isn't as bad as it sounds.

When I say that you should use dialogue with intent, what I mean is that you should be considering the way you use dialogue to craft your story.

In his book Write Your Novel in a Month, author Jeff Gerke refers to this as using "beats."

Referencing a common stage direction, Gerke means that you should use pauses in dialogue as an opportunity to pace the scene or reconnect with the setting.

What is a "beat"?

A "beat" is the small section of non-dialogue that sometimes appears between two sections of dialogue. Okay, that sentence is a little confusing. Let me give you an example:
     "You better get down here, missy!" The mother stomped her foot. "Right now!"
Ignoring the obvious petulance of the mother, notice how I broke up her dialogue with a smidgen of action. This is called a beat.

Now, it is worth noting here that Gerke also suggests the use of beats to eliminate dialogue "tags" or attributions (ex: he said, she said). The excessive use of dialogue tags can read as a bit clunky, but that is a subject for another post.

Going back to the example with the mother above, notice how the "beat" or break in dialogue by the insertion of action lends a natural pause to the dialogue. Without the beat, the dialogue reads as:
     "You better get down her, missy! Right now!"
See how this showcasing of dialogue reads as continuous? While the meaning of the dialogue hasn't changed, you don't get to experience 1) the mother's actions, or 2) the brief pause that makes the "Right now!" read as more threatening. Here, the beat serves as a brief "breather" for the reader, a small moment where the reader is told there is a pause.

Remember, one of the primary purposes of the beat is to convey intent. If you want readers to read dialogue with a certain pause in a certain place, you have to cram that pause in where you want it.

So, what about using beats to add longer pauses? Can you do that? Definitely.

Take the same example from above, but let's make the beat a little longer:
     "You better get down here, missy!" The mother retrieved her briefcase. Standing at the base of the staircase, she glared at her watch. If they didn't leave soon, they would be late. "Right now!"
This second example shows how a longer beat adds a longer pause between the execution of two sets of dialogue. Also notice how it slows down the pacing of the scene a bit. We get the opportunity to see that the mother is anxious about leaving, and we also get to see that she is giving her daughter time to come down stairs.

While these both seem like minor points (Why would I change my dialogue for that?!), adding beats in your dialogue can make a world of difference when it comes to pacing a scene.

Use Beats to Ground the Scene in Setting

Alright. So we understand what a beat is and how we can use it to alternate the pacing of a scene. Beats have more than one use, however. Gerke also suggests the use of beats to ground the scene in the setting.

What does that even mean, to "ground the scene in the setting?"

A lot of writers (and I include myself among the "a lot," sometimes) craft stories with the sole intention of having the Main Character get from Point A to Point B. Now, the MC may go through stressful trials and sorrowful tribulations, and readers may be riveted when it comes to those times. But what about the scenes in between? What about times when the MC is talking to the villain, or his trainer, or his secret crush? How do authors treat those scenes?

Many authors are so worried about conveying thoughts and feelings through dialogue that they forget to have a setting. Yeah, the author may tell us that Florence and Reggie are at the supermarket discussing their marital problems. Fair enough. But after that first mentioning of the supermarket, Florence and Reggie become heads floating in white space (and often just voices echoing through empty space because the author gives us zero physical cues).

Let's get an example, shall we?

Here is the basis for the following scene:
They walked into the supermarket like it was a typical Monday. Reggie grabbed a cart, and Florence pulled the shopping list from her purse. They headed to the produce section.
Here is an example of dialogue from this scene featuring Florence and Reggie without setting-grounding beats:
     "So when were you going to tell me?"  Florence asked.
     Reggie shrugged his shoulders. "Tell you what?"
     "That you are seeing her again."
     "Florence, I don't know how many times I have to tell you." He sighed. "She means nothing to me."
     Florence tilted her head. "Really?" she asked. "Would someone who means nothing to you phone the house at three a.m. or leave a message for you on our machine?"
     "I think you are overreacting."
     "Overreacting?!" Her voice was shrill. "She came to our home, Reggie!"
     "Florence!" Reggie looked around nervously. "Would you keep your voice down?" he whispered.
Okay! So, we have some juicy accusations going on, and we can see how each character is feeling based on the the beats that we have. Great! But . . . do you get the feeling that they are in the supermarket? In this snippet of scene, we see that the author has thrown setting into the four winds, prioritizing the dialogue over the setting.

Now, you may be thinking that this is an okay thing to do. The drama between Florence and Reggie is paramount here, correct?

While the dialogue is important in this scene, the setting is equally important for two reasons: 1) you don't want your reader to feel as though she is experiencing characters in a void, and 2) hints of the setting can better develop the way the reader understands the dialogue.

Here is an example of dialogue from the same scene but with setting-grounding beats.
     "So when were you going to tell me?" Florence asked.
     Reggie shrugged his shoulders and set a bag of potatoes into the cart. "Tell you what?"
     "That you are seeing her again." Florence drew an angry scribble through potatoes on the list.
     "Florence, I don't know how many times I have to tell you." He sighed and turned his back on her, pushing the cart down the aisle. "She means nothing to me."
     Florence tilted her head quizzically, as if she were studying the apple display. "Really?" she asked, picking up an apple and twisting at its stem. "Would someone who means nothing to you phone the house at three a.m. or leave a message for you on our machine?"
     "I think you are overreacting."
     "Overreacting?!" Her voice was shrill. The apple hit the floor with a sickening thud. "She came to our home, Reggie!"
     "Florence!" Reggie looked around nervously at the old woman wheeling past the carrots and the mother pushing her squalling brats down the aisle. Both were glaring at him in judgement. "Would you keep your voice down?" he whispered.
Alright! Notice how the setting-grounding beats extend the scene while giving the reader little reminders that the scene is taking place in a supermarket. Perhaps I was a bit heavy-handed with the setting, but I wanted you to get a good idea of how important beats can be to your scene.

What do you think about using beats in your dialogue?
How do you think they could improve your scenes?


Fabrice NIZEYIMANA said...

This Post is very helpful!
every writer should have an eye on this!
thank you for sharing

Majesta Miles said...

I found the concept enlightening and am glad you feel the same!

Adil Vp said...

Thoroughly enjoyed the way you presented it. Your examples have a mysterious way of making the readers understand the concept well. Keep up the good work.:D

Since I believe Literature to be the art of painting in the minds of readers without any paint or color but by mere words, I deeply feel that usage of beats in our dialogue attracts the readers to our work just like a flower's corolla does to the bees. It's important that the author endeavors to transfer his vision, rather than the raw ideas, to the readers as it is. The readers can place themselves in the shoes of the characters only when they are able to visualize the ongoing event...

Majesta Miles said...

I am glad you found the examples helpful, Adil!

Thank you for your kind comments.