On the Beaten Path: How to Use Beats in Fiction
By Michelle Barker
You know how ants can lift up to fifty times their body weight? Beats are the fictional equivalent of the ant. If used properly, they can do a surprising amount of heavy lifting in your novel.
First, let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing. Beats for screenwriters are different than beats for fiction writers. Screenwriting beats are more like plot points. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
What are beats in fiction?
Beats show up around dialogue. They’re those moments before or after a character speaks, in which they perform an action or a gesture, or the narrator makes an observation.
What beats can accomplish for you
Beats can replace dialogue tags
If you use proper spacing, the beat can take the place of he said/she said, thus doing double duty in your manuscript. Proper spacing means that the dialogue and its beat appear in the same paragraph so that the reader understands that the speaker and the thinker/actor are the same character.
They can slow down a scene for dramatic effect
Sometimes you need that pause before someone says something momentous or makes a theatrical exit. Sure, you could write, He paused. But you could also do better and fill the pause with a beat that highlights an aspect of the character’s personality. Speaking of which…
Beats are a great opportunity to develop character
This is one of their most useful functions. Beats, if properly used, can show us who that character is by what they notice, how they react, and how they perform a particular act.
They solve the Talking Heads problem in dialogue
Dialogue is fun to write, which is why we tend to get carried away with it and forget that a scene needs rounding out with details of setting, sensory detail, and interiority, so that it isn’t just two (or more) people talking. All of that can be accomplished with beats. Beats give your characters something to do—and how a person does something can say a lot about how they’re feeling. Don’t believe me? Try filling the dishwasher when you’re angry.
Beats can create subtext
If your character says one thing and then thinks or does another, you create a new layer of intrigue in the story and your reader will keep reading to figure out what’s actually going on. In the above example, Martin says he doesn’t care if Amber is still going to class, but by the way he sets down the sugar bowl, the reader knows he’s lying.
Beats create insights into character without the need for omniscience
Showing how other characters react can be particularly useful if you’re writing in first person or deep third point of view and only have access to one character’s thoughts. It’s a great way to indicate to the reader how other characters are feeling or what they might be thinking.
New authors often choose omniscient point of view because they believe they must have access to every character’s thoughts for the reader to understand what’s going on—even though omniscient is by far the hardest POV to handle. But beats prove this is not true.
Here’s an example from Stephen King’s novel, Billy Summers, written in deep third, entirely from Billy Summers’s POV:
Hoff starts down the hall, but just when Billy thinks he’s rid of him, Hoff comes back. No hiding the desperation in those eyes now. He speaks low. “We’re really good, right? I mean, if I did anything to offend you, or piss you off, I apologize.”
“Really good,” Billy says. Thinking, This guy could blow. And if he does, it won’t be Nick Majarian on ground zero. It’ll be me.
“Because I need this,” Hoff says. Still speaking low. Smelling of Certs and booze and Creed cologne.
Notice how King’s details in these beats not only immerse us in the moment of the scene, but they also give us insight into the character of Hoff—without him having to resort to another POV. And without stopping the story. The details are slipped seamlessly and efficiently into the beats.
You have to use beats properly
In most of the manuscripts we read, beats are not used to their true potential. They’re squandered on generic gestures: nodding, blinking, sighing, shrugging, looking (in all its various forms), head shaking, heart racing—etc., etc. As developmental editors, we’ve seen these things a thousand times. These types of beats do nothing to develop the character who’s performing them, and yet authors rely on them, overuse them, and usually don’t even realize the disservice they’re doing to their readers.
Why is this such a big deal?
If your characters are nodding and sighing all over the page, chances are you have not fully visualized the scene you’re writing and, even more, you don’t truly know your characters. People are interesting. People are weird. The more you get to know them, the weirder they become. And readers read for the experience of character. A reader won’t care what happens to your characters if they don’t care about them in the first place. Which means your number one job, from page one, is to create connection. Make us care. Get us interested—not in the car crash or the kidnapping, but in the people it’s happening to.
You are here to recreate an experience, not to tell us about it. And nodding, blinking, and sighing won’t accomplish that.
But beats, if properly used, can. If you make them unique and specific, they become like windows onto your character—their secret desires and fears, their obsessions, how they see the world, how they think, how they move. With every gesture you include, ask yourself: does it tell the reader something specific and new either about the character or the situation? Hint: breathing, blinking, and looking at things tell us nothing. If your character is in the room, we know they’re looking at whatever it is they’re describing. We know they’re blinking and breathing, else they wouldn’t be alive.
You can do better.
How does your character eat? Quickly, stuffing themselves? Painstakingly dissecting their pasta to pull out every tiny piece of tomato they can find? How do they react to a spider in the room? How do they react to animals in general? Or germs? Or car horns? Are they on edge at every noise? Do they have trouble looking the protagonist in the eye?
Some beat homework
Go to a café and pretend to be on your laptop while secretly observing the people around you. If they’re not on their phones (which, sadly, they probably are), you’ll see how interesting they can become. Pay attention to what people do when they think no one’s looking. Think about what you do. The most effective fiction is also the most honest. Why? Because when you’re being honest about your thoughts, actions, and reactions, you’re creating something relatable. It’s a wonderful paradox of writing that the specific creates the universal. The more specific you can be, the more readers will recognize themselves in your characters.
The best fiction contains memorable characters. In order to create those characters, we must know them and then convey what we’ve learned onto the page.
Honor the tiny beat and it will carry the weight of a whole character for you.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.