Scene Pacing: Balancing the “Beats”

Since the advent of what I call the Dialogue Revolution (the trend toward using few or no attributions and replacing with “beats”), I too struggle to create a pleasing flow to the story. Too many sentences of describing action, thought or emotion and the story stalls. Too few and readers get confused. What’s a writer to do?
Writing Tip for Today: A beat is a sentence which either adds to or takes away from the flow of the story. In a scene, dialogue “he saids” are now often replaced by these beats. How can you strike the right balance?

  • Turn the Beats Around. Placing beats in the same spot for every line of dialogue–say after the dialogue–will quickly feel too sing-song or create a less-than-satisfying rhythm. Learn to vary the placement. One dialogue line, precede it with a beat. For the next speaker, perhaps place the beat after the spoken line. And if you need to emphasize a line of dialogue and the reader is certain who’s saying it, leave out the beats altogether. 

EX: John slammed the book on the table. “What a worthless book of tripe!”
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, wouldn’t you say?” Sandra bit her lip–no sense calling her co-writer an idiot–and eyed John.
“What do you know about it?”

  • Don’t Be Afraid of SAID. Even with the current trend away from attribution, I still think said has a place in fiction or memoir. Using a simple “she said” (NOT she expostulated, observed, opined) alerts the reader to the speaker and is generally invisible to the reader. Keep it simple–you’ll seem amateurish if you bend over backward to come up with an original tag line or attribution. But as far as I know, there’s no law against the occasional “said.”
  • Rule of Three. If you have been hanging around this blog long, you know what I mean. After every three lines of dialogue, evaluate. Break up speeches with a beat of action, thought or emotion, or simply switch to a different speaker. After three EXCHANGES between speakers, evaluate. Do you need a sentence or more of narrative to remind readers of where the scene takes place or other visual, audio or other sensory clues? Rule of 3 is only a guideline–don’t use it in a mechanical way. But if you struggle to keep speeches out of your dialogue, this is a great way to learn better scene pacing. Try it!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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