Over the last year, I’ve been working through old writing projects, trying to identify what I really enjoy writing in terms of lengths, genres, and topics and what I really need to work on to level up my writing. One of the things I’ve noticed I’m kind of obsessed with, both as a writer and a reader, is beats. For so long, I thought of them as just a moment to describe what a character is doing. But I’ve come to realize they’re a really useful tool.
Beats are those moments in prose where a character takes some sort of action. It can be as small as a facial tick. Or as large as running through a door. It can be used to create a pause in dialogue, simulating the natural pauses we take in our own speech. This can sometimes come across as stage directions, moving characters and props around the scene through direct, often inelegant, exposition. The writer is just trying to get everyone and everything into the right place (or sometimes trying to buy some time in a scene).
But we usually don’t move just to move. Not really. There’s a puppetry principle that reflects a more natural movement by focusing on meaningful movement: Each action has a purpose, a reason for happening, which better reflects how and why we move. Thinking of beats as actions that happened for a specific purpose beyond blocking enables a beat to show off some aspect of a character’s personality or their relationship with the character they’re talking to or about. It might even tell you how they feel about the topic being discussed. The beat becomes their body language, translating much like we use body language.
Regardless of whether you’re using a beat as stage directions or to engage in some meaningful movement, it can also help pace the scene and the dialogue to feel more natural or to add emotion and tension.