Last week, for Nailing Down The Essentials, I took a look at dialog tags as a method of attributing speech. This week, we’ll cover what is sometimes called an action beat, dialog beat, or descriptive beat.
No matter what you choose to call it, the action beat is a pause in the dialog. Done well, it serves several purposes.
“I don’t care!” Maggie stomped her foot and flung the newspaper onto the table.
- To show the reader what the character is doing as she speaks.
- Notice, in the above example, the speaker is named. By following standard format and putting the character’s action in the same paragraph as her speech, we know who is speaking. If I had started a new paragraph with the word Maggie, the meaning would be entirely different. Maggie’s foot stomping and paper flinging would have been in response to someone else’s speech.
- We also know, from Maggie’s foot stomping and paper flinging, that, even though she insists she doesn’t care, she is either upset or angry about whatever precipitated the outburst.
Even with such a simple example, not particularly well done, that one little action beat has shown the reader 3 different things. What happens if we expand on the action beat a little, and add other techniques?
First, straight dialog, without action beats:
“I don’t care!” Maggie said. “I never want to see him again.”
“It’ll be okay. You just need some time to get over him,” Arin said. “Now sit down like a good little sister and let me take care of you.”
“Please don’t say you told me so this time.”
Here, we know Maggie and Arin are talking about a man whom Maggie is upset with; Arin is Maggie’s older sister and has a habit of saying I-told-you-so. That’s about it.
Now, let’s do it again:
“I don’t care!” Maggie stomped her foot and flung the newspaper onto the table. How could he have done such a thing? “I never want to see him again.” A deep breath helped her swallow the tears.
“It’ll be okay.” The microwave beeped and Arin rushed to take out the steaming bowl. “You just need some time to get over him.” Cane thumping every time it struck the floor, she crossed to the sink. “Now sit down like a good little sister and let me take care of you.”
Maggie slumped into the hard straight-back chair and propped her elbows on the scarred table top. Would she ever learn to listen to her sister? “Please don’t say you told me so this time.” It would hurt too much.
By adding direct character thoughts, interior monologue, a few adjectives, and a little more action, we now know a great deal more about what’s happening. Maggie is upset with a man who did something to hurt her, and is about to cry. Arin is the older sister, is cooking, and walks with a cane. They’re in a kitchen where the table and chairs are probably old. Arin’s I-told-you-so habit hurts Maggie’s feelings.
With a little more effort, we could show the reader much more – physical descriptions, settings, characterization, conflict, action, mood, and much more. In addition to all that, action beats serve another purpose or two. They solve the dreaded Talking Head Syndrome, where one character says something, then the other character replies, on and on, ad nauseum. They break up long blocks of dialog that make it seem the character is preaching. They make dialog feel more realistic, mimicking the patterns of natural speech, where people pause occasionally, then go on speaking. They draw the reader deeper into the point-of-view character’s head, letting them see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and even think, the same things, without the constant reminder, dialog tags, that they’re reading a story.
Of course, just like any good thing, overusing action beats ruins the effect and renders them useless. Each one needs to earn its place in the dialog and serve a specific purpose.
All these qualities make learning to use action beats effectively well worth the time involved. There are many ways to learn to use action beats, besides simple practice. Examine the dialog in some of your favorite books to see how the authors use them, and for what purpose, as well as when they avoid using them. Write some simple dialog and decide on a goal, what you want to portray with the action beats, then find as many ways of accomplishing that as possible.
Next week, we’ll start examining the actual words the character says.