How to Create Dialogue Beats
Picture by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.
Many amateur writers don’t understand the power of dialogue tags. We’ve probably all heard the advice to avoid overusing the tags “he said” or “she said” (or even “they said”), but there’s a little more finesse involved than this when crafting natural and engaging dialogue.
The Power of Said
First, know that you can find power in using said tags. Said can easily become invisible: sometimes readers won’t truly read these basic dialogue tags because their brains can process them so quickly. However, these “invisible” said tags can still cause readers to take a small, natural pause in the dialogue, creating the perfect dialogue beat.
What’s a dialogue beat? Think of it as a brief pause when a character speaks, a pause that is most useful when conveying further meaning or emotion in the scene. The next time you watch your favorite TV drama or have a chance to read a contemporary script, look for these “beats” and notice how they add to the characters’ way of communicating naturally.
You can use these beats in your novel’s dialogue, too! Adding the occasional said tag or a simple but meaningful narrated action can give your readers just the right break in the conversation to better engage with the moment and connect with your characters.
Here’s an example of some dialogue without any beats:
“How are you?”
“You don’t sound fine.”
“I am fine.”
Now, this back and forth could certainly work in the right context. If you’ve already established strong character voices and don’t overuse quickly relaying lines, this kind of dialogue can give readers a nice change of pace. But notice how the flow of the conversation changes with added dialogue beats:
“How are you?”
He frowned. “You don’t sound fine.”
She gave him a pointed look. “I am fine.”
Notice that I didn’t add narration before and after every single line of dialogue. I simply wanted to add a beat after “Fine” and before “I am fine,” so I added some simple actions to further emphasize how the characters were reacting to each other. Do you feel the way he hesitates for a moment after she says “Fine” because of that dialogue beat? Do you feel how she tenses up and gets defensive because of the pause before her answer?
Simple conversations like this gain more depth and emotion when we use actions and tags purposefully to create emotional, authentic dialogue beats.
Creating Dialogue Beats
So how do you add these said tags in your dialogue artfully? Try this exercise. Read a scene of dialogue out loud, ignoring any narration that may already be there for now, and notice when you feel yourself naturally pausing throughout the conversation. You can try marking these pauses with asterisks. Also take note of when you want an emotional shift to happen; you can mark these moments with another symbol.
Those moments when you naturally paused and placed an asterisk are key places where said tags can do the work for you. And whenever you want an emotional shift, you can insert specific actions that will help show what your characters are feeling (e.g., shifting when nervous, blushing when embarrassed, rolling their eyes when bored). If you already had some tags and actions in place before, you may decide to delete some of these tags or narration that didn’t fall into these natural pauses and shifts to make your writing more concise and cohesive.
Keep reading your dialogue (and narration) out loud until everything seems to flow and sound like a real conversation. You can also try reading these passages with a friend or your writing group to make sure others think the dialogue sounds natural, too.