Thursday, February 14, 2008

Physical beats

What are physical beats? This was a cry from my cp's heart when I kept returning her chapters with the notation. So I expect that an explanation is needed.

beat are the little bits of action that anchors the story and breathes life into a character. They allow the reader to picture character and what they are doing, so that the scene is not floating in space, or between two talking heads.
The building up of BEATS creates a scene, and makes the story flow. They allow action/reaction. Beats give clue to what is happening under the surface. A good scene is always about more than the spoken word. It is about what is happening behind the mask. Beats reveal character and depth. This is why beats MUST come from the character.

In a movie casting a different actor in a part will cause a scene to be played differently. Both Richard Armitage and Philip Glenister play self made men in Elizabeth Gaskell costume dramas, but their mannerisms are different. And the same is true in writing a novel, the character determines the mannerisms. And the mannerisms provide clues into the characters' inner world. Watching movies, particularly old movies, or movies where the leads have been stage actors (ie Dame Judi Dench or Maggie Smith) is a good way of seeing how physical beats work. Those little gestures that show so much.

You do not want to fill in all the blanks about the actions, rather to give hints and clues. You want to use active words and verbs, rather than passive ones. Less tends to more, and if beats come easy, you do have to be careful not to overuse them, because you can break the flow of the dialogue. Beats can be used in place of speech attribution.

So from Viking Warrior, Unwilling Wife -- 'Surrender? Would my father surrender? Never.' She withdrew her father's sword and held it over her head. 'We fight.'
The beat is She withdrew her father's sword and held it over her head. the reader can then imagine in her own head how Sela would have said the words.

Or 'I had not placed you as killer of women.' She stretched her neck higher, away from the sharp blacde and gave a strangled laugh. 'An indiscrimate lover of women, perhaps, but never a killer.'
'Some might say your attire shows a certain contempt for your status, for your sex.' The blade relaxed slightly. 'Are you now going to plead special priviledges because you are a woman? The world operates by different rules, Sela.'

Often when a scene feels flat, it is not the dialogue, but the beats that are a fault. Changing the beats can change the entire tone of the scene. I know with An Impulsive Debutante, I had to change words used to describe the hero's action from seemingly cold to warmer tone. I definitely did not want to be in his POV either at the time. So Tristan’s face had closed down. His eyes held a distinct chill and his jaw clenched. Became :His face had paled and his Adam’s apple worked up and down several times. He started to say something, but stopped. Suddenly he appeared to regain control. He gave her an indulgent smile, like she was someone to be humoured.

Physical beats come naturally to some people, but over time, and a number of manuscripts, writers can find themselves reaching for the same crutches. This is where books on Body Language such as Peoplewatching by Desmond Morris can prove useful. What do certain gestures show? What do most people think of when someone leans forward and their eyes widen, for example. Hunched shoulders gives a different impression than throwing a character's arms wide.

But what ever action/reaction physical beat the writer uses, it must come from the heart of the character.


Donna Alward said...

I think I really started getting it with HIRED. And then when my revisions came and asked me to make Connor stronger, so much of it was changing the physical beats to active, strong motions rather than softer ones. Instead of slumping of shoulders, a clenched jaw. Little things change a lot.


Unknown said...

Another great post Michelle, thanks :-)