A beat is an action that shows readers how a character is feeling instead of telling them. For example:
Krista slammed the door shut. “I said leave me alone!”
Compare the above to this:
“I said leave me alone!” Krista shouted, furious.
Having Krista slam the door not only shows us that she’s furious instead of telling us, it also gives us a visual of what is happening. Both of those things are good. However, it’s important not to use too many beats, because they can become distracting–and annoying.
When I received the first draft of my last novel back from my developmental editor, she noted that I’d used a large number of beats and suggested that I delete many of them, which I quickly did. I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but then last week I read a novel that used beats so often that I quickly found myself getting distracted by them, then annoyed by them, and eventually I wanted to throw my Kindle out the window. Here’s just one example of a conversation in the book, with identifying details altered:
“You seem distracted.” Leslie tossed a pen at Jesse across the desk.
“Sorry.” Jesse leaned back in his chair and crossed his hands behind his head. “You know I’m terrible at this part of my job.”
“You mean the paperwork?” Leslie leaned forward.
Jesse leaned forward too, elbows on his knees, head hung low. “Yes.”
Do you see how distracting beats can be when used too often? To me, the above reads like stage directions, not a conversation, and the beats cumulatively ruined the reading experience for me. I realize now what great advice my editor gave me. Like fine wine and high-calorie desserts, beats are best in moderation.
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