The term ‘beat’ comes from acting, and is used in screenplays to indicate where the actor should pause in the dialogue. “But what does a screenplay technique have to do with novels?” you ask.
Well, because beats are also used in novels. You have beats in your writing right now without even realizing it.
Beats are short snippets in a novel that reveal a character’s actions, reactions, thoughts, or emotions within a scene. These little “pauses” from the dialogue of the story help to control the pacing, ground us in the setting, increase tension or emotion, reveal something about the character, and help us to connect with what the character is feeling.
Beats have a lot of power.
In screenplays, beats are usually used in emotional scenes when the writer wants to actor to pause in reaction or consideration to something that has just happened. In your novel, beats work much the same way. Adding in a beat with your dialogue lets your character pause and react to an event, and allows your readers to react along with them.
Of course, I can keep telling you how awesome and powerful beats are in your writing, but it would be better for me to just show you. Let’s look at a couple examples using Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel (by the way, if you haven’t read this series it’s fantastic!). I’ll show the same passage, the first without beats and the second with.
“You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a warlock eat before. I suppose you needn’t ever bant, do you? You can just use magic to make yourself look slender.”
“We don’t know for certain that she’s a warlock, Jessie.”
“Is it dreadful, being so evil? Are you worried you’ll go to Hell? What do you think the Devil’s like?”
“Would you like to meet him? I could summon him up in a trice if you like. Being a warlock and all.”
“There’s no call to be rude.”
Original passage with beats:
Tessa bit into a roll, only to check herself when she saw Jessamine staring.
“You know,” Jessamine said airily, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a warlock eat before. I suppose you needn’t ever bant, do you? You can just use magic to make yourself look slender.”
“We don’t know for certain that she’s a warlock, Jessie,” said Will.
Jessamine ignored him. “Is it dreadful, being so evil? Are you worried you’ll go to Hell?” She leaned closer to Tessa. “What do you think the Devil’s like?”
Tessa set her fork down. “Would you like to meet him? I could summon him up in a trice if you like. Being a warlock, and all.”
Will let out a whoop of laughter. Jessamine’s eyes narrowed. “There’s no call to be rude.”
The first example goes by quickly, and it leaves the reader blind and on the outside. We might imagine what’s happening, but we can’t really see it because the writer hasn’t shown it to us. We must also assume what the characters are feeling solely from their dialogue (which can be misleading since people often don’t say what they truly think or feel).
In the second example, the beats serve many different functions for the reader. They help identify which character is speaking, reveal their reactions to what is being said, and clue the reader in to the setting. Beats show what the characters are doing which gives us a better picture of the scene and helps us keep track of where they are and who’s doing what.
Additionally, beats help control the pacing and tension. They break up the dialogue, slowing down the reader. If you want a long pause, use a long beat. If you want a short pause, use a short beat. If you want things to move quickly, cut out your beats. And by revealing what the characters are feeling by showing their reactions (and thoughts in the case of your POV character) you will charge the scene with emotional tension that will keep the reader on edge.
Now that you know what beats are and how they can affect your story, harness their power and use them to your advantage!