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Overusing Beats Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes from Live Write Breathe

Overusing Beats (Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes)

#2 Overusing Beats in Dialogue

Discovering beats, an alternative to dialogue tags that helps build your story world can be empowering. The temptation, of course, is to salt your dialogue with beats. Characters no longer stand idle.  Oh, no. They smile, laugh, frown, scowl, nod, kick, touch, look, glance, eye, wonder, ponder, remember, and think with wild abandon.

It’s enough to wear out a self-respecting character, not to mention any hapless reader who might wander into such a hyperactive story world.

The rules that apply to dialogue tags can also bring order to beats in dialogue writing. When it’s clear who’s speaking and the inflection is obvious, don’t use them.

If I know anything about writers, it’s that we don’t like rules to govern our writing. Fortunately, I can add a caveat. Where a high-pitched pace isn’t crucial, adding extra beats in writing your dialogue probably won’t hurt and may help.

A dialogue beat is an action, tone of voice, or introspection that performs one or both of the functions of a dialogue tag. It identifies the speaker and/or indicates the inflection.

Example

I’ll pull an example from last week’s post on dialogue tag blunders to illustrate.

“Come on, Nancy.” Jim stretched out her name and flashed his best big-brother smile. “Ride the roller coaster with me.”

“I don’t care if you beg, I’m not going on that thing!” He shouldn’t tease her, not after seeing her throw up when she rode it last year.

He picked up a rock and skipped it down the street. “Why do I have to be stuck with such a chicken sister?”

The only beat that is needed in this scrap of dialogue is the first. Here’s how the passage would read without the extra beats:

“Come on, Nancy.” Jim stretched out her name and flashed his best big-brother smile. “Ride the roller coaster with me.”

“I don’t care if you beg, I’m not going on that thing!”

“Why do I have to be stuck with such a chicken sister?”

How to Decide When to Use Beats in Dialogue

Can you see how, in the above illustration, the first version adds more detail to the story, whereas the second pulls us along at a faster pace? While detail is important in building your story world, be careful not to include it at the expense of pacing. If you’re not certain how to gauge the pacing in your story, you can find my best advice in How to Master in Pacing.

Go to dialogue writing mistake #3: stepping out of character.
Read about dialogue writing mistake #1: dialogue tag blunders.

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Overusing Beats in Dialogue by Janalyn Voigt | Live Write Breathe

Written by Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt

© Janalyn Voigt
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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

4 thoughts on “Overusing Beats (Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes)”

  1. Excellent, Janalyn!
    So often when writers latch onto a new-to-them concept such as using beats rather than tags, it becomes a knee-jerk Law of Writing. With dialog, it becomes: avoid ALL tags–use only beats.
    When we jettison any of the writing tools available to us, we cripple ourselves and the work becomes unbalanced.
    Thank you for showing writers how to develop discernment and balance in using ALL the writing tools & techniques in our toolbox.

    1. I was one of those new writers who did this, so I have empathy with those who do. We writers need all the tools we can get. I often read vintage authors and notice a great deal of original thinking. I suspect I know the reason that’s rare today. Rigidity leads to floundering creativity.

  2. I’ve run across this in manuscripts I edit, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with the writing. It can really make the story a choppy read. Thanks for bringing clarity to this issue. Somehow I think writers have been pushed into believing they should never use “said” and thus we get overused beats instead.

    1. In my daughter’s (former) writing class, the teacher told the students that the word “said” was banned from their vocabulary. I rarely use said, but there are times when using it is best.

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