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Use beats to show, not tell

Posted by Maria Murnane | August 19, 2014

Beats, which are a description of a character’s action, are a great way to exercise show vs. tell. If you aren’t familiar with show vs. tell, it’s a fundamental rule of good writing. (See my post using the analogy of online dating to learn why it’s so important.)

Beats paint a picture for your readers

 

Here are some examples of how descriptive beats show the reader what is happening on a physical and emotional level:

  • Andrea stomped her foot on the ground and crossed her arms. “It’s not fair!”
  • Robert threw the glass against the wall and watched it shatter, then turned his gaze on Karen. “I’m only going to ask you once. Tell me where he’s hiding.”
  • Amber twirled the stem of her wine glass between her fingertips and gave him the doe eyes she’d practiced in the restroom mirror. “I never do this, but would you like to join me upstairs for a nightcap?”

 

By using beats intertwined with dialogue, the above sentences paint vivid pictures of what is happening on many levels. It does this by showing the reader, not telling the reader.

 

Here are three variations of the above examples, minus the beats, that tell the reader what is happening.

  • “It’s not fair!” Andrea declared petulantly.
  • “I’m only going to ask you once. Tell me where he is,” Robert demanded.
  • “I never do this, but would you like to join me for a nightcap?” Amber inquired suggestively.

 

Do you see the difference? Words such as declareddemanded, and inquired have no place in good dialogue. Neither do adverbs such as petulantly or suggestively. Some authors think they’re supposed to use every possible word but said to describe dialogue, when in fact they should only use said – or even better, nothing at all. That’s what good beats can do for you. If you paint a clear picture of the action and emotion involved, readers can see it for themselves.

 

This blog post originally appeared on CreateSpace.com. Reprinted with permission. © 2014 CreateSpace, a DBA of On-Demand Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.

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