Write Prose Like the Pros: Beats in the Dialogue

What are beats? Beats are bits of action narrated during dialogue. This would be called stage business or blocking when reading a stage play. There are also internal beats where a character has a short passage of interior monologue. Beats can help change the pace and tension of a scene depending on how many are used. Fewer beats give a faster pace and can help build tension in an argument scene. Too many beats can stop the pace of the story and move at the same speed as an entire page of narrative summary.

Don’t use too many beats and don’t use too few. What’s the right amount? It depends on the scene. Use fewer beats to build tension. Use more beats to slow things down and give the reader some time to breath. Peaks and valleys. In most cases, there only needs to be enough to keep the reader in the scene. If the scene takes place in a machine shop, an occasional commentary on noise being heard will remind the reader where the characters are speaking. Beats are also important for showing body language to the reader. This is as important as what the character says.

Beats help break up the page making it more engaging. A full page of a one paragraph narrative summary may look boring on the page. That narrative may be important but it’s easy to break it up with beats or internal beats. Through a couple internal beats into the paragraph and now there’s several paragraph on one page and some short internal monologue. But don’t overdo it. If it isn’t important to the story or plot and doesn’t help move the story or plot along its path, it isn’t needed. Do what’s right for the scene and the story overall.

The best place to learn how to improve one’s writing is with Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print.” If I were teaching a class on fiction writing, this is the book I would use as the course textbook.

Write Prose Like the Pros: Dialogue

Dialogue is the best tool at a writer’s disposal. More can be shown through dialogue as opposed to telling through narrative summary. There’s less work for the writer if the characters tell the story or share the exposition. Showing versus telling through dialogue is also important when conveying character emotion. The characters should tell the reader how they feel instead of the writer telling the reader about the characters. There is also some freedom when writing dialogue. Characters can use informal idioms pronounce things incorrectly so long as it fits with their character. 

The narrative around the dialogue is as important as the dialogue itself. When detailing which character said what, it’s important not to describe any feelings. Search for -ly adverbs describing emotions and remove them. Don’t tell the reader “He said angrily.” Show the reader the character is angry with what they say in their dialogue. Remember to read aloud the dialogue. Sometimes reading dialogue sounds different than saying dialogue. If dialogue doesn’t sound natural or realistic, the reader will notice. Most people don’t use big words when they speak. Unless it fits with that character, keep the words simple. Use ‘think’ instead of ‘conclude’ or ‘get’ instead of ‘retrieve.’

Speaker attributions can be tricky business for some writers. They’re important so the reader knows who’s speaking. Some writers will use words like grunted, spat, exclaimed, blurted, retorted. They may think they’re giving their writing more flare, but people don’t often grunt words. And if they do, they’re intelligible. Stick with said. If the dialogue ends with a question mark, everyone knows it’s a question so why follow it with ‘she asked?’ One thing that helps me is having only two people speaking at a time. It’s easier to go back and forth instead of bouncing all over the place. And always put the name or pronoun first in the speaker attribution. ‘He said’ sounds more professional than ‘said he.’

The best place to learn how to improve one’s writing is with Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print.” If I were teaching a class on fiction writing, this is the book I would use as the course textbook.

Write Prose Like the Pros: Point of View

The three basic approaches to point of view (POV) when writing novel length works are: first person, third person, and omniscient. Before getting into those, second person is another POV, using ‘you’ and ‘your,’ but this POV works best for shorter works and I recommend not using it for anything longer than a short story. First person POV follows the main character and the reader is inside their head. The reader feels close and intimate with the main character. First person POV uses ‘I’ and ‘me’ and it allows the readers to see the thoughts of the main character.

Omniscient POV is the opposite of first person. The reader views the story as an outsider looking in as the action takes place. No one’s thoughts are seen. There is only action and dialogue. The reader feels detached from all characters. There is no intimacy. Third person POV is a combination of omniscient and first person. Third person POV uses ‘they, them’ and ‘he, her’ while following one character’s perspective. The reader may not see the main character’s thoughts but will see they action as that character does. The reader may never move beyond that character’s perspective. 

One thing I want writers to consider when deciding on POV is the validity of the narrator. Can the readers trust what the narrator is saying? Does the narrator have biases? Was their perspective influenced to see something different from everyone else? Are they hallucinating? Deciding who the narrator is, why they’re telling the story, and to whom they are telling are as important to deciding in which POV the writer wants to tell the story. If the story is written in the omniscient POV, who is the narrator and how can they see what’s happening with all these characters? Even if the reader never learns these things, it’s important for the writer to develop those ideas.

The best place to learn how to improve one’s writing is with Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print.” If I were teaching a class on fiction writing, this is the book I would use as the course textbook.