Beats Help Make Your Scene Come Alive

img_2351-19You need small actions in a story almost as much as you need big actions.

Beats do that.

When characters move or talk in a book, they don’t just move or talk. They think, they react, they anticipate. They use body language to show how they feel about information they are receiving. Like what you’re hearing? You might lean forward and nod. Don’t like what you’re hearing? You might lean back and frown and fold your arms.

Get the idea? The little actions between things characters say are called beats.

Good beats depend on the circumstance the character is in, and how they are feeling about it, and how that particular character reacts to that circumstance. Some people play with their fingers when they are nervous; others might make a nervous laugh or stammer. These will increase or decrease depending on how stressful they get in the scene. Figure out what your character does when they are nervous (or whatever emotion) and stay consistent with it.

If you were in a room watching the scene happen, what would you SEE a character DO that allows you to conclude they are feeling a certain way?

Write that.

It’s easy once you get a feel for it, and these lists will start that creative ball rolling. Make your own lists after that, and feel free to comment below with some of your own favorite beats. I’ll add them in.

Some all-purpose beats:

  • Nod
  • Smile
  • Rub beard stubble on chin (probably just the male characters for this one)
  • Rub neck
  • Stare at sky
  • Grip hands into fists
  • Push a strand of hair out of your eyes (usually women but not always)
  • Tuck hair behind ears (usually women)
  • Laugh
  • Grit/clench teeth
  • Exhale
  • Cross legs
  • Wipe hands on pants/skirt
  • Tug at collar
  • Look around
  • Play with a pen
  • Lean forward

 

Those beats aren’t particularly helpful because we have no context, but when you read them you can innately envision characters feeling a certain way. See how effective beats are?

Here are a few lists of beats to help you with whatever emotions you’re trying to convey, and some that are useful in general.

A list of some things you do when you get in a car to go to the airport.

  • Get in car
  • Adjust seat belt
  • Touch up makeup
  • Fix hair
  • Pick at or check your teeth
  • Start ignition
  • Start driving
  • Look in mirror
  • Look at passenger
  • Notice other cars
  • Take the exit into the airport
  • Pull up to the curb
  • Get out the bags
  • Hugs and kisses
  • Go inside
  • Drivers pull away from the curb
  • Take the exit on the interstate
  • Merge into traffic
  • Make a few turns
  • Pull onto your street
  • Next, after dropping off the traveler
  • You get in car
  • Maybe you start the engine
  • You put the car in drive
  • You slowly pull on the street
  • You get some instructions on how to keep the car the proper lane, with a new driver
  • You speed up or slow down
  • Usually more issues on keeping car centered, with a new driver
  • Then making a turn
  • Turning onto a side street
  • Speed up
  • Hold onto dashboard
  • Grip wheel
  • Yell at each other

 

Anger

  • Breathe hard
  • Ball up fists
  • Clench teeth
  • Growl as you speak
  • Poke finger into chest
  • Raise voice
  • Glare
  • Heart racing, adrenaline

 

Love

  • Move slow
  • Draw finger across the other’s cheek
  • Lower voice
  • Gaze into eyes
  • Stroke hair, cheek, arm
  • Pauses between words

 

Nervous

  • Sweat
  • Tug at collar
  • Adjust on your seat
  • Loosen tie
  • Wipe hands on jeans/pants/skirt
  • Shift weight on feet
  • Eyes darting about
  • Voice quivers
  • Stutter/stammer (I—I was—honest, I didn’t – I mean, I never…)
  • Back away
  • Gasp
  • Heart racing
  • Pulse pounding in ears
  • Raise hands
  • Tremble
  • Swallow hard
  • Fingers fiddling with hem of skirt
  • Bite lip
  • Lean away
  • Fold arms
  • Rub beard stubble
  • Bite fingernails
  • Tap pen on desk
  • Look away
  • Run hand through hair
  • Rub the back of their neck
  • Change subject
  • Laugh (nervously)
  • Ask questions (what’s that big knife for?)

Whatever nervous habit you give a character, write it down and keep it as theirs. Barry can bite his fingernails; they all can’t. Other characters need to have and keep their own nervous trait, so when they’re nervous, they do it.

Time passing with nothing happening

Sometimes nothing’s happening. BUT SOMETHING’S ALWAYS HAPPENING! Don’t say there’s a pause, show what happens during the pause. Your characters stare at each other for a moment without speaking. Here’s what’s happening:

  • Clock ticking on a wall in another room
  • Wind picks up leaves and drops them somewhere else
  • Cars drive by in traffic
  • Distant voices in the lobby

You get the idea.

Whatever emotion or information you’re trying to convey, find examples in movies and write down what you saw that allowed you to conclude the character felt a certain way. Movies get music to help, though, so that’s not always useful for us.

Here are a few more good tips.

  • Watch people
  • Watch what you do
  • Be careful, we don’t need anyone getting arrested for all this watching stuff.

Look at images on the internet. Search for happy, sad, etc., and write down what the faces are doing. Yes, it’s smiling if they are happy, but it’s crinkled eyes and jumping up and down and lots of other stuff, too.

There’s more, but this will get you started.

It’s not that you can’t think this stuff up for yourself, it’s that when you’re editing and tired, your brain gets to the point where you just can’t create any more ways to add good beats. So make it easy on yourself. Have lists, or come back here for a refresher.

You’ll write more than one book, so you’ll need this list again to help you with the next story, too.

You’re welcome, Jenifer.

 

8 thoughts on “Beats Help Make Your Scene Come Alive

  1. Thanks, Dan, great advice. I thought hard about my two main characters and I realise that to show the love they touch noses, a private moment between them. I also have one character who rubs his chin, lol, he also has a gold tooth which shows when he smiles.

    Liked by 1 person

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