When I discovered beats, I fell in love and promptly went a little overboard. What’s a beat, you ask? Allow me to show you:
Jane rubbed her temples. “When are you going to start listening to me?”
“Are you kidding? All I ever do is listen to you! You never shut up!” Mike slammed down his briefcase.
Jane stared out the window for a time. He would never understand. “I guess… I guess it’s over.”
See the lines in bold? Those are beats. Used properly, they can at once replace dialogue tags (said, whispered, etc.), help keep the reader oriented and convey emotion.
Beats can be pretty powerful.
You can overuse the heck out of them like I did. I recently started editing my first novel, which I had stashed in the basement years ago. The first thing I noticed was the excessive use, like I had a huge salt shaker full of beats and just stood over the manuscript and shook. It scatters the dialogue and can begin to follow the character’s every step (which then creates a proportion issue – more on that later) all of which will annoy the reader.
Another issue with beats is that it’s easy for them to be redundant. For example:
Mike clenched his fists. “Don’t you ever come near me again!”
We already know from his word choice that Mike is mighty ticked. Does Mike clenched his fists really add anything?
The moral of the story? When used with discernment, beats are a great complement to your dialogue.
Over to you: how do you use beats?