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Friday, December 01, 2006

Dialogue—too many action beats

“I know you did it.” He slammed his fist on the table.
She fingered her long necklace with manicured fingers. “I never said I did.”
“We have you on tape.” He reached out to touch the micro-recorder.
“I told you, I was only joking when I said that.” She wouldn’t look at him.
He crossed his arms and glared at her. “People don’t joke to kill someone.”
“That’s not true. People joke about killing their friends all the time.” She crossed her arms and stared him down.

Even though we vary the sentence structure and the position of the dialogue, the action beats in this conversation are a bit much.

You don't need to identify the speaker every time he speaks. You can have back and forth a bit and still know who's speaking.

Action beats should have a purpose--to show inner emotion or characterization, not just as filler in between lines of dialogue.

“I know you did it!”
“I never said I did.”
“We have you on tape.”
“I told you, I was only joking when I said that.” She wouldn’t look at him.
“People don’t joke to kill someone.”
“That’s not true. People joke about killing their friends all the time.” She crossed her arms and stared him down.

The action beats in the example above have definite purpose for the reader. “She wouldn’t look at him” clues the reader into the fact she might not be telling the truth. When she crosses her arms and stares him down, it’s showing her spunk under fire.

A good exercise to try is this: Rewrite this dialogue where each character can only speak one short sentence--that's it. No dialogue tags, no action beats. See how it changes your perspective on the dialogue then.

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