Sunday, January 22, 2012

Self Editing Tip - Understanding "Beats"

The Fresh Beat Band

By: Stephanie Burkhart
It's been said writing for publication can be defined as "10% writing and 90% editing." Writing is easy, but self-editing is a challenge all by itself. Today, I thought I'd talk about "beats," what they are and when to use them effectively as you go back through editing your story.

A beat is that tidbit of action laced through a scene. Beats are usually used with dialogue. Examples of Beats: heads nodding, worrying or nipping at the lower lip, gazing out the window and fisting the hands. Those are examples of external beats. A short interior monologue would be an example of an internal beat. Using a beat allows for a couple of things:

#1 varies the pace of the dialogue
#2 ties the dialogue to the setting and characters
#3 allows for small bits of imagery - keep in mind: Use only small bits. Too much description can be condescending to the reader.
#4 beats anchor your story to reality

How many beats do you need? That depends on the ebb and flow your dialogue. If you're writing a high tension scene it's best to use a minimum amount of beats. If you're in a less tense scene, you might want more beats.
Remember: use "fresh" beats. No two people walk across a room the same way. People watch. You get some good ideas from that. Pay attention to beats that you read. You can learn a lot from reading.

I've also noticed that when writing a young children's story, that you still have to mind your "beats." You don't need a "he said," "she replied" after every bit of dialogue. (As I've seen in some stories) I've noticed my 5 year old's rhythm is thrown off if he has to read a lot of "he said," "she replied."

Reference: Self-Editing for Fiction Writer by Renni Brown and Dave King, Harper Resource, 2nd Edition, 2004, 279 pages.


  1. Great tips! I've never actually heard those small action scenes referred to as "beats", I guess you learn something new everyday :)

  2. Great article. I'm wondering where the term, 'beats', comes from. I sometimes feel, when writing a section of dialogue, that it needs a "beat" or two in the middle to break it up, sort of like a second or two of pause in the dialogue. It's tied up, for me, with my sense of meter/rhythm.

  3. Ladies, thanks for popping in. Margaret, I can't really say, but I would highly suggest reading Brown & King's book. It's very insightful and it helped me understand a lot. I still refer to it.


  4. An excellent point. Rhythm is so vital to keeping the readers interest and managing the tension. I can sometimes feel where a beat is needed, say, when an important point has been made and I want the reader to rest there a moment and think about it.

  5. Interesting way to talk about keeping the story moving forward. Great points.

    Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing