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.

 

Show, Don’t Tell = Use Body Language

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This lesson is invaluable, so read carefully.

Wait, does invaluable mean no value or lots of value? Quick internet search… Okay.

Yeah, there’s gold in today’s lesson.

BODY LANGUAGE = GOOD

CRUTCH WORDS = BAD

Also, a way to find and deal with your crutch words. Didn’t know you had those? You do.

 

 

Tag, your manuscript is it!

First, let’s discuss dialogue tags: those little phrases that follow a section of dialogue.

“Run,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“There’s a T-Rex coming!” He exclaimed.

“Oh,” she said warily.

Okay?

One of my favorite things to do is to wait until a new author writes  “Why?” she asked and then I say, “Lose the tag, we know she asked – the question mark gave it away.”

It’s fun for me.

Most dialogue tags aren’t needed.

Try to use as few as possible in your story. Readers skip over them anyway, so if they aren’t even reading them, why put them in? Use “beats” instead – little phrases describing action.

He glanced over his shoulder. “Run!”

That’s a beat, describing what he did as he spoke, instead of going with: “Run,” he said.

Beats can easily be overdone.

Add your beats and let the MS rest, then read it out loud. That staccato sound you hear is bad beats. Add to them or scale them back. Vary the length and rhythm. Put a tag back in.

Sentences that sounds the same or have the same rhythm become dull to readers, and a dull reader puts your story down, never to return. They may not even know why, and it might be a great story otherwise. More on that in a second.

You can do nothing, too.

If two people are talking and one stopped, the next person talking is the other person in the scene. Readers will get that.

A combination of beats and tags and nothings will get your conversation across just fine.

– as long as the convo is to the point and interesting – but think about what actions are used when speaking, and what those actions say to the reader.

Some examples are when

  • Mallory puts her hands on her hips. In the kitchen no less. What’s that say? Did your mom ever do that?
  • She puts a hand to her forehead. Which means…

See?

There are even lists you can get from the internet. Check them out and use some of the suggested beats for expressing what your character is feeling.

What about when Mallory won’t look at Doug when he’s talking to her in the bedroom? Been there!

LOOK – AT MY CRUTCH WORDS!

One more thing – the word look, or any of its evil friends.

We all have our own crutch words – words or phrases that we use too much throughout the course of a chapter or story.

For example, in my head I know what I mean when I say “He gave her a look.” I’m prone to saying things like “He gave her a look.” Like when I did something wrong as a kid, my mother would give me a look.

In my writer head, I know what I mean when I write that. You may not. Odds are my reader certainly doesn’t.

Now, if I write that my mom put her hands on her hip and raised an eyebrow and waved a wooden spoon at me while she looked at me, that sends a whoooooole other message than just “look.”

A look can be anything. That spoon wagging thing can’t.

So “look” is one of my crutch words. I have characters look out the window or look at the ground or look at each other all the time.

When you read a random chapter out loud to yourself, you will hear your crutch words. If you don’t spot them all yourself—and you wont—give an early chapter to somebody else and ask them to read it with the specific intention of finding words that you repeat too often. (Odds are, within your first five chapters you have established what your crutch words are going to be.)

And once you decide “look” is the devil – because it is – and you spend a week eradicating it from a 100,000 word manuscript as though pulling pieces of broken glass from your eyes (which you’d rather do at that point), you will replace it with glimpse, peer, eyed – until you want to heave your keyboard off the nearest bridge. THEN whenever you go to type “look” in the future, you will flinch like the keyboard gave you an electric shock. And you will type PEER.

In fact, you will type peer so much that it’s a new crutch word.

Yep. If you’ve been watching, you’ve seen lots of glances in this “final” version of my story. That task remains to be done. (It’s final, not final-final.)

So here’s how you get around that particular dog chasing its tail.

You can go online and you can find lists of words to use for substitutes. Synonyms are readily available, but some writer-oriented websites will have words to use instead of “look” or “walk” (stepped, crept) or whatever crutch word you are trying to avoid.

But before you do that, just read some of your manuscript out loud. One chapter will usually do it, three at most. And while you are thinking that takes a lot of time, it’s cheaper than paying an editor to do it and it’s an easy way to avoid bad reviews because your book read amateurish.

Now do a keyword search for the offenders and write down how many times each one appears. I put my list right at the top of my manuscript to keep me humble:

  • Suddenly 15
  • Smile 85
  • Look 445 (told ya)
  • Glance 41
  • Peer 16
  • Shook (head) 34
  • Sigh 32
  • Nod 67
  • just 415
  • went 152
  • shrug 10
  • wheeled 5
  • scene 14
  • chuckle 10

My beta readers will attest to this. And that list was before we started the editing! Now there are fewer looks but more glances. Ugh.

If the word “look” appears 15 times in 100,000 words, you are probably fine.

But

You still want to scroll through all 15 instances to make sure all 15 aren’t in the same paragraph, or ten times on one page! Just because it doesn’t occur very often overall doesn’t mean it’s still not too much where it does appear.

Then, go through and decide you’re going to replace half or more of the hated crutches with synonyms.

You’re going to spend a few hours with your brow furrowed at your screen while you try to figure out whether “peer” or “scanned” or “searched” is a proper replacement for the next time you used “look.”

And believe me, after an hour or two of doing that in a single day, you won’t know any good replacements for anything.

So don’t try to do it all at once.

(“Was” also needs this process, but for different reasons. Was is Satan because it’s less actiony than another verb. That, we’ll attack another time.)

Also, you may run into “staccato sentences” like we discussed above when we were replacing dialogue tags with beats. You can end up with lots of paragraphs or sentences that all start the same way. (That happens even when you aren’t replacing tags, by the way. A lot.)

What I recommend if you have three phases that all sound very similar or all start the same way…

She ran asxiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur hfmnj sdbvpiu egfkjbdn s fpoiryue wt kjnsc mcznvd

He looked xiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur hfmnj sdbvpiu eg

Jonah chuckled xiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur hfmnj sdbvpiu egfkjbdn s fpoiryue wt kjnsc mcznvd hjsfpo ueiw l ksdjgflmv no isdfjoiw

I sighed. Xiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur

… simply leave one third alone, rewrite one third, and reverse one third, more or less, until the staccato section stops being staccattoey.

So instead of “Jonah chuckled” you start with “Chuckling, Jonah… went and did whatever Jonah did.

With the next one, rewriting it might just mean taking the second half of the sentence and putting it first.

And of course leaving one third alone, you don’t have to do anything with those.

So those are two tips – and neither one is fun or easy.

But!

Sometimes those are the little things that a reader might not be able to articulate as to why your story wasn’t as sharp or engaging as they were expecting.

These are the things that take it from less polished to more polished. And they’re reeeeeally dull to do.

In fact, they are absolute hell the first time you do it, a little less hellish the second time, and by the third or fourth time you do it – as in the 3rd or 4th story you write after learning about them – you just kind of get used to it.

This is the process of building your writer muscles. No pain, no gain.

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Dan Alatorre has had a string of bestsellers and is read in over 112 countries around the world.

To get free books and updates on his newest novels, join his Readers Club HERE.

Gotta Stay Disciplined

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your humble host

I was corresponding with a reader recently…

 

READER: Love the idea of a series with ‘Double Blind’ characters. I will be first in line for more of those any time.

ME: I liked the characters in Double Blind more than the ones in Gamma Sequence, to be honest. DB was a lot more fun, so there’ll be more of that. I plotted out basic outlines for a 5 book series. I have… let’s see… the opening two chapters of Primary Target written already, and the third is under way. (Lavonte’s old boss wasn’t happy about him leaving, and is shooting at him as he hides in a dark warehouse. But of course, he doesn’t mention any of that to Tyree…)

 

Every time I think about the Double Blind characters, I get excited and want to write more about them. I have to be disciplined and finish my other projects first, but it’s a good sign when you can’t wait to get started again.

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It’s currently available only in paperback and Audio Book, but if you want an e-copy to read and review, contact me. See? There are benefits to reading all the way to the end of these things.

29 Better Ways To Say “Shone” than Shone

img_2351-19Synonyms courtesy of Thesaurus.com.

Because “shone” should never be used.

It’s not a real word.

Oh, it tries, and it’s in the dictionary and all – but come on.

Nobody ever uses it in real life when they’re speaking, so don’t put it in your stories.

And if YOU use it in real life while speaking, get help.

If there are 29 better ways to say a word, use a few that you see all the time. We are creating pleasure reading. Don’t make your story harder to read than is absolutely necessary.

  1. beam
  2. blink
  3. burn
  4. dazzle
  5. flash
  6. flicker
  7. glare
  8. gleam
  9. glisten
  10. glitter
  11. glow
  12. illuminate
  13. radiate
  14. shimmer
  15. sparkle
  16. twinkle
  17. bedazzle
  18. blaze
  19. deflect
  20. flare
  21. glimmer
  22. illumine
  23. incandesce
  24. irradiate
  25. luminesce
  26. mirror
  27. scintillate
  28. emit light
  29. give light

There. Go forth and sin no more.

NOT A Fan of the New Ammy Proof Version

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your humble and slightly miffed host

Got this in the mail today.

Will be sending it back.

I hate to be seen as a complainer. Life is good. But when we used to get proof copies of a paperback from CreateSpace, they were the EXACT thing people would get when they bought the book. Yes, they were stamped in the back that they were proof copies; that was part of the cool factor – if you gave one to somebody, they were getting inside stuff.

Ammy bought CS. I order proofs to see if the cover looks good. I almost NEVER do that!

And…

This book rocks, the cover looks awesome except – that banner is kinda ugly – and it ruins the effect.

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Imagine the Mona Lisa with a banner. It’s her, but do you get the full concept of what the Da Vinci was going for?

Pfft. Come on.

I wanna see if the colors look good and if the spacing works. I THINK it does, and I checked the computer screen closely, but the real version is always a little different.

The thing the buyer gets, that’s what I wanted to see. Not… not that.

00 BEST V 3 - 2

Anyway, it’s awesome (except for the crappy banner on all sides), and it’s an amazing book you can order in paperback only right now, but the eBook is part of a box set that includes books by 16 other cool authors, all for 99 cents.

To get my paperback here for a  bunch of cash, click HERE

OR

To get 17 medical thriller eBooks for 99 cents INCLUDING my amazing book in the “Do No Harm” box set, click HERE

 

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And don’t order proof copies of your paperbacks. Lesson learned.

ORDER NOW!!

Game Of Thrones Finale

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your humble host

A few days ago, I was thinking about the controversy over the current series season of Game of Thrones, and how disappointed so many of the fans are. I admit, after the very first episode this season I said, “It’s okay, but it feels like they took twice as long to do everything as was necessary.”

Pacing is king, gang.

The final season of GOT? It’s just not very good.

And that made me think…

Shows should just get canceled.

Now, I don’t like it when a show I watch gets canceled. Think about it. You’re enjoying the show and then all of a sudden they come and say, “You can’t have any more of this. We’re going away, and we’re not saying where.” And you’re like, no! No, no, no, no. I want my show! And then you love the show and you watch it in reruns…

Versus…

When the show decides to leave on its own terms.

The last episode of The Sopranos sucked. The last episode of Seinfeld sucked. (I don’t know about the last episode of Friends but I think that one was pretty good.) And I had a great feeling that this whole last season of Game of Thrones was going to suck (it has) so that the last episode might suck a little less and people will think it was good. Because otherwise it was probably really going to suck bad. Really bad. Horribly bad. Write letters to TV stations bad.

Which they’re already doing…

It’s probably like getting dumped versus dumping somebody. Something like that.

In the end, if your show gets canceled, you remain a fan and want to see more and that’s what you carry forward.

When it ends and it sucks, you’re disgruntled – and that’s what you carry forward.

Which is better?

Yeah.

Cancelled, you get to imagine its ending – the one that’s best for you. We all do.

Remember the rule of show biz: “Always leave them wanting more.”

There was too much at stake to not end the series on its own terms, and I’d say they did the best they could with the finale. I was okay with it. But the season as a whole was the worst.

Bad season, good ending.

Still a great series. I’d watch the whole thing again (except for the last season). Like the Harry Potter books and movies, I was happiest with the first ones. I didn’t care to see what happened after. The joy was gone.

Same here.

I’ll watch the shows again and stop somewhere in the third or fourth season, while I’m still enjoying it – still wanting more.

Wonder if there’s a lesson in there for us book writers?

Anyway, what was YOUR show that ended or got cancelled – and how did you like its demise?

 

#Newbooks – Do No Harm, a collection of medical thrillers

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