Do You Have The Beat?

Has a critique partner ever read your wip and said, “You need to add a BEAT here?” The first time this happened to me I thought, What’s that? Maybe you’ve had a similar experience or request.

Or have you been told not to use he said and she said too often in your novel because it gets monotonous? You switch your tags to he replied, she begged, he asked, she cried and then you’re told NOT to use any of these, to ONLY use SAID. Sheesh, which is it? What’s a writer supposed to do?

As writers we’re supposed to avoid using ATTRIBUTIONS whenever possible, or use them sparingly. An ATTRIBUTION is a tag used before or after dialogue such as he said, she said, or he asked and she shouted. The reason we have to avoid them is because they can be intrusive. And we want our readers to keep reading!

It’s true. Most editors will judge your stories negatively if you use too many of these guys. (But if you have to use one you should only use he/she SAID.)

Are you asking the same question I initially did? If we don’t use tags how will our readers know who’s talking? Or who’s moving?

This stumped me for a while, too, until I got the hang of it. Until I got good at using BEATS. 

What’s a beat? These are sentences in your novel that move your story forward. That show the setting, the emotion of the scene, the tension, the stakes, the character’s expressions and body language, their fears and their inner dialogue.

First, let me show you a scene without any beats. All dialogue. Consider this:

“What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing is the matter with me. Why do you ask?”

“You seem fidgety, like you have something you need to say, but you’re afraid to say it.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Maybe I should tell you what it is that you’re nervous about.”

“How would you know why I’m nervous?.”

“Because I caught you.”

“Caught me doing what?”

“Having lunch with Paul.”

Now, let me add a few BEATS to this same dialogue.

While you’re reading the BEAT version below notice these three things:

  1. Whose POINT OF VIEW (POV) is the scene in? If you’re writing in only ONE POV then you can’t head hop and know what the other characters are thinking or feeling. You can only view the other characters actions from the MAIN POV’s perspective.
  2. What emotion am I trying to convey without naming it?
  3. Did I use any attributions?

Here’s the same scene with beats:

Nikki refused to look at Drew when he entered the kitchen. She didn’t have to glance at him to know he was watching her.

He cleared his throat. “What’s the matter with you?”

 “Nothing is the matter with me. Why do you ask?” She kept her voice calm and loaded the dishwasher. He was looking for a fight, but she wasn’t going to play that game.

“You seem fidgety, like you have something you need to say, but you’re afraid to say it.” Drew took a step toward her.

She wasn’t going to fall for his bullying. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” 

“Maybe I should tell you what it is that you’re nervous about.”

Nikki’s heart raced. Why did he have to be so controlling? She slammed the dishwasher shut and met his eyes. “How would you know why I’m nervous? If I was.”

“Because I caught you.” He inched his way closer.

She backed away, noticing how his nostrils flared. She didn’t want to be around for what would happen next. Nikki steadied her voice. “Caught me doing what?”

He threw his fist onto the countertop. “Having lunch with Paul.”


Did you see any TAGS? What was the emotion in this scene? Who’s POV was it from? 

Drew was angry, but no where in this scene did he say he was angry. The scene was from NIKKI’s POV. Initially, Nikki tried to be strong, but she showed fear and backed down. Did you see any tags? Nope. Did you know who was speaking? I hope so. When there are only TWO people in the scene it’s easier to omit the tags. This isn’t always the case when there are three or more.

Here’s another good question: How did you know WHERE to place the tags? Should they be before or after the dialogue?

Remember that saying, For every action there’s a reaction? Think about this as you’re writing. There’s a certain order to REACTING. Typically reactions happen like this: Your character first FEELs something, then does something ACTION, and lastly will speak SPEECH. You can read more examples of this HERE.

Place the beats where you think they belong. Read them aloud. Do the reactions fall in the right places? Your critique partner (or your editor) will let you know if you’ve goofed. If so, it’s an easy fix.

Now it’s your turn. Practice.

  • Write a scene without tags, using only dialogue. (You might find that your dialogue improves doing a scene this way.)
  • Go back and add the BEATS.
Does this make sense?

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  1. Wow, this is genuinely very good and very helpful. Thanks, Delores

    • Thanks, Dee! That means so much to me. I love helping others and encouraging them. Totally.
      And, if you see me again at the ACFW and I don’t wrap you in a bear hug–it’s not me, okay?
      Have a great voting day!

  2. Absolutely great example and great explanation of beats.

    • Thanks, Pat! Hearing you say that makes it all worth it. I hope you’re having a great writing week. Think about guest posting for us soon, okay? I’d love to hear more about your contract and the books you’re working on.

  3. Robin says:

    Ooh, I love this post. I’m going to have to come back to this when I’m editing.

  4. katie says:

    i agree with the above – great explanation! thanks for sharing

  5. Diverse tags. No tags. Only “said” or never “said.” Beats beaten to death. ARGH!

    These are fashion rules, not really writing rules. The real issue is to tell the story, which requires the reader to be aware of context and non-verbal communication in a vivid and engaging way and to keep track of who is speaking. The claim that “he said” takes the reader out of the story is an uninformed editorial assertion, not a fact. Nothing takes a reader out of a story more completely than losing track of who is speaking and having to go back and reread.

    Beat after beat after beat is not only tedious and prolix, it intrudes into the dialogue and slows down the pace. Dialogue is alive, dynamic; description is static. The key, as in all writing, is not to overdo it. Dialogue tags on every speech utterance are unnecessary and boring; beats before or after every line are actually even worse, because they are (almost always) less economical, and they repeatedly put the writer between the reader and the words of the character.

    If there is something to be learned here, it might be that variety is the spice of writing, and spices can be overdone. Mix-and-match, using beats when action and reaction are central or to expand on dialogue and stretch time or as a change-up from tags. Use tags for their economy. But don’t tag or beat every line–only when needed for clarity or when it helps to tell the story.

    In a true dialogue, that is when there are only two interlocutors, tags and beats can be used very sparingly, particularly if the dialogue is well written, dynamic, interesting in its own right. If characters speak in very different ways, the style itself becomes the tag. The fun begins when three or more people are speaking. In these cases the writer may use a variety of other techniques to help the reader keep track, but one way or another- the reader must always know who is speaking, whether through speech tags, beats, speaking style, secondary cues, position, or whatever.

    • Well said, Larry! I couldn’t agree more. Beats for the sake of beats can be extremely boring. Thanks for adding these important truths. More important than anything in a story IS THE STORY. It’s annoying to try to always follow the “fashionable” rules–which are always changing, but my point here was to look at other options, show how to use something other than dialogue tags. It’s an gift and an art when an author can define which character is speaking by using only that characters’ personality. I’m going to hunt for examples of this in the books I’m reading for a future blog to SHOW this. But it can be done, for sure.
      Would you be interested in sharing a scene from one of your books that illustrates this? I’d love to share it here.
      Awesome. Thanks for contributing!

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