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Missing: little dialogue beats

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by 2WayParadox, Feb 22, 2015.

  1. 2WayParadox

    2WayParadox Sage

    I've noticed that i don't use all that many little dialogue beats in my dialogue, and I think it's vecause I don't really know that many. Any helpful advice on how I could expand my repertoire?
  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    My WiP includes a lot of dialogue. It's where most of the plot happens and I've also come across this issue. I'm using quite a lot of different beats, but even then I feel like I'm constantly repeating myself.

    One thing you can do is observe people and the motions they make when they are talking. My main character is a fairly nervous and awkward guy and ha makes moves that corresponds to that. There's a lot of blushing and coughing and lowering of eyes. He clears his throat a lot.

    You can use different beats to underline the emotions of the person that speaks. I'll copy some lines from my wip (to save me making things up on the spot):

    - Rolf smiled. This is a reassuring gesture. Everything's fine.
    - Rolf points at a high cliff. This gives us an impression of the cliff and where it is.
    - Enar squirmed. This shows us he's nervous and reluctant.
    - Hand on shoulder. Again, a reassuring gesture.

    - Start this section with no tag or beat at all to signify the line comes as a bit of surprise to Enar. It's the first line in a new scene.
    - The pretty waitress touches Enar and smiles at him (is she amused or apologetic).
    - Enar shakes himself awake. He's been daydreaming and the act of shaking awake supports his confused one-word question.
    - The waitress taunts/flirts a little with Enar.
    - Enar's blushing, and then he blushes even more and then he says something quickly.

    - A bit of internal thought.
    - Some choreography, to show where the talkers are in relation to each other.
    - Enar sits a little straighter. This is meant to show he's a little bit proud of having walked so far.
    - Looking him up and down indicates she's appraising him and probably having some doubts.
    - Putting on the best indignant face shows us he's joking/flirting rather than being actually upset/offended.

    Okay, so that was quite a lot of examples, I hope it shows off some different ways of doing beats and conversations. This may not work for everyone and it may not fit everyone's style, but I feel like it works for me.
    What I'm trying to do is show off the emotions and actions of the talkers involved, to give the reader a better hint of the feeling and meaning of the words being said.
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  3. phantommuseums

    phantommuseums Scribe

    A lot of people talk with their hands, not just the Italians.

    When I do a beat, I often do an action. Just a simple quick one, and sparingly. Often, when there is dialogue, we create the action in our minds. But to get a natural pause in the text, I like to add a quick action.


    "Oh shut up about Adam! This isn't about that dirt-boned air-brained golem, I didn't come here to be a sister wife: all of this--" Lillith jutted a finger at the window, making an angry thud on the glass, "--has to do with you and me, and that's IT. Not Adam, not God, not Lucifer, the prophets, NOBODY. Got that?"
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  4. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    My advice is simple, but it can be hard to implement. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy though.

    Tag your dialogue with actions that offer more than just dialogue attribution and stage direction.

    People's body language can say a lot about the current moment, or thoughts behind the dialogue (subtext - things that are said without being said). You do it. Everyone you know does it.

    Think about what the movements of someone's hands might mean. How about where their eyes go as they tell a fib? What about the way they position their body if they don't want to talk to someone? What does the action say about that man cleaning his fingernails with a wicked knife while someone questions him?

    There are just so many ways to have your characters express themselves. Dialogue is one of those. Description another (what characters perceive and how they perceive it). Subtext another. Action tags (or beats) can certainly do this, and they perform that function well.

    You just have to dig deeper and use beats that give your reader more information than what's apparent on the surface. The reader may not even be aware you're doing it at the time.

    EDIT: A lot of Scribes have used a book called "The Emotion Thesaurus". It lists emotions and subsequent actions, internal sensations, and the long-term effects of those emotions. When dealing with an emotional moment, it can be a nice tool to get you thinking in an action-based direction.

    If you do try the Emotion Thesaurus, my advice is to use it as a seed for thoughts that are unique to you. Don't just use the ones listed in the book as they are.

    I've found it to be a great little tool for expanding my thinking when looking for an action which protrays a certain emotion.
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2015
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  5. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

    Here's a handy link: "Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language". As with resources like this in general, I think there's a bit of chaff with the wheat, but some of that could be useful.

    In general, try to add a beat when you feel like the characters should pause when delivering their lines. Envision the scene, and think about what you want to convey--you can focus on the character's emotions, their appearance at the moment, or their environment and how they're moving within it. A lot can get done in those little pauses, and it's generally less objectionable than a great big infodump about so-and-so's hair and clothing and the feelings upwelling within them, etc. You can sell pain or anger much more easily if it's been alluded to throughout a conversation.

    You do want to watch out and make sure that you're not using the same beats over and over, though--this is one place where it's easy to repeat yourself and not realize it. Scattered echoes make for consistent characterization, but identical and frequent repetitions make the reader feel like they're being hit over the head.
  6. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Mary Robinette Kowal had brilliant insight into this when she first appeared as a guest on Writing Excuses. Here's a link to the episode. Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 14: The Four Principles of Puppetry, with Mary Robinette Kowal » Writing Excuses

    It's only around 15minutes long and it's brilliant. When Brandon Sanderson talked about that episode in retrospect, he said that she blew him and the other hosts away, because of how awesome her insights were.

    Mary was/is a professional puppeteer, and she applied the principles of puppetry to her writing.

    Anyway here's an edited transcript excerpt from that conversation, and it applies very much to your issues with beats.

    [Brandon] So the fourth principle of puppetry that applies to writing?
    [Mary] Is meaningful movement. That idea is that with puppetry, you generally speaking don't have facial expressions. Everything that you've got is body language. So it has to mean something every time the puppet moves. You'll see a lot of bad puppeteers who walk into a room and they bobbed the puppet's head up every time it says something. We call it head bobbing.
    [Brandon] Very descriptive. Very nice.
    [Mary] Thank you. Most puppetry vocabulary is in fact just that blatant. The problem is that it's conveying no information, so you're just putting a lot of mud on the stage. My feeling is that when a character... any time a character is moving... again, because I can only show the audience one thing at a time, that movement has to convey meaning. If my character decides to pick up a water glass, there has to be a reason that it's going for that water glass at that moment. So that it's conveying either an emotional content, plot content... that there is some meaning that that is conveying.
    [Brandon] So no extra words is what you're saying?
    [Mary] No, I'm not saying no extra words. I'm saying... well, maybe it is no extra words. I don't... it's not so much...
    No. A lot of times, again, you know that there needs to be a pause in a piece of dialogue. So the... it'll be something like... the main character is talking and she says, "I don't like what you're saying to me." She looked away from him. "I don't understand it at all." Okay. She looked away is largely meaningless. Because there are many... what is she looking at? So, what you do is... "I don't like what you're saying to me." She fiddled with the knife on the table. "I don't understand it." That fiddling with the knife on the table immediately starts to tell you what she's thinking about, because she's... if she's going from "I don't understand what you're saying to me" to I need to play with this knife...
    [Brandon] Yes. Put that knife down, please.
    [Mary] Yes. The two things that I've done there is that I've given you some emotional content and I've also set the scene. So I'm using that one thing I can show you at a time to do two things and I've made that meaningful.
  7. 2WayParadox

    2WayParadox Sage

    Thanks for all the responses, I understand a lot better now.
  8. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

  9. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Two things i'll add:

    One, I think of dialog beats as part of a four-way balance of how to tag speech: A) no tags at all, B) good old "said," C) the "supersaids" of a telling-instead-of-showing "shouted" or "said angrily," and D) true descriptive beats. What matters most is using the best one for each moment's pacing, and keeping some balance-- even "said" gets wooden if overused, though of course "said __ly" turns into Tom Swifty territory a whole lot faster.

    Two, I have a rule of thumb for gestures and body language besides the face: most of them involve moving part of you toward the thing you're interested in, or toward something or some stance that helps deal with it. When we flirt, we look and lean and move toward the object of our attraction (or make a point of looking away), and we do things with our hair, build, and so on to draw attention. If we're under threat, we might fixate on the enemy or the exit, on making noise to back them down. or on offering a distraction or shrinking into a nice harmless ball. It's all about their point of focus.
  10. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

    You might also think in terms of scripts. There's some sort of beat every 3-5 lines of dialogue to break up the page or, at the very least, break up a long bit of dialogue. It can be something simple too. Law & Order, which would work as a radio play so little action occurs, would be like this:

    Claire, did you question the janitor?

    The janitor wasn't there to be questioned.

    And that's why we need to question him.

    (Adam sticks his head in.)

    A curious incident, no?

    I think it was Elmore Leonard who said that no one skips dialogue, so don't get in the way of the dialogue.

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