By Keith Fisher
I'm sorry for the late hour, but I just got back from fishing.
Recently, at critique group . . . well, let me go back. When I first began to write seriously, I wrote stories with more exposition. I read a few books that told me to use more dialogue. Then I learned not to use so many attributions. Also, having a lot of blank, white space on a page was a good thing because the reader can read it quickly.
After attending a conference I knew I should avoid talking heads so I used meaningful dialogue. Stuff that had meat in it, none of the:
"Nice weather today."
"Yes it is."
"What are you going to do today?"
"Don’t know—what about you?"
To be fair, I didn’t use that kind of dialogue anyway.
Then someone pointed out I need more beats, and I started to add them, and add them, and add them. Then at critique the other day, you guessed it, too many beats. I was devastated. I came home and pulled the books out. I studied everything I could, trying to figure out where I went wrong. I knew my dialogue was lacking because I’d been reading it. I added the beats to show what my characters were doing. Then I realized there is a fine line.
According to Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King:
Beats are little bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a character walking to a window or removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes—the literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as stage business. Usually they involve physical gestures, although short passages of interior monologue can also be considered a sort of internal beat. Pg. 102
The line between perfect dialogue and drivel is fine, but it can be felt. When you read what you wrote and it sounds like mechanical clickity-click-clack, it needs more beats. If it sounds like you are saying, said too much, lose some of the attributions. The fine blend of beats and attributions can be heard when reading aloud. Like a musician can hear when a string is out of tune, writers and readers can hear when dialogue is out of tune.
I am learning to stay away from attributions. I’ve removed them almost entirely. I use beats instead, but I use them only when the reader can’t tell who is speaking or when the conversation becomes too mechanical. I’m learning to use beats like playing my guitar. I can feel when a string gets slightly out of tune, and I’m becoming a better writer.
Good luck with your writing—see you next week.