As some of you know, I am a published short story writer.
Tonight I was asked, what is a beat?
So, I decided to write a blog on how dialogue is structured.
First, I’ll answer the question. A beat is a piece of narrative inserted within lines of dialogue.
Beats can enliven a dull piece of dialogue. They can also provide pertinent information, further character development, change the story’s pace and add to the atmosphere/ tone of your story.
Good dialogue should use tag lines carefully. Examples of tags are: he said, she whispered.
Each of your characters should have a distinct manner of speech, even if that difference is slight. No, I do not necessarily mean that one character is overly crude and the other highbrow. But, there should be something, albeit subtle, which the reader can pick up on as a clue to the identity of the speaker, even without that speaker being “tagged.”
Remember the show Archie Bunker?
Now, if you read the script, without a single indicator of who is speaking, chances are you would know EXACTLY who said what. Edith and Archie. Sunshine and thunder cloud. Hot and cold. Optimist and cynic. Think about it.
A tag should be used about every five lines of dialogue, just to ensure that the reader is able to keep tabs on all the characters. And said is preferable to other tags such as, she dithered, he badgered, I ranted.
Here are just a few helpful hints about dialogue
Don’t answer every question. People often answer questions with other questions.
Don’t allow your dialogue to echo your narrative. Choose one to provide the information to the reader.
We often feel one way and yet say something else. Your characters are no different. Do not fear contradiction. Embrace it. What is it that your character wants no one else to know?
Each speaker gets his/her own paragraph/line. Two speakers do not share one paragraph. This confuses readers.
Mimic real speech whenever you can. Use contractions. Would this character use slang? RARELY, if ever, spell phonetically. Zis iz not dee way to vite. Bad, bad, bad.
Do not have your characters constantly addressing each other by name or terms of endearment. Honey, after sweetheart, after Peaches... Now, this can work for overkill, like the War of the Roses... jabs and digs. Otherwise? No.
Here is an excerpt from to Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This excerpt is used exclusively for the purposes of study.
Now, the use of beats is exaggerated in this scene, but its usage sets a tone, creates admosphere. I do not recommend using the amount of beats demonstrated here. This is set in a different time; there is a slow drawl here, an unhurried pace. This would not work if a bomb is about to detonate, someone is having a fight with a spouse or is speaking to their doctor about a cancer diagnosis. Each story should use an individualized approach to dialogue techniques. Each story has its own VOICE. If your characters are frantic, stressed, angry, the beats will be quick, reflect the mindset, the mood.
Despite all this, I felt the excerpt I chose was a suitable for a closer look at how to structure dialogue.
I’ve colour coded it. Beats are red. Tags are blue. I have used purple to show when they have addressed each other by name and character VOICE is brown. The other aspects of dialogue I’ve left black.
After supper, Atticus sat down with the paper and called, “Scout, ready to read?”
The Lord sent me more than I could bear, and I went to the front porch.
Atticus followed me. “Something wrong, Scout?”
I told Atticus I didn’t feel very well and didn’t think I’d go to school any more if it was all right with him.
Atticus sat down in the swing and crossed his legs. His fingers wandered to his watchpocket; he said that was the only way he could think. He waited in amiable silence, and I sought to reinforce my position: “You never went to school and you do all right, so I’ll just stay home too. You can teach me like Granddaddy taught you ‘n’ Uncle Jack.”
“No I can’t,” 1) said Atticus. “I have to make a living. Besides, they’d put me in jail if I kept you at home—dose of magnesia for you tonight and school tomorrow.”
“I’m feeling all right, really.”
“Thought so. Now what’s the matter?”
Bit by bit, I told him the day’s misfortunes. “-and she said you taught me all wrong, so we can’t ever read any more, ever. Please don’t send me back, please sir.”
Atticus stood up and walked to the end of the porch. When he completed his examination of the wisteria vine he strolled back to me. “First of all,” 2)he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-”
“-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus said I had learned many things today, and Miss Caroline had learned several things herself. She had learned not to hand something to a Cunningham, for one thing, but if Walter and I had put ourselves in her shoes we’d have seen it was an honest mistake on her part. We could not expect her to learn all Maycomb’s ways in one day, and we could not hold her responsible when she knew no better.
“I’ll be dogged,” 3)I said. “I didn’t know no better than not to read to her, and she held me responsible—listen Atticus, I don’t have to go to school!” I was bursting with a sudden thought. “Burris Ewell, remember? He just goes to school the first day. The truant lady reckons she’s carried out the law when she gets his name on the roll-”
“You can’t do that, Scout,” 4)Atticus said. “Sometimes it’s better to bend the law a little in special cases. In your case, the law remains rigid. So to school you must go.”
If you found this at all helpful, let me know. If you have questions, fire away. If you want to grouse, lol, feel free. If you have any additional pointers, please share!