Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.
The Little Things Assignment
Last week we talked about attributing your dialogue. Today I want to go a little deeper into the idea of using beats to enhance, direct, and clarify your dialogue.
A beat is a small bit of action that is attached to a line of dialogue. Instead of writing ‘she said’ or ‘he asked’, a beat not only lets the reader know who is speaking, it builds the scene by giving the reader a visual. A beat can also help with character and setting development.
It’s always a good thing when your writing is multi-purpose. A straight up attribution does one thing: it tells the reader who is speaking. Nothing more, nothing less.
But a beat–a beat can give your reader a glimpse into your character. Is there a tic that shows up when they’re nervous? A tell that gives away their lies? How do they look at their lover? How do they distance themselves from a threat? A beat can tell your reader even more than your dialogue can. Your character might say something that makes them sound like a tough guy, but do something that shows how vulnerable they are. Or they might say something that they think they believe, but do something that lets your reader know that it isn’t really true.
Beats are particularly useful when you’re writing a passage of dialogue between more than two people. You really do need more guidance for your reader in that case, to make sure they know who is speaking, and writing ‘said’ after every line will get tedious and boring fast.
You probably don’t want to only use beats, especially when you’re writing dialogue between more than one person where you need attribution of some kind for nearly every line. Sometimes a simple ‘said’ or ‘asked’ is okay.
One word of caution, though. It’s very easy to slip into the habit of overusing a beat. For me, it’s smiling. When I’m done with a first draft, one of my editing tasks is always to do a search for words like smile and smiling and smiled so that I can take most of them out and replace them with stronger beats. Just be aware of your go-to beat so that you can be sure you don’t over use it.
My work in progress is a retelling of Robin Hood set in modern day Las Vegas. Here’s a passage of dialogue between Rob, Mattie (my Marion character), Mattie’s father, and Guy Gisborne (the antagonist.) That’s four people, so there is some straight up attribution here. You’ll be able to see how I mixed that with beats that move the story forward.
“What’s going on?” Rob tried to keep his voice casual but failed. Seriously failed.
“We were just making plans for later tonight,” Guy said.
“Is that right?” Rob lifted his chin toward Guy, then looked back at Mattie.
She took her father by the hand and walked him to the sofa. Without looking up at either Guy or Rob, she said, “There are no plans for tonight.”
Guy made a noise at the back of his throat and finally had the decency to look like he was somewhere he didn’t belong.
“Actually, we do have plans, tonight,” Rob said. He took some joy in the way Guy’s jaw tightened.
Mattie was distracted by her father. It seemed like Frank had used up all his juice keeping it together in the conference room. He looked drained now. “I don’t think I can leave my dad.”
“I just need a lie down. We’ll head out to Locksley later, Robin.” Frank didn’t seem to notice Guy at all. “Maybe after lunch.”
Mattie looked up at Rob and he said, “Our plans.”
“Locksley?” Guy and Mattie spoke at the same time. Guy pulled his cell phone out of his back pocket and ran his thumb over the screen.
“It’s the house where I lived with my parents before my mom died. My dad never sold it.” And now John had given it away to Philip. “Do you remember it?”
Mattie’s brown eyes shifted toward the ceiling, as if she might find some memories of Locksley there. “I don’t think so.”
“I remember the staircase. At least I think I do. We used to—“
Mattie’s face brightened. “Bump down it in sleeping bags! I do remember that.”
“I want to go see it tonight,” Rob said. “Will you come with me?”
Mattie looked at her father. Before she could answer, Guy took her by the arm. “You can’t go to Locksley.”
“Are you still here, Guy?” Rob would have taken Guy’s hand off of Mattie, but he didn’t have to. She did it herself.
“It doesn’t belong to you anymore.” Guy shoved his hands in his pockets, then pulled them out again. “And, anyway—I made reservations and—“
“Guy,” Mattie said.
“Get over it, Guy.” Rob opened the front door again. “Just go. You never were very good at knowing when you weren’t wanted.”
Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!
Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.
Find a passage of dialogue in your manuscript. Work on building in beats where appropriate. Pay attention to the balance between straight attribution and beats, and where appropriate not augmenting the dialogue at all.
Come by Facebook and tell us about your MC’s clan. I’ll be out of town this weekend, so no office hours, but be sure to share your work for feedback!
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