Beat Changes

Those who knew me back in high school or college know that, while I did do creative writing groups back then, I was really more of a drama kid. Fall semester always meant the school play, and Spring the musical. While acting and writing are certainly different art forms, I do thank that experience for helping with one very important part of creative writing: Dialogue. You might be speaking someone else’s words when reciting a script, but you certainly develop an ear for how conversations flow.

The other very important lesson I picked up was beat changes.

You see, unlike a novel or short story, plays tend to give very little direction. You might see something like:

John: (sarcastic) No. Really?

Which would tell the actor how the line is meant to be read, but, for the most part, the script allows the actors to make roles their own without any sort of narration that says how each line is meant to be delivered.

Because of this lack of direction, it also is up to the actor to figure out where there are natural pauses, emotional changes, or just separate thoughts all crammed into one line. These breaks are–as my college drama professor was always prone to yelling at us–beat changes. And they are very important to acting. By picking out where there are natural shifts, it is possible to add complexity to a scene rather than just speaking the words.

In writing fiction, there is something similar. While our characters might not be picking out all of the emotional shifts in a scene, breaking up the beat changes for the reader will make for more powerful scenes.

So, how do you do that? The easiest way is to give the readers a natural pause. This gives the same effect as an actor physically giving the audience a beat change. Pauses can be done a number of ways, but the simplest to use dialogue tags/narration properly.

For example, say your character has a beat change between two sentences in dialogue. Just the line might be something like:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore. Are you listening to me?”

There is naturally a beat change between those two sentences. Without any sort of break between the sentences, however, they end up mushing into each other. There is no “beat” for the reader to switch tones in their head. The emotion you have for “I just don’t know what to do anymore” carries straight over to “Are you listening to me?” By instead writing:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” she said. “Are you listening to me?”

You have a natural break between the lines. It can be stretched out a little longer using “She paused” depending on what suits your scene.

These beat changes can become even more powerful by using the tag to “show” the emotions/stretch out the beat (rather than just using the word “paused”). For example:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed, looked up again. “Are you listening to me?”

Now there’s action “on stage” that is showing the switch in thoughts, along with a sizable break between the two sentences that gives the illusion of the character pausing–all using body language, like an actor would.

To really stretch out a beat change, you can even separate the dialogue all together. For example:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed.

John stared at his hands.

Jane frowned. “Are you listening to me?”

Even though John doesn’t say anything in the scene, throwing him in there with his own action stretches the silence in the reader’s head, leaving no mistake that these are two separate thoughts.

While what is said is always important to a story, it is also sometimes important to remember the silences for a more natural feel–and emotional effect–to scenes. You want your characters to “act” in your readers’ heads. Not just give them the lines and leave them to figure out the emotion.

There are no actual actors to bring stories to life in prose like you have in plays.

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 Live in the DC area and want to see some great emerging playwrights? The DC Fringe Festival runs through July 27th with wonderful plays (like TAME by Jonelle Walker). Check it out.

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