Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Flat Speaker Beats Vs. Beats That Tell a Story

Guest Blog by Andrea Merrell, Author and Assoc. Editor, Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas

I am happy to welcome Andrea Merrell as a guest blogger today on Carolina Romance. Here are her tips about good speaker beats that will help your novel or creative nonfiction succeed. 
We’re taught the concept at writers’ conferences, read about it in helpful blog posts, and hear it from our critique group: show—don’t tell. This key to writing well can make or break an otherwise good story.  One way to be sure you’re showing your story is by using descriptive speaker beats. But first, let’s look at the difference between tags and beats.

Speaker Tags

A speaker tag shows the speaker’s name and a speech-related verb (said, asked, shouted). This is generally the best way to indicate which of your characters is speaking, but sometimes we tend to overuse tags. They’re not necessary each time someone speaks, especially in a long section of dialogue.

Example: “That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing,” Wendy said.

                     “Thank you so much,” Beverly replied.

                     “Where did you get it?” Wendy asked.

                   “It came from Dillard’s,” Beverly answered.

                     “Oh, that’s my favorite department store,” Wendy said.

Speaker Beats

A speaker beat is the action or internal thoughts that accompany what the speaker is saying. It also indicates who is doing the speaking.

Example: “I can’t believe you said that.” Jessie grabbed her keys and headed for the door.

Example: Tears rolled down Susie’s face. “It was a mistake. Please forgive me.”

Just like tags, don’t overuse beats. Too many will interrupt the flow of dialogue. They’re not necessary every time, but they work well to set the scene when used correctly.

Here are a few common speaker beats that are not only telling but redundant and, well … flat—especially when used over and over in a manuscript:

  • She smiled.
  • He laughed.
  • She cried.
  • He shrugged.
  • She nodded.
  • He cleared his throat.
  • She blushed.
  • He flexed his jaw.
  • She sighed.
  • He winked.
  • She straightened her shoulders.
  • He raked his hand through his hair.

Am I saying it’s never okay to use these beats? Yes and no. An occasional she smiled or he shrugged might be acceptable, but not just as a filler. And not if you want the reader to relate to your characters and feel like they’re watching them on the big screen. We need to show the emotions and inner conflict of our characters. Let’s look at another example.

Flat Speaker Beats

“I’ll be home soon,” Steve said. “Sorry, I forgot about the party.” He laughed.

Julie sighed. “You don’t listen to anything I say, do you?”

“Sure I do.” Steve shrugged. “I just don’t have the best memory.”

“You don’t care about my feelings. That’s the problem.” Julie cried.

What do you get from this section of dialogue? Not much. In fact, it’s pretty boring. We don’t even know whose point of view we’re in. Let’s set the scene a little better.

Speaker Beats that Tell a Story

“I’ll be home soon,” Steve said with a nervous laugh, wishing for the hundredth time he had put tonight’s party on his mobile calendar. He would have a hard time talking himself out of this one.

Julie’s weary sigh cut through the phone like a knife and reminded him of all the other important events he had conveniently forgotten. “You don’t listen to anything I say, do you?”

Steve shrugged his shoulders in a nervous gesture—the way he always did when he knew he was wrong—even though no one could see him. “Sure I do. I just don’t have the best memory.” Well, that was at least partially true. No need to make the situation worse.

“You don’t care about my feelings.” As usual, the sound of crying replaced the sigh. “That’s the problem,” Julie said between sobs. “You’ve never cared.”

Do you see the difference? Can you feel the conflict and tension between the two? Paint a picture with your words and pull your reader into the story.

Andrea Merrell is an associate editor with Christian Devotions Ministries and Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. She is also a professional freelance editor and was a finalist for the 2016 Editor of the Year Award at BRMCWC. She teaches workshops at writers’ conferences and has been published in numerous anthologies and online venues. Andrea is a graduate of Christian Communicators and a finalist in the 2015 USA Best Book Awards. She is the author of Murder of a Manuscript, Praying for the Prodigal, and Marriage: Make It or Break It. For more information visit www.AndreaMerrell.com or www.TheWriteEditing.com.

Andrea's latest release is, Marriage: Make It or Break It.

Thanks for stopping by today. Do you have samples of good speaker beats to share? Please leave your comments and share this blog on your social media.

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Elva Cobb Martin