Physical Dialogue: Beats & Showing


I’ve touched on Browne & King’s approach to dialogue before, but there’s a lot more to it than just watching your adverbs. Every part of dialogue is a chance to show the reader more about the characters, and that includes the narration around it.

Physical beats

A beat is a description of physical action taken by a character during dialogue, instead of ‘he said’. Example:

   “Are you threatening me?” The man lowered his head like a bull.

We know the man is talking, we don’t need to be told that. The beat showed us his physical behaviour – his reaction to the threat. This beat told us something about the character. It told us he is aggressive, confrontational even. It even gives us an impression of his size and build, via the simile. If the beat had been something like ‘The man took a step back’, that would have told us the character didn’t want to engage in a fight. Much more characterization and atmosphere than ‘he said’.

If a character abruptly changes behaviour, approach or emotion during a dialogue, a beat is a great way of bringing that out. Example:

“I might have expected something like that from you, you ignorant dolt.” Her hands flew to her mouth. “Oh, my God, I’m sorry, I should never have said that.”

The beat is slightly cliched but nevertheless it makes the change in emotion clear, in a way that ‘she said’ couldn’t. As for the cliché, well, beats are actually a great way to really bring out the physical ticks unique to your character. Their tells, as it were. Everyone has a (usually) tiny physical habit that they do without thinking. I play with my right earring, for example. The raptor waggles his left foot when he’s sitting. What do your characters do? Think about their physical behaviour whilst they’re speaking. They’re not going to stand rooted to the spot, encased in marble, to deliver their lines. How would that individual move, even if they aren’t thinking about it?

DialogueBeats are not only great at bringing out characterization and atmosphere. They’re also invaluable for varying the pace of dialogue, giving readers a break from ‘he said, she said’. They tie the dialogue to the setting and characters much more closely, giving your readers visual anchors. Be careful, though, not to over-use this. Resist the Urge to Explain. Give your audience enough clues to jump-start their brain, and no more. Don’t over-define the action, or break up the rhythm of the dialogue so much that the tension is lost rather than built. Fewer beats = quicker pace = higher tension. Try to fit them where there would be a natural pause in the dialogue, because reading a beat gives the audience a brief break from what’s being said.

Remember, less is often more. Just because beats are awesome doesn’t mean you should use them all the time. It’s no better than a constant ‘he said, she said’ scenario. You need to vary the pace and keep a close eye on the rhythm of the dialogue. Don’t describe every single movement, just the ones that actually add something to the scene. Describing too much leaves your readers no room to use their imagination.

Show, don’t tell

Yup, same old phrase, still relevant. Whilst there are places where the beats add something to the dialogue, there can also be times when you’re actually just repeating yourself.

I pull a disgusted face. “Is that what you would have me do? Surrender my will and be a puppet?”

The beat isn’t actually necessary here. The words themselves convey the character’s feeling so the beat isn’t adding anything new to the scene. It’s just slowing things down. This is the same as the ‘explaining again’ bit in my first dialogue post. Don’t be fooled into thinking that, just because it isn’t an adverb, you can get away with repetition. If the dialogue can cover it or is covering it, don’t make the beat do the same work. Assess whether the pacing and tension really requires a beat there and, if the answer’s yes, find one that genuinely adds something new.

“Is that what you would have me do? Surrender my will and be a puppet?” I get down off the bed.

This version of the beat gives the audience a sense of the new distance in the scene, both physically and between the characters. It also shows how the speaker reacts to an unwelcome idea – by retreating from it rather than confronting it. Again, in context the pacing may not require a beat but, if it does, this is a much stronger one to use.

"Now remember, it's not a cocktail party, it's an overlapping dialogue workshop!"It’s also a little less clichéd. As a parting note, Browne & King have some very good advice on how to find the right beats:

Watch your friends. Notice what they do with their hands when they’re bored, with their legs when they’re relaxed, with their eyes when they’re nervous. Watch old movies. Watch yourself. Keep an eye open for those little movements that bring your personality to the surface, the gestures that reveal who you are or how you’re feeling. If you collect enough of these little movements, your characters won’t ever have to look at their hands again.  ~ Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne & King



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