Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Self Editing Tips: Understanding "beats"

It's been said writing for publication can be defined as "10% writing and 90% editing." Writing is easy, but self-editing is a challenge all by itself. Today, I thought I'd talk about "beats," what they are and when to use them effectively as you go back through editing your story.

A beat is that tidbit of action laced through a scene. Beats are usually used with dialogue. Examples of Beats: heads nodding, worrying or nipping at the lower lip, gazing out the window and fisting the hands. Those are examples of external beats. A short interior monologue would be an example of an internal beat. Using a beat allows for a couple of things:

#1 varies the pace of the dialogue
#2 ties the dialogue to the setting and characters
#3 allows for small bits of imagery - keep in mind: Use only small bits. Too much description can be condescending to the reader.
#4 beats anchor your story to reality

How many beats do you need? That depends on the ebb and flow your dialogue. If you're writing a high tension scene it's best to use a minimum amount of beats. If you're in a less tense scene, you might want more beats.
Remember: use "fresh" beats. No two people walk across a room the same way. People watch. You get some good ideas from that. Pay attention to beats that you read. You can learn a lot from reading.

Reference: Self-Editing for Fiction Writer by Renni Brown and Dave King, Harper Resource, 2nd Edition, 2004, 279 pages.


  1. Hi, Stephanie.

    Great blog post. You clarified some of my questions about "beats," and very well, I might add.

    L. j.

  2. Great blog post, Stephanie! I'm glad I "journeyed" over to read it.

    I'll pay more attention to my beats from now on.

  3. Good to see you referenced Browne & King's "Self Editing" book. That's a must-have for any writer. I learned so much about beats and dialogue tags from them. And using beats means you don't need so many tags.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. Totally agree with your list. I get typescripts to crit and this is one of the blue pencil areas. Scripts might start off okay, but as the writer gets into the story there's a tendency to deliver dialogue in a vacuum, as if for a radio play except without the sound effects.

    Good of you to bring this subject up for air.

    Linda Acaster

  5. You made some good points Steph - there's always so much more to learn!

    Angela Britnell

  6. Thank you. Good post.

  7. Steph--"beat" is a new term to me, but I understand your explanation. Now, I'll pay attention to this. Thanks for the lesson.

  8. Hey Steph! Good post on beats. My goal is to have enough beats, and I'm really good at sniffing out where a beat is needed in my critique partner's work, less good at placing them in my own fresh work.

    When I have a high tension scene in my romantic suspense novels, my writing becomes all beats. Here's an example from Muddy Waters after my heroine finds her home unlocked: Instinctively, she raced for the safety of her car. Locked the doors. Floored the vintage Caddy out of the driveway. Only when she reached the lighted convenience store blocks away did she reach for the phone.

    By using quick beats, the action, tension, and pacing propel the reader forward.


  9. Great article, Steph! I never really used the word "beat" in this sense before, but it makes sense. The physical actions - motions, gestures, actions, etc. - I just called stage action. And yes, I intersperse them with dialogue tags as well as interior monologue to attribute dialogue. Same end, different terms. :)

  10. Great advice, even though I'd never heard of the word 'beats' in that context before. I often use small actions in place of dialogue tags.

  11. Beat is a term I learned from screenwriting, and it's not anything like what you describe as a beat here. In screenwriting a beat is an act break or a turning point. I understand how you are using it here, but I'll have to call it something else, just for my sanity. Great post!

  12. Thanks everyone for popping in. I have Brown and King's book and it has a lot of good tips for those who are self-publishing. It's also a good checklist for writing, period. I hope I've helped. The book referered to them as beats, but we often call them dialogue tags, or action tags as well.


  13. Great post on beats! I talked about beats during a library writers' event and book signing. Thanks for sharing, Steph.