Exciting news! My latest book, Emotional Beats: How to Easily Convert your Writing into Palpable Feelings, is finally available on Amazon. You may remember the book from my poll back when I was choosing its cover. If not, here’s what it’s all about:
Even more exciting, though, is that I have decided to share with you the book’s contents for free (with the exception of the last part for copyright reasons), so I will be posting one chapter each week. If you don’t want to wait, need it right away or simply want to show your love of this blog, you can buy it on Amazon. Personally, I’ve already ordered my paper copy, as this will allow me to flick through it whenever I need some inspiration. Besides, I’ve enrolled it on Kindle MatchBook, which means that buyers of the print edition also get the digital one for free. Even better, I’ve made it available on Kindle Unlimited so that anyone with a Prime subscription can also read it for free.
The book will sell for $0.99 until the month’s end.
What’s that Emotional Beat thing again?
In some ways, writing resembles painting. You, the artist, find the perfect subject and capture it on paper as best as you can. As with painting, this can be done in either broad brush strokes, or fine ones. The detail can be photographic or minimal. And the materials used can make all the difference between a masterpiece and a run-of-the-mill product.
To add emotion, painters use color. Some buy the best colors they can find on the market; others mix them themselves. Like descriptions in a book, paintings can be vibrant or subdued, depending on the emotion the artist wishes to convey.
To achieve the same effect, writers use colorful words. One of the best tools available to them is beats. Google defines beats as follows:
“Beats are descriptions of physical action—minor or major—that fall between lines of speech to punch up your dialogue. When a character raises an eyebrow or furrows his brow, this action, or beat, interrupts the dialogue and telegraphs a change in the character’s emotional state.”
Beats are especially useful in the context of the familiar “show, don’t tell” guideline. This collection of some of the best beats I’ve read and written can be your best friend when you struggle to think of a novel way to convey an emotion without naming it.
Name that emotion
“Show, don’t tell,” everyone says.
Because of the way our brains are wired. If you don’t name the emotion you are trying to describe, the emotional resonance is actually much stronger. As soon as you name an emotion, however, your readers slip into thinking mode. And when they think about an emotion, they distance themselves from the actual experience of feeling it.
So, the next question is, how? How can we show anger, fear, indifference, and the whole range of emotions that characterize the human experience?
Until a few years ago, the answer might have been simple: add an adverb. For example:
He fearfully stepped onto the ladder.
This is simple and unassuming. But, for today’s author, unacceptable. “Lazy writing,” your writing coach would say, suggesting instead that you use a beat. For example, you could describe your character’s actions along the lines of:
He placed one uncertain foot on the ladder and raised his body. Will it hold, he wondered. He closed his eyes for a second, expecting the worn step to give way. When it didn’t, he placed his second foot on the next step. His temples felt damp. He resisted the urge to wipe them, his fingers clutching instead the railing even harder. The ladder held. So far.
Much better, right? It is richer; immediate; deeper. It draws the reader in; makes them want to read more.
Let’s see another example:
Sally felt anxious.
This is a perfect example of a sentence just begging for a beat. So, how about using one to show us instead of telling us?
Sally clutched the hem of her dress, then forced herself to release it and straightened the fabric with long, nervous strokes.
Isn’t that more engaging? Still, there is a little more fun to be had.
Tag! You’re it.
Beats are great when used as an alternative to dialogue tags. Instead of using the tired ol’ “he said-she said,” you can use a beat to indicate whose turn it is to speak. Adding dialogue to the previous example, is there any doubt it is Sally doing the talking?
Sally clutched the hem of her dress. “I don’t know.” She forced herself to release the dress and straightened the fabric with long, nervous strokes. “I really don’t know.”
You can use beats this way not only to avoid excessive dialogue tags, but also to color dialogue with any sort of emotion—in the case of poor Sally, nervousness.
Talking Heads and How to Avoid them
Talking heads are like comics with nothing but heads and dialogue balloons, placed on a white background. There is no action nor settings; just dialogue.
Not me, you say. I have lavished page upon page of detailed descriptions of the surroundings.
And yet, if you have no activity within the dialogue, you can still cause a sense of disengagement between the environment and your characters.
Author Elizabeth George mentions the following goals of such activity:
- To keep a scene from showing talking heads;
- To reveal meaningful insights about characters by showing something interesting they are doing;
- To reveal something key about the plot;
- To bring depth by having the activity be a metaphor or something symbolic in the story.
So, keep in mind that your beats can do much more than pace the dialogue. Try to avoid using nothing but the simple, “she sipped her tea” variety: as George points out, beats are most effective when they reveal something about the character or the plot.
How to use this book
I’ll let you in on a secret: my first drafts are full of telling and dialogue, with nothing in between but nods, shrugs, and frowns. Which makes for rather terrible writing.
That’s because I only care about telling the story. Turning it into an engaging read is left for the second draft. And that’s where beats come in.
When I first started writing, I struggled to imagine the right beat for every situation. So, whenever I came up with a great one, I wrote it down for future reference. I did the same when I read a beautiful beat by another author, and went, “what a great way to show X emotion.”
It wasn’t long before I started jotting down beats and ideas onto a helpful document, imaginatively enough titled “help.doc.”
This book contains some of the best beats I have found or written. These are listed first by emotion, then by body part. The next parts include various lovely generic beats and extra information I have come across.
You can use these as inspiration when in search of the perfect dialogue beat. Use them as a way to avoid talking heads. Use them to color your writing. Use them as a shortcut to start polishing that terrible first draft. By building your own beats around these, I hope you find them as useful in your writing, as I do in mine.