Adding Beats: Meaningful Actions that Move Your Story Along

Saturday, October 27, 2018
As I draft my first adult novel, I find myself wondering if enough is going on. Each scene has a goal and, while I manage to either meet it or redirect the action, I suspect that sometimes it is all too linear. My main character does X. A secondary character gets in her way or lends a hand and together they do Y. They succeed or fail and the goal of the next scene is Z.

But is it enough? Or do I need to add additional beats?

A beat is an action. The more beats you include in a story the faster paced it may seem. May seem? The key is to include beats that are meaningful.

We’ve all read the advice to include beats. Many of us have even read the advice to substitute an action beat for a dialogue tag. Not sure what I mean? Here’s a line of dialogue with a tag:

“Get off my back,” Toni said. “I’m not signing it.”

Here’s the same dialogue with an action beat.

“Get off my back.” Toni looked at him. “I’m not signing it.”

“Looked” may be an action beat but it isn’t a meaningful action. It is just filler, a trite activity. Anyone who uses looked or glanced has, according to freelance editor and author Deborah Halverson, missed the opportunity to reveal something about their character (see her post here). I would also add that a beat can drive the story forward or foreshadow a future event.

Here is the same dialogue with three different beats.

Beat #1:  “Get off my back.” Toni clicked the ball point again and again. “I’m not signing it.”

Beat #2:  “Get off my back.” With one hand, Toni tapped the pen on the edge of the table. The fingers of her other hand drummed a second, complicated rhythm. “I’m not signing it.”

Beat #3:  “Get off my back.” Toni wadded up the confession, palming the paperclip. “I’m not signing it.”

Which is best? It depends on the story. If Toni is high strung and nervous, Beat #1 reveals that through a nervous habit. Want to tell readers something about Toni, perhaps that she is a drummer? You can show that with Beat #2. Is Toni going to need the paperclip to pick a lock? Then Beat #3 not only provides action, it moves the story forward and foreshadows future events.

Meaningless beats run the risk of slowing your story with trite activities. To move your story forward, use action beats that detail emotion, reveal something about the character, or foreshadow an upcoming event.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins November 12th, 2018.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Wow, Sue. I guess I need to do a "find" search for the word "look" in my manuscript, and revise those parts, because I know I used look at least several (hundred ;) times.

Just another think I need to look for and fix. Thanks a lot. ;)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

You and me both, Sioux. As I drafted 3 pages yesterday, I caught myself thnking, "That's going to have to go." "There's another one I'll be replacing."

Glad I could be of help/torment us both. Ha!


Margo Dill said...

This is a great little reference post for revising. I think doing a search for Looked in a manuscript is a great idea. I mean sometimes, people do have to LOOK at each other, but it is one we often fall back on like smiled and laughed too.

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