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: Characterization & Exposition

Most self-editing will fall under show versus tell principle. When introducing a new character, a quick narrative summary does more telling than showing. How does a writer show their character descriptions? Once again, I say to write more dialogue. A reader can learn a lot about a character from the way they speak and how they view themselves. You can also learn a lot about what a character doesn’t talk about. The way characters act or react to situations is another way to show someone’s character. Sometimes parts of a character’s personality are revealed over time.

Dialogue is also good for story exposition. If the writer has created an intricate fantasy world, how do they convey the normal rules and way of life in that fantasy world? There are many books and films where the main character is a newcomer to a new world. Or the main character has to help a newcomer to the new world. Through dialogue, the newcomer learns the important things about the new environment. The reader and the character learn about the world throughout the story. This is often used in video games where the player is the new arrival to an unknown world.

The best practices are to add more dialogue and only narrate action. Does the character walk a certain way? Do they look at things a certain way? Do they twirl a pencil when they’re nervous? When adding little details now and then, a reader can get a full grasp of who a character is during the entire story. If there’s an interesting back story, it can be told a little bit at a time in flashbacks or brief dialogue. This can help fill multiple pages instead of summarizing it in a couple of paragraphs. This will tell a reader more about a character than any amount of narrative summary. There is nothing wrong with starting out with a narrative summary. All that dialogue can be worked out during the editing process.

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.