Take Advantage of the Power of Beats in Your Writing

A beat is a useful tool for #writers. Beats help to control the #pacing, ground us in the setting, increase tension or emotion, and help us to connect with what the character is feeling. Learn how to use them to your advantage.Beats are one of the most awesome tools a writer can possess, and they often get overlooked. But just what the heck is a beat anyway?

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.

Without beats:

“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!

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6 thoughts on “Take Advantage of the Power of Beats in Your Writing

  1. Kaitlin I tried an experiment on a chapter of mine that I thought was dragging along in a dreary way. I cut out what you have described as the ‘beats’ and it transformed it into a punchy action section, which is what I had originally set out to create. It is quite an effective device to slow down action or conversely speed it up.

    1. That’s awesome! I’m glad to hear you’re experimenting with you beats 🙂 Once you’re aware of them you have even more power to manipulate your story.

  2. I love beats. They add so much. It’s an art in itself in learning where to place them for the most impact.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

  3. I know that missing beats is one of the problems with my own writing; I like to get everything straight across, no strings attached! But this is a good reminder—it’s good to give people context and control my pacing a little better. Thanks for the tips!

    1. I know what you mean, I can be a pretty straightforward writer as well. After a while you get a feel for where and when you need them though and it becomes habit. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

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