Correctly Using Beats in Dialogue

Give me a beat!

seriously, please.

Pages of uninterrupted dialogue will make your readers crazy. It will lead to characters who seem to exist outside their bodies, ghost-like characters who cannot interact with their settings, characters who are devoid of emotion, and even characters who don’t have a thought in their heads. Don’t let your novel read like a script. Use beats.

What is a beat?

In a movie, beats are the silent moments between lines of dialogue. These are the moments where actors add personality and character to the script. Actors create a complete internal monolog to give their characters authenticity. The same must also happen in a novel. Real conversations have pauses and breaks. In a novel, beats are shown through the actions that happen between lines of dialogue.

“How are you feeling?” Something twisted in her chest. It was Neil’s voice. There were so many times she had wanted to wake up and hear that voice. God, she had missed him.
Except for the part that he was a jerk, and he left her, and she hated him.
“Ok, I suppose. My head hurts.”

The text between the two lines of dialogue is the beat. Notice how the dialogue is the least interesting part of the interaction. Without the middle, this exchange would be meaningless.

What happens when the beats are missing?

The results are usually referred to as ‘talking heads:’ disembodied voices that no longer interact with their settings. Readers begin to lose track of where the characters are. The setting vanishes.

beatsin-dialogue

The second problem is pacing. Dialogue without beats feels rushed. Consider

“How are you feeling?”
“Ok, I suppose. My head hurts. Are you driving my car?”
“After that botched exorcism, Mrs. Wilson kicked us out. Threatened to have me arrested. You were still unconscious so I had to steal your car. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Botched? How did he get out of the circle?”
“Dear old mommy felt sorry for him.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. He could have killed you. How’s your arm?”
“I’ve had worse.”

Notice how the dialogue feels rushed. We are unable to connect with either character, and we know almost nothing about what is really happening in the scene. Our characters never have a moment to think, and so they give the impression that they never do.

Now compare the original

“How are you feeling?” Something twisted in her chest. It was Neil’s voice. It sounded so good to hear it. There were so many times she had wanted to wake up and hear that voice. God, she missed him.
Except for the part that he was a jerk, and he left her, and she hated him.
“Ok, I suppose. My head hurts.” Trees whizzed by the window. That explained why her chair was moving. “Are you driving my car?”
Did he rummage through her purse to get the keys?
“After that botched exorcism, Mrs. Wilson kicked us out. Threatened to have me arrested. You were still unconscious so I had to steal your car.” He smiled at her. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“Botched?” Images of Jimmy attacking Neil flashed through her head. “How did he get out of the circle?”
He drummed on the steering wheel with his thumbs. “Dear old mommy felt sorry for him.”
She sat up. The car spun around her head. The pain behind her left eye began to pulse. A migraine wasn’t out of the question quite yet.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. He could have killed you.” Neil had his leather jacket back on, but she didn’t see any other evidence that he was wounded. “How’s your arm?”
He brushed her hand off his sleeve. “I’ve had worse.” Why was he being short with her? She hadn’t done anything.

Notice how most of the scene takes place outside the dialogue. The two characters aren’t saying what they are really thinking, which adds to the tension between them.

When we lose the beats between the dialogue, the MRU is incomplete.

(If you are unfamiliar with the Motivation-Reaction Unit, read this post)

While speech can function on either side of the input/output cycle, relying solely on speech omits feeling and action from every MRU. Without feeling and action, characterization vanishes. Readers need to know what is going on in a character’s head to connect with them. Include feeling, thoughts, and movement, where necessary, to fill out your MRU and tell the entire story.

Non-POV characters should also have complete MRU’s. (Obviously, we will need to leave out internal dialogue, but a non-POV character’s thoughts should be detectable through their external responses.)

How to fix talking heads

If you have a scene that is several lines of uninterrupted dialogue, you may have a problem with talking heads.

Isolate every line and create an MRU surrounding it.

Creating an MRU

Motivation/Input

Dialogue is only one component of the motivation or input portion of the MRU. Characters continually take in information through their five senses. Stop for a moment and pay attention to all of your senses. At this moment you are getting information from all of them. However, your brain can only focus on one at a time. The writer must decide which senses a character will be noticing at any given moment and relay that information to the reader.

For the first line of dialogue your POV character hears, choose a secondary sense to add additional information. Sight is the most frequently used, but don’t forget about the others.

“I’m open to suggestions,” she said, her voice barely audible over the ‘critical failure’ warning blaring in the background. (Notice I did not use the word “hear” in the sensory description.)

Reaction

How does the POV character react to the new information: the reactor’s about to melt down and the person in charge doesn’t know what to do? Maintain the correct order for the reaction:

  1. Feeling: (involuntary responses) His lunch made a few quick flips around his stomach.
  2. Action: (mental, i.e. thoughts as well as physical movements) He glanced down at his mop and bucket.
  3. Speech: “You’re the engineer.”

Keep in mind your non-POV character is on her own MRU cycle. All the information from the custodian’s reaction becomes her motivation. Even if you can’t include the engineer’s thoughts, you, as the writer, should know what they are. This will help make sure your secondary characters have their own lives.

Now that you have all this additional information, you need to cut some, or most, of it back. Vary your beat length for specific effects. A heated argument will have short beats to maintain the energy and forward momentum. Longer beats are required for a character making a life changing decision. Experiment to find the right pacing for the emotional intensity of your scene.

Most lines in dialogue need beats

Beats are the window into the POV character’s mind. It is everything else that is happening in the scene: what a character sees, smells, touches, tastes, hears, and thinks. They anchor characters in their setting and firmly in their bodies. Beats are necessary to tell the entire story. Don’t let your characters be voices lost in space; make sure you utilize beats in your dialogue.

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5 thoughts on “Correctly Using Beats in Dialogue

  1. Great post! During first draft, I often write out all the dialogue first for an exchange and then go back and add the reactions. My characters chatter in my head and if I don’t get it all out quickly, I feel like I miss stuff. Physical reactions require more logic from me than conversations…if that makes sense. haha.

    Liked by 1 person

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