Find the Beats

This afternoon, I worked on revisions.This is the part of writing I love. I love it much more than drafting. Drafting for me is hard work. It’s a clammy, dark underground cave I struggle to dig my way out of. Revising is my happy place—the place where I can relax and think and breathe life into a jumble of words—words that need polishing. Revising is my chance to shine my story into a brilliant ruby or diamond or sapphire.

My focus for the time I had to work was very specific. Today I searched for beats.

I grabbed a Dunkin Donuts caramel iced coffee (my current favorite drink), picked my kids up from school, got them situated into their homework routine, settled into my revising chair (which is different from my writing chair), opened up my laptop, and searched for beats in my manuscript.

Beats are bits of action interspersed throughout a scene, such as a character walking to a window, or removing his glasses or rubbing his eyes. Usually beats are physical gestures like these, though an internal thought can be considered a beat too.

Beats can be a good thing. Writing with beats is a powerful way to help round out your character. Beats can tell more about him then a lengthy description. They can provide bits of imagery that can guide your reader’s imagination. Here’s an example:

Adam took off his Red Sox cap. He put it back on and jumped out of his seat. “I got it!” he said. “I know how Simpson solved the puzzle.”

In the example above, the first two sentences would be considered beats. They help describe the scene and also tell us a little bit about the character. 1. Adam is a Red Sox fan. 2. Adam gets excited when he’s figured something out.

Beats similar to these can be used throughout the story when Adam is put in a similar situation. Here’s another example:

Adam paced alongside the classroom windows. There could be a million reasons why his teacher asked him to wait here after school. He took off his Red Sox cap and then put it back on. “I know,” he thought. “She probably wants me to run for Class President. “

In both scenes, Adam takes off his Red Sox hat and puts it back on when he’s thinking.

See how using a beat can help round out your character?

But here’s the thing… Although beats can help vary the pace of your dialogue, they can also bring it to a halt too. It can make it feel choppy or get in the way. This is especially true during an emotional scene. Let’s say two characters are in the middle of fight. One character is shouting. The other is crying. The character who is shouting is accusing the other character of stealing her favorite lip gloss. In the middle of her tirade though, after she accuses her friend of stealing her lip gloss, she walks over to the window and looks outside. When she comes back, she tells her she never wants to speak to her again. Because she is shouting the whole time, it doesn’t make sense that she would walk over to the window at all. Most likely she would keep yelling until she has finished. See how walking to the window in this case has interrupted the flow of the scene and slowed down the action?

If however, the character yelled about the lip gloss, told the other character she is a terrible friend, and then walked over to the window, it would make more sense. It would serve as a moment for her to think about what she just said. She may even apologize.

See the difference? In both examples, walking to the window serves as a beat. But in the second example, the flow of the conversation is paced better.

Another thing to be careful of when using beats is repetition. How often do you repeat a beat? How often does your character tap her fingers on the table or lick her lips? If it’s too often, it can be annoying or distracting to your reader.

So how can you revise your manuscript focusing on beats? One way is to read your scene a loud. Sometime your ear can pick up beats your eyes miss. Another way is to use the Find/ Replace function. This is a great tool in Word. Pick a word or phrase from one of your beats. Search the chapter for repetition. I also use a highlighter to show me all the beats I’ve used in a chapter. This way I can clearly see if I’ve used too many beats and if the ones I’ve used are effective in rounding out my character.

In my earlier manuscripts, I didn’t know anything about beats. It wasn’t until I read a great book on revising that I learned about them. In fact much of this post came from notes I took a few years ago after reading the book. It’s called, Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King. I highly recommend it!

So there you have it. Now you know how I spent my afternoon. I looked for beats! Sounds like fun, huh?


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