Just like the beats in music give life to a song and control the rhythm and overall feel, action beats have the power to do the same in fiction.
When used well, your story will sing. When used poorly, your story will sound like a kid learning to play the drums—constant, erratic noise with no clear purpose or rhythm.
Writing Action Beats:
Put simply, an action beat is when a character does an action during a dialogue exchange. These can come before, during, or after a dialogue exchange.
Action beats reveal a character’s movement, emotions, and motivations; affect the rhythm and tension of the scene; and can establish the setting. In the next section, I will discuss how to use action beats for each of these purposes.
Emotion-based action beats can be hard to write as you can get stuck in the trap of having your characters sigh, smile, shake their head, nod, roll their eyes, frown, and shrug a lot.
You can improve your emotion-based action beat skills in several ways:
- Go people watching. Watch your family, your friends, and strangers around you. Notice what they do with their hands, their feet, their body, and their face when they are feeling a certain way.
- Try the mirror trick. While looking in the mirror, act out the emotion your character is feeling when they speak those words.
- Use an emotion thesaurus. You could either buy and use the emotion thesaurus book or create an account on one stop shop for writers and use their emotion thesaurus bank. These resources list actions and other ways to describe emotions.
- Pay attention to beats in books. As you read for enjoyment, note the action beats—both the good ones and the bad. See which ones are working and why, and which ones fall into the common mistakes outlined below.
Action beats that indicate movement are easier to write, but make sure they are purposeful, which we will cover in the next section.
Purpose of Beats
Control rhythm and tension
Sometimes you need to have your characters engage in a longer dialogue exchange, but long blocks of dialogue can seem daunting and give a monotonous rhythm. Action beats can help break that up.
To control the tension with beats, limit the beats or take them out altogether during high-tension dialogue.
To relax the tension, add in more beats; this gives more pauses, which reduces the tension.
While less beats breaking up long dialogue generally ups the tension, you can also insert a longer beat to slow down the scene at a critical moment, thus creating more tension by delaying the big reveal.
Establish the setting
Certain action beats can ground the reader in the scene, indicating where the talking is taking place.
Characters don’t just talk in space; they are in a specific setting, and sometimes the setting either has not even been established or it could be further established through these beats.
Convey characters’ emotions, motivations, and movement
Emotions are expressed in several ways: the words we say, what we do with our bodies, and the tone we use. If the words themselves don’t convey the emotion and it is important for the reader to know the emotion, an action beat can help.
Let’s take, for example, the phrase “I don’t care.” This could be expressed sadly, nonchalantly, or angrily. The words themselves do not tell us how the character is feeling.
It’s also good to show a character’s emotions through an action beat if their emotions don’t match up with their words.
Action beats can also just indicate a character’s movement without revealing any sort of emotion or motivation.
Common Beat Mistakes to Avoid
Poor balance of beats
As with all techniques, it is important to not overdo it or make an obvious pattern. When readers can spot a pattern, they focus on your writing technique rather than the story itself.
If you have a pattern of three lines of dialogue, then an action beat, then three lines of dialogue, etc. It will become apparent.
As mentioned, beats allow you to vary the pace and rhythm so you should think the needs of the decision when deciding a good amount of beats and where to put them. One beat could be a poor balance of beats if it drags down what would be a high-tension scene.
But if a given scene doesn’t dictate a certain amount of tension, you just want to make sure you have a good balance of beats, dialogue tags, and actual dialogue. You don’t want dialogue to go on and on without any interruption in the form of beats.
And you also don’t want to turn every dialogue tag into a beat, as I have seen some authors do. I can only guess that they view dialogue tags as less exciting than action beats.
Sometimes we need to know who is talking, but it would slow down the scene to put in a beat or it would just be unnecessary information, so a simple dialogue tag would suffice (e.g., Kayla said).
Other times, a beat is important to reveal a character’s motivations, emotions, and emotions. But just don’t overdo revealing that, and that brings us to the next common mistake.
Running commentary on the dialogue and limiting reader’s imagination
Be wary of beats that do little other than comment on what the dialogue already shows. If the dialogue already shows a character’s emotion, no need to then show it in a beat.
Let readers imagine how the character expresses the emotion that the dialogue makes clear.
Unnecessarily stating movement
Readers do not need to be told every action a character makes in a scene. We can connect the dots. If a character is talking on the phone, we know they picked up the phone. No need to say they walked over and picked up the phone.
Indicating movement, of course, is fine. But just make sure it serves one of the purposes mentioned above.
It may not be necessary to the plot line to know that a character dropped their fork, but it may establish the scene of sitting at a dinner table. Or it may serve to provide tension by prolonging the great reveal. Or it may decrease the tension by allowing for more pauses and breaks between the dialogue.
But if you have this movement action beat just because you think the reader needs to know the character walked here and then there, reassess if the reader could easily infer that. Don’t write stage directions.
Unnecessary naming of body parts
Your action beat doesn’t need to say “he nodded his head,” or “she shrugged her shoulders.” What else does one nod and shrug?
So watch out for unnecessarily naming the body part doing the action.
Too many clichés or crutches
Be careful of having your characters do the same actions to indicate certain emotions. If your characters always frown or get teary-eyed, then think of another way to express sadness. If your characters always smile or chuckle, think of another way to express amusement.
Do a search for the common cliché action beats and see how many you have.
While frowning, nodding, sighing, smiling, rolling eyes, shrugging tend to be overused, you may have your own unique crutch action beats. So also look out for ones you use too often. You can run a macro to find these.
Paul Beverley has a catchphrase macro that will count any phrases used over a certain amount of times. He also has a CountPhrase macro that will count the amount of times you use a specific phrase you want to check.
How to Punctuate Action Beats
Unlike dialogue tags, action beats do not use commas.
Now, of course, that isn’t a very good action beat, but you get the idea in terms of punctuation.
Katie Chambers, owner of Beacon Point, is a nonfiction and fiction substantive (developmental) editor and copy editor for independent authors, content writer and editor for business professionals, online teacher, and professional speaker.
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