Every writer benefits from education, whether it is to refresh what you know or learn something new. Since fewer members of my critique group are submitting pieces for critique right now, we thought we would take a stab at discussing our craft and learn a few things. In typical fashion, I go overboard. I typed up three pages for our discussion of Showing and Telling using excerpts from the book of the same name by Laurie Alberts. This time, I thought I would cover two bases and share my findings on this blog o’ mine.
The topic is writing physical beats — a natural follow-up to the showing conversation. There are all kinds of beats in writing (external, internal, flashback, etc.) Writers have heard “show, don’t tell” so many times, it is a constant current running through their heads. But one of the things that came up in our conversation was not to show for the sake of showing.
I am guilty of doing this after taking the show, don’t tell advice deep into my heart. My scenes would detail every time a character shifted or stood or sat or moved her head or picked his nose. It became a laundry list of activities. Who wants to read that? Previously, I said diaries and journals are boring, because nobody cares about the everyday details of life, yet here I was providing those details in my character’s life. Whether real life or fiction, mundane details are mundane.
When do you add these physical beats?
Readers are smart. They know people are not mannequins during a conversation. Documenting every sniff and weight shift is not going to immerse readers but will bore them. A physical beat must serve a purpose. Here are some good uses of physical beats:
Change in emotion/behavior, a reaction
Using a beat to show the emotional reaction of a character helps readers care about what is happening. They are better able to connect with or understand characters.
Characterization, physical habits
Unique traits bring characters to life. Those details allow readers to visualize and know a character better. A beat is necessary when it reveals something about a character the reader needs to know.
Move the plot
Important things do happen while characters are conversing. When dialogue reveals something to the reader, a beat is necessary to explain what is happening instead of leaving the reader hanging. Making the plot move during a conversation is always appropriate.
Add pacing, tension, rhythm
Some writers prefer to follow the “3 Beat Rule,” which states never to have more than three lines of dialogue without a break. This is a good way of making dialogue realistic. Monologues are rare in real life. A dialogue tag may be all the pause needed, but if time needs to be stretched to increase tension, add beats.
Use Beats With Care
In her book, Showing & Telling: Learn How to Show & When to Tell for Powerful & Balanced Writing, Laurie Alberts says
Stereotypes, like clichéd scenes, weaken your work and make it uninteresting.
The goal is to tell a story people want to hear, not one they already heard. Stereotypes and clichés earned those titles by being used time and time again (see what I did there?). Good writing brings a new world, or a new angle on the existing world, to life. Those distinct qualities of setting and character create unique beats, but make sure the character dictates those qualities. A character’s habits must fit the personality or it feels forced.
Once that unique trait is revealed, it is no longer unique. Varying descriptions and making characters have a variety of habits will keep the beats in a story fresh.
Not only is repetition a problem when overusing the same beats, but also when the beat describes something already contained in the dialogue. If the dialogue did the heavy lifting, let it get the credit.
Putting It To Work
This is a lot to keep in mind, and it will not always happen on the first draft. Mine still contains the same problems I said at the start, because that is what editing is for. Revision is the time to go over a manuscript and enhance the story with beats or fix the sins mentioned above. In the meantime, I can watch people, study personality traits, do some of the exercises at Katherine Cowley’s site, and read books by successful writers, so I am prepared to carve the mediocrity out of my story. That’s the plan anyway.