Learning to Use Beats in Dialogue

One of the hardest techniques for new writers to handle is dialogue. When I first started out, my characters never just said something. They agreed, cautioned, reminded, mimicked, answered, contributed, guessed, explained, responded, admonished, confessed, encouraged, clarified, blurted, pointed, winced, replied, corrected, acknowledged, returned, laughed, challenged, chided, objected, contested, quipped, offered, moaned, complained, repeated, stammered, pleaded, inquired, mumbled, interrupted, confirmed, addressed, countered, advised, completed, allowed, supplied, ordered, asked, continued, chided, answered, whispered, teased, requested, hollered, echoed, declared, informed, spoke, bellowed, spit out, thundered, hissed. All within a few pages. Whew!

Even worse, I would sit and agonize over the way my characters spoke. “He responded sparingly.” “She informed him haughtily.” He mumbled sadly.” Ouch.

It was a joy to discover that modern dialogue relies primarily on “said,” such a common word, the reader’s gaze glides over it as if it were invisible. It was even more of a joy to discover that adverbs were frowned on. The dialogue itself, or the beat — the bit of action accompanying the dialogue — should show the character’s emotion. “I hate you”, she said angrily tells us what the character is feeling. She picked up a rock and threw it at him. “I hate you!” shows us what she is feeling, allowing us to become intimately involved with the character. The only time an adverb is necessary is when the character’s words are at odds with his mood, such as: “I had a great time,” he said sadly. You can also use an occasional “ly”adverb to describe the tonal quality of the character’s voice. “I hate you,” he said softly.

Besides helping identify who is speaking, beats help set the stage, tell us about the character’s personality, and vary the rhythm of the dialogue. Overdone, the beats are as distracting as any other speaker attribute, so the secret is to pay attention to the flow. Do you want short snappy dialogue? Don’t use beats. Do you want to slow things down a bit, keep the dialogue from seeming too disembodied? Use a few beats.

It’s hard to write crowd scenes and keep each character identified without resorting to copious “said”s, but beats keep the scene moving and, if you use beats that are specific to your character, you make the various characters come alive.

This excerpt from my novel Daughter Am I shows the use of beats. The scene is between my hero Mary, a young woman in search of her grandparents’ murderer, and a group of feisty octogenarians who are trying to help.

*     *     *

The man stopped bouncing and let his arms drop to his sides. Now that he stood relatively still, Mary could see he was skinnier than she’d first thought. A gray slouch hat tilted toward one eye, but the baggy pants cinched high above his waist and the bright flowery shirt several sizes too large marred the jaunty effect. His hands shook uncontrollably. Parkinson’s disease?

“You must be Happy,” she said.

Frowning, Happy patted his torso. “Must I be happy?” His voice deepened to what Mary assumed was his normal tone. “Can I be happy? Can anyone truly be happy?”

“His name is Barry Hapworth,” Kid Rags said, flicking a bit of lint off his navy pinstriped suit jacket. “For several obvious reasons, everyone calls him Happy.”

Mary glanced from the bus to Happy. “Were you driving this thing?”

Happy puffed out his meager chest. “Sure was.”

“And did you almost run over Mrs. Werner’s cat?”

“I’ll take the fifth.” Happy paused for a fraction of a second. “A fifth of bourbon.”

“Did someone say bourbon?” Kid Rags removed the flask from his hip pocket, took a swig, and passed it around.

“Who are all these people?” Bill asked from behind Mary.

Mary turned, wondering how she could explain the situation to her fiancé, but Teach saved her the trouble and made the introductions. Arms still folded across his chest, Crunchy nodded to Bill, then stepped close to Mary. Happy punched the air, but stopped when Bill showed no inclination to fight.

Kid Rags shook Bill’s hand. “You’re a lucky man.”

“What are you all doing here?” Mary asked. “I was supposed to pick you up. And why is Happy here?”

“Happy is a friend of Kid Rags,” Teach began, but Kid Rags interrupted him, saying hastily, “Not a friend. Just a fellow I know.”

“Happy knows someone who knows Iron Sam,” Teach continued, “and since we knew your car wasn’t big enough for all of us, we accepted Happy’s offer to drive us in his bus.”

“Who’s Iron Sam?” Bill asked, sounding plaintive.

“Butcher Boy,” Kid Rags said.

Bill’s eyebrows drew together. “Butcher Boy? Mary, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

Mary laughed, suddenly feeling lighthearted and carefree. “I haven’t a clue.”

 

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