In high school, I took a drama class in directing. It was really cool, and one of the main things I remember from it is marking up a script with stage directions and beats. A beat is a moment when something changes: the dynamic shifts; a character’s emotion amps up or down; a character realizes something or changes her mind. Any moment where the tone needed to change had to be marked so we could decide how the character would portray that change–with a pause, a look, or a gesture, for example.
Dialogue in novels definitely needs these beats as well. When I started informally editing for my sister, the only word I could think of to describe these pauses, changes, or actions was “beat,” as it’s used in scripts. Later I found out that this term is indeed used to describe it for prose as well. When I edit, I’ll comment something like “add a pause here,” “describe his tone,” “pause for gesture,” or simply, “beat.” These moments are essential because they guide readers through the dialogue and bring the characters and their emotions to life.
There are a few ways to add a beat when it’s needed. If this is hard for you as a writer, I’d suggest either acting it out (go ahead, make faces and whisper to yourself as you stare at your computer screen) or imagining what it would look like in a movie, down to the tiny details of facial expression and movement.
The Em Dash
Consider the difference between this line of dialogue:
“I know you don’t want to go. Wait a minute, do you want to go?”
And this one:
“I know you don’t want to—wait a minute, do you want to go?”
The em dash provides a definite stop, a clear moment when the character realizes something and the whole line of thinking takes a turn.
Em dashes are handy for characters interrupting themselves as in that example, and interrupting others, as in this one:
“You’ve never even said that you cared—”
“No, I’ve told you plenty of times. You just weren’t listening.”
Or for a change of tone or gesture to interrupt the dialogue:
“She told me that he left her”—Molly’s brow furrowed as she shook her head—“but I just can’t believe it.”
That example incorporates both of the next two beat possibilities: expressions and gestures.
His face was incredulous as he listened to my story. “That can’t be right,” he began.
“I know—it shouldn’t be,” I agreed, my eyes widening. “But that’s what happened, I swear.”
“Who are you taking to the dance?” I asked hopefully.
A slow grin spread over his face. “Oh,” he said, and the way he looked at me made me blush. “I have a pretty good idea…”
Gestures and movement
“When I got home, the house was—silent,” I said, swallowing. “Creepy silent.” His hand touched my arm to prompt me to continue. “So I started searching each room.” I felt my hands start to shake as I forced myself to relive those moments.
“Hey,” he insisted, and his expression made me wonder if he was going to try to touch me again. “It’s okay.”
Inserting thoughts into narration:
“Sure, you can come with us.” Did she know how snobby she sounded? “But you might not be able to keep up.”
“We’ll just be a couple minutes.” Unless we find something really interesting. “You go ahead without us.”
Silence and Looks
Sometimes we just need a little break from a monologue, a second for the characters and the reader to absorb something before they’re ready to move on. In the following example, it’s broken up with a look and silence:
“I didn’t mean to flip the switch, but Ryan was so sure that it would make a difference. We honestly had no idea that it would cause such a huge reaction.” I glanced at Matt, but he didn’t say anything. “I don’t know, maybe we just shouldn’t have gone into the chamber in the first place.”
Or you can do it with just silence:
“So that’s why I just can’t bring myself to go to the beach anymore.” I paused for a moment. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go.”
Or just a look:
“Why don’t you ever answer my questions?” I demanded, but he just looked at me. “Fine!” I exploded. “Just forget it.
However you choose to do it, just remember that a huge chunk of communication is nonverbal. Use your beats well and dialogue will flow realistically and feel more human.