Emily's most recent publications can be found in "A Christmas Sampler: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Holiday Tales" by the Bethlehem Writers Group.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
The benefits of beats.
At tonight's meeting of the Bethlehem Writers Group, we had a delightful time discussing beats in dialogue. Now, for those who don't already know, beats are moments of action in dialogue that writers use to reveal depth in a scene that would not be evident from the conversation alone.
Now, a lack of understanding of the benefits of beats drives many writers to attempt to dress up their dialogue with what I'll call "tacky tags." Tags tell people who said something, most commonly you'll see either "he said," or "she said." Tags are fine, but they don't add much to dialogue, so many authors turn to tacky tags.
Tacky tags are those tags that authors use when they develop an irrational fear of the word said. Tacky tags might include: snapped, whined, enunciated, answered, continued, and, everyone's favorite, ejaculated. I remember back in fifth grade my teacher, Mrs. Patrick, gave us a writing assignment in which we could not use a single tag more than once. It's an excellent vocabulary-building exercise for ten-year-old students, but I can't recommend that technique for aspiring authors. Tacky tags distract the reader from what is actually being answered, continued and/or ejaculated, and tell the reader how to read something after he or she has read it.
Some authors, aware of the dangers of tacky tags, fall instead into the habit of atrocious adverbs. I remember my college writing professor (Poet Len Roberts) telling us that an adverb is a sign that our nouns and verbs aren't doing their work, and, of course, he was right. Atrocious adverbs include such gems as: he said sarcastically, he said indifferently, he said stupidly, and the like. Even bestselling authors sometimes fall into the habit of atrocious adverbs.
I remember reading one of the Harry Potter books aloud to my husband (we both wanted to read the newest book at once, so we alternated reading aloud) and Hermione Granger said something "waspishly." This atrocious adverb bothered me on three levels. First, I recognized the sign the verbs and nouns weren't doing their work. Second, since I was reading aloud, I stumbled over the pronunciation of waspishly, which interrupted the narrative. Third, I wasn't exactly sure what waspishly meant. I found myself wondering how one says things like a white Anglo Saxon protestant, or perhaps like an insect? In any case, I would have been a much happier reader if Rowling had used a beat.
So, to improve our writing, we must stay away from tacky tags and atrocious adverbs, and instead work on our better beats. I say work on our better beats because beats are work. Better beats are a lot of work. Many authors, myself included, fall into redundant habits with our beats... I'll call those... hmm, let's see... drum beats... because you beat them again and again. Drum beats are the actions that every character seems to do all of the time. My drum beats include: smiled, laughed, and rolled her eyes. My job in revising my work is to find my drum beats and get rid of them. By the time I submit a story for publication, all of my drum beats ought to have transformed into better beats.
But replacing drum beats, atrocious adverbs, and tacky tags with better beats is tricky business. In order to learn how to writebetter beats, we writers have to pull out of our introspective musings and actually watch the people around us. We need to actually see how people move, how they sit, how they gesture, and what they do with themselves as they talk.
When your job is to pull human interaction out of your mind, it is sometimes difficult to pay such close attention to people outside of your head. Another danger is looking for your better beats on television. While actors do their best to portray accurate action on screen, they often have tells that indicate they're acting instead of telling the truth. For true actions, you need to watch actual people. So, go out to a public place, and people watch for a while... call it research.
In tonight's BWG meeting, we discussed good uses of beats, especially in dialogue, and we played a little game designed to demonstrate the way beats can alter a reader's perception of a scene. Each group member received the same four lines of dialogue, and we challenged each other to insert beats in order to craft two different scenes.
"Father of our country, first president, first in the hearts of his countrymen, could not tell a lie, defeated Cornwallis and had wooden teeth. How am I doing?
"About as well as my fourth graders. But at least you knew about Cornwallis."
None of us knew who the characters were, or even how many people were contributing to the conversation. Each of us had about fifteen minutes to insert beats (not tags, and certainly not adverbs) and craft two different scenes. Here are the two scenes I wrote:
"George Washington." He stuck out his chin, hands on his hips.
"Father of our country," I counted on my fingers, "first president, first in the hearts of his countrymen, could not tell a lie, defeated Cornwallis and," I paused for effect, "had wooden teeth." I held up six fingers. "How am I doing?"
He curled his lip and looked away. "About as well as my fourth graders." He took a breath and looked back at me. "But at least you knew about Cornwallis."
I shook my head. "Flatterer."
"George Washington." He rolled onto his side and propped his head on his hand.
"Father of our country." I rolled to face him, mirroring his position. "First president." I reached out to caress the side of his face. "First in the hearts of his countrymen." I let my hand trail down to his chest. "Could not tell a lie." I leaned forward. "Defeated Cornwallis." I moved my face close to his. "And, had wooden teeth." I kissed his mouth. "How am I doing?"
"About as well as my fourth graders." He pushed me back until his face hovered above mine. "But at least you knew about Cornwallis."
I reached up to frame his face with my hands. "Flatterer."
See? The exact same dialogue produced two completely different scenes, and I didn't even begin to tap the potential of this dialogue. Both of my scenes were in first person, and in each case my point of view character was talking to a man. There are so many other possibilities for this dialogue, all one needs to do is change the beats.
Give it a try, it's great fun. Take the dialogue above and insert beats to turn it into something all your own. Post your interpretations in the comments section, and let's see just what better beats can do.