We’ve talked about diaogue tags. Now let’s discuss beats. What are beats?
Just like dialogue tags, beats are used in dialogue to identify the speaker–but, in this case, without using “said.” Beats are actions that identify the speaker without having to point out that he/she said that. It looks like this:
John scratched his head. “Are you sure this is how this works?”
In this case, we don’t need a “he said” in the end. We know John is the one doing the talking, because the beat told us so. Easy, right? So let’s move on to the rules!
Unlike tags, beats are separated from the quote by periods, not commas. A dialogue with both tags and beats would look like this:
“I love you,” she said.
He smiled. “I love you too.”
Tag with comma, beat with period.
A beat can come before or after the quote. But you do need to read your dialogue to make sure it’s clear to the reader who the speaker is. To better identify the speaker, have the beat on the same line as the quote. Starting a new paragraph can make things confusing, especially in a long dialogue.
Authors seem to have go-to beats. In every dialogue, you’ll see characters (any of them) smiling, running their hands through their hair or turning. Those are fillers. They show absolutely nothing. You might as well just have a dialogue tag.
Instead of doing that, you should use beats to show and to create voice. Watch the scene. Get inside your character’s head. How would this person react to this comment? How would he or she feel in this situation? What quirks and habits match this character’s personality? When you do that, you show. You show people are really nervous without saying so if you have them pacing or chewing their lower lips. You show your character is a confident woman when looks straight into someone’s eyes and speaks her mind. Use beats for more than just telling your reader who is talking.
4) Mix and match:
If you have a dialogue using only dialogue tags, you have talking heads. If you use only beats, you end up with long scenes that don’t flow. The goal is to use both to create a dialogue that really moves your plot along.
After reading these two posts, do you have any questions about beats and tags? Do you need help with a dialogue? If you do, send me your scene and I’ll analyze it right here on the blog! Just email your dialogue (300 words max.) and a short blurb about your manuscript to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line DIALOGUE ANALYSIS. I’ll tell you how to improve it right here!