What's in a beat?

I’ve plunged hard into the world of beats. I tend to categorise them into action beats (someone does a thing), emotional beats (emotional insight is revealed to the reader) and thought beats (direct thoughts of the POV character). This week I’ve delved into the purpose of beats. Is it just to indicate who is speaking and what they are doing? Spoiler alert: Beats are so much more.


Action

One purpose of the beat is “stage direction,” to indicate action taking place and who’s speaking. If you have pages of dialogue, you have no idea who is saying what. These beats also help to anchor the reader in the world around the characters, the setting.


Example:


“Thorrn, where are we going?”

“Up to see the king, of course.”


Changes to:


Evyn peered up at me. “Thorrn, where are we going?”

I pointed to the stairs. “Up to see the king, of course.”


Rhythm

You can use beats as a pause, of course. In music a beat is the note or the pause, and both are equally important.


“Thorrn.” Evyn peered up at me. “Where are we going?”


Rather like Evyn, introducing a pause helps the reader to also gather their thoughts about what’s happening in the scene.


At the smallest scale, then, a beat is an interruption of the narration.


Emotion

That’s all very well, but there’s no emotional cues in the prose as is. Are they happy to be going to see the king? Worried? Small punctuations of action beats might help anchor the reader in the setting, but these kinds of observations do little to add to dialogue, mood or character.


“Thorrn.” Evyn peered up at me. “Where are we going?”

I pointed to the stairs. “Up to see the king, of course.”


Becomes:


“Thorrn.” Evyn’s eyes narrowed at me. “Where are we going?”

I slowly pointed toward the stairs, keeping my elbow in tight to my side. “Up to see the king, of course.”


Or:


“Thorrn.” Evyn’s eyes narrowed at me. “Where are we going?”

I threw my arm wide. “Up to see the king, of course.”


In the first example, Thorrn is nervous. In the second, he’s angry. Or… is he?


Beats as units of change

One of my weaknesses is underwriting a scene. Showing rather than telling has been drummed into me, and that can lead to being superficial in beats. There’s a reliance on the reader to discern how the characters are feeling.


If you think of a beat as units of action and reaction, delivering small changes, things start to get interesting.


A scene is, after all, just a series of moments, one after the other. It could just be dialogue and action, but that ends up being quite flat, as in the examples above.


Mixing in some thought beats or emotional beats can work, if appropriate to the scene and the intentions. What is the change that the beat is going to deliver? In your scene, is that best done through an action (but beware of it being flat if overused), a thought, or an emotion being described (but beware of telling!) Quite fraught, yes, but also very interesting.


“Thorrn.” Evyn’s eyes narrowed at me. “Where are we going?”

Couldn’t she see the obvious path of our steps? I threw my arm wide. “Up to see the king, of course.”


Slightly better. Through the thought beat, Thorrn voices impatience. He’s also using big movements, which for him is more likely when he’s rushed or angry. So which is it? Reader might need further clues.


(Notice as well that I said “for him.” Action beats are going to be slightly different for each character. Evyn gets flushed and flustered when she’s rushed, spinning toward anxiety if it goes on for too long; Thorrn moves faster because he’s used to adrenaline, but he might still feel a bit jittery, and he’ll need to calm down afterwards.)


But action beats get tired if they are used all the time. Thinking of a beat as an action / reaction and shift, then there are a whole host of other ways that we can deliver that shift.


I found a list by Katherine Cowley (original post here and well worth a read):


  1. The Summary Action Beat - When it is appropriate to tell or summarise.

  2. We walked up the stairs. “Up to see the king, of course.”

  3. The Habitual or Recurring Action Beat - Similar to the summary action beat, something that happens multiple times.

  4. We made our way up to the familiar corridor to the royal apartment. “Up to see the king, of course.”

  5. The Long Shot or Extreme Long Shot Action Beat - Big picture view of the action, can overlap with a setting but action should be occurring.

  6. We made our way to the heart of the castle administration. “Up to see the king, of course.”

  7. The Medium Shot Action Beat - Standard view, focusing on one or two characters.

  8. I walked slightly ahead of her up the stairs. “Up to see the king, of course.”

  9. The Close Up Action Beat - very close shot of a character’s action.

  10. I avoided looking at her as we walked up the stairs. “Up to see the king, of course.”

  11. The Flashback Action Beat - an action in the past

  12. The note, signed by the king, rasped in my breast pocket as we walked up the stairs. “Up to see the king, of course.”

  13. The Future Action Beat - an action that will happen in the future.

  14. We would confront the doors to Gough’s office before long. “Up to see the king, of course.”

  15. The Sensory Action Beat - senses, or how the character is noticing the action.

  16. Evyn’s breathing became more laboured. I slowed my pace. “Up to see the king, of course.”

  17. The Internal Action Beat - something within the main character’s body, a physical sensation.

  18. My own heart drummed with a firm rhythm. “Up to see the king, of course.”

  19. The Mental Action Beat - decision or thought process.

  20. Why has the king called upon us both? “Up to see the king, of course.”

Now, then, the trick is to combine them in the right way to produce the effect that we want, the small shift in mood, layering emotional context on for the reader.


I walked slightly ahead of her up the stairs, avoiding looking at her. “Up to see the king, of course.” The note, signed by the king, rasped in my breast pocket with every movement. Evyn’s breathing became more laboured, and my own heart drummed with a firm rhythm. We would confront the doors to Gough’s office before long. Why has the king called upon us both?


Okay, so we’re getting a sense of tension: rasping, labouring, drumming, confront. A sense of why: there’s a note. Rising tension: they’ll find out why soon. Some insight into character: Thorrn is hiding his nerves from Evyn: avoiding looking at her.


The setting can also play a part.


I walked slightly ahead of her up the endless stairs, avoiding looking at her as we dodged functionaries flowing past us. “Up to see the king, of course.” The note, signed by the king, rasped in my breast pocket with every movement. Evyn’s breathing became more laboured as we gained each level; I slowed to accommodate her, my own heart drumming with a firm rhythm that echoed with my steps. Why has the king called upon us both?


Also personal preferences of the characters. Clothes come up at a few points, because Thorrn is precious about them where Evyn is not. If Thorrn addresses the thing annoying him in his clothes, what does that tell us?


I walked slightly ahead of her up the endless stairs, avoiding looking at her as we dodged functionaries flowing past us. “Up to see the king, of course.” The note, signed by the king, rasped in my breast pocket with every movement. I flattened it against my chest, my heart drumming with a firm rhythm that echoed with my steps. Why has the king called upon us both?


That’s better again. And so on!


Sprinkling is best

All of this to say, making writing richer with unique action beats in the dialogue will help readers get drawn into the worlds our words create. Balance is key to anything in writing and indeed life ;)




Reading list:

https://redpenvigilante.com/2021/12/19/how-to-write-good-dialogue/

https://www.stormwritingschool.com/beats-disambiguation/

https://www.stormwritingschool.com/beats/

https://kathysteinemann.com/Musings/action-beats/

http://www.katherinecowley.com/blog/action-beats-dialogue-beats-and-beat-variation/

The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi


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