Writing Tip: Keep Their Hands Busy

As I edit my novels, especially as I near the last few sweeps through, I take a close look at DIALOGUE TAGS (he said, she asked) and BEATS (pauses to break up dialogue: She sifted through her purse, hoping to calm her nerves before she said something she’d regret). 

I’ve noticed that in scenes where dialogue tags and beats flow better–and are easier to write–the character is usually doing something with their hands. Like the example above where the woman sifted through her purse.

It’s a simple tactic.

Continue reading “Writing Tip: Keep Their Hands Busy”

Writing Tip #2: Using Beats To Strengthen Characters And Setting

Something I’m working on is using beats to identify speakers.

What is a beat?

A beat is a pause in dialogue. For example:

My arm itches.” Greg scratched it on cue. “I hope it’s not poison ivy.”

In this case the beat is, Greg scratched it on cue. It identifies the speaker as Greg without having to say, “Greg said.”

I love using beats for many reason. Identifying the speaker is just one of them.

“Said” is basically invisible.

It’s true that the word “said” is invisible to most readers. If I had used “Greg said” instead of the other, most readers wouldn’t have noticed the words other than to subconsciously register who spoke.

But when I first started writing, I got so sick of the word ‘said.’ I wanted to substitute it with every possible alternative dialogue tag. Greg shouted. Greg whispered. Greg hummed. Greg hissed. I don’t know. There are a million possibilities.

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But I quickly learned that all of those dialogue tags aren’t invisible to the reader the way “said” is. They pull the reader out of the conversation for a brief second–which is fine sometimes, but only sometimes. Paragraph after paragraph with people shouting, yelling, and even whispering can cause the reader to feel disjointed and tired. Pretty soon, they’re skimming your book, and that’s not good.

Dialogue tags should be used sparingly–which is extremely hard to do.

But beats. :) Beats are fun. 

Beats aren’t telling the reader how something was spoken. They’re a sneaky way of letting the reader know who is speaking, while enriching your story.

Beats are an excellent way to SHOW and not TELL the story.

For example, take these two sentences:

1) “Get out of my room!” Amy shouted. “I never want to see you again!”

Or…

2) “Get out of my room!” Amy hurled her book at him, knocking over her polka-dotted lava lamp. “I never want to see you again!”

Example #1 uses a dialogue tag. Technically, the word “shouted” isn’t even needed because with the exclamation points implies shouting. (By the way, use exclamation points sparingly!) Even if we used, “‘Get out of my room!” Amy said angrily,” it’s the same effect.

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But in Example #2, the reader sees more than shouting. They know Amy was reading, she’s the kind of girl to own a polka-dotted lava lamp, and she’s so angry she nearly sacrificed her favorite lamp in her fit of rage. 

#2 anchors the reader to the setting. It allows them to see the room and feel her emotion.

It’s SHOWING, not TELLING.

How to write a proper beat

1) Know the setting

Visualize it in your mind. Place objects in the setting. A glass of milk. Shoes. Dead branches. Whatever. When you know the specifics, you can use them in beats. 

2) Know the emotions

Your scenes should have emotions, but you must understand them. Amy is angry. So ask yourself, What do angry people do? Throw books? Fold their arms? What if she was nervous? What do nervous people do? 

3) Know your characters

90% of communication is non-verbal. Show that in your beats. People back up when they’re scared. Their mouths twitch when they lie. We are constantly giving off millions of clues about what we’re really thinking. Your characters should, too.

But even beyond that, certain people have certain mannerisms. Really knowing your characters helps you to pick the right beats for them. Old ladies pat people’s hands. Teen boys fist bump. Flirty girls twist their hair. Whatever it is, know your characters.  

Beats are fun to write. It’s going that next level in your book.

However…

Like all great things, moderation, moderation, moderation. Only use a beat if you need it. For example, it would be ridiculous to say, 

“Get out of my room!” Amy noticed she hadn’t dusted under her bed for a while. “I never want to see you again!”

If Amy is that furious, dust is the last thing on her mind. Know your characters and only use beats to build your scene, character, or plot.

Having a beat in every paragraph is just as exhausting as he shouted, he hissed, he hummed. Many paragraphs don’t need any beats or dialogue tags. Try going without. Let the reader fill in the blanks. Or if you need them, alternate methods. Sometimes use “she said,” sometimes use a beat. 

Beats combined with simple dialogue tags will help your book come alive. 

How do you use beats? Do you have other alternative ideas for dialogue tags? Share your thoughts BELOW.

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LDSM Midwest Conference Notes: The Hero’s Journey

I’ve been typing up my notes from the LDStorymakers Midwest Conference two weeks ago. Finally. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned. I’ll start with a class I took from Don Carey on The Hero’s Journey

Sadly, I’d never heard of The Hero’s Journey before. If you haven’t either, here’s what I understand it to be:

A guy named Joseph Campbell gathered the best stories from around the world and throughout history. He found a pattern in the stories, both in outline and characters. He summarized those patterns for us.  (Read more about it here. Also, Christopher Vogler has done a lot more work on this concept. You can see his in depth website here.)

Breakdown of characters in most major stories:

  1. Hero: main character
  2. Shadows: bad guys—or could be an enemy within
  3. Mentor: great coach, teacher, or guiding principles
  4. Allies: help hero reach goal, sidekicks, buddies, girlfriends
  5. Herald: brings news of change—could be a person or event
  6. Threshold Guardians: blocks hero from reaching goal—forces or people
  7. Shape Shifter: people or things that start good and end bad, or vice versa
  8. Trickster: clowns, mischief makers

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The hero embarks  on a journey that has several stages:

  • The Ordinary World: Sympathetic overview of the hero, giving background, and showing a need for a change.
  • The Call to Adventure: Something changes the situation. The hero must face the possibility of change.
  • Refusal of the Call: Hero turns away from this change (or someone close to the hero expresses fear of change).
  • Meeting with the Mentor: Hero meets someone or something that gives him training, advice, or equipment to make the journey.
  • Crossing the Threshold: Hero commits to leave the ordinary world for something extraordinary.

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END OF ACT I

  • Tests, Allies, Enemies: Hero is tested and meets with experiences to teach him where his loyalty should rest (this is a significant bulk of the story)
  • Approaching the Inmost Cave: Hero and friends prepare for significant challenge
  • Ordeal (about ½ way point): Hero confronts death or faces greatest fear. Out of this challenge, comes a new life.
  • Seizing the Sword, or the Reward: Hero takes possession (control) of treasure won in ordeal. Celebration, but danger of losing treasure again.

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END OF ACT II

  • Road Back (about ¾ point): Hero leaves special world to bring treasure home, often involves chase
  • Resurrection (climax of story): Hero severely tested near home. Give one last fight, battle, and hero resolves conflict
  • Return with Elixir: Hero returns home with treasure. Ordinary world is transformed.

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That sums it up.

Don Carey did a great job of showing how this works in two well-known stories, Star Wars and The Sound of Music. I won’t do it here, but I would suggest you try it when you’re done reading this post. It’s a great exercise as a writer to chart the characterization and outlining of these two completely different stories to see how perfectly they fit into these explanations. By the end of his class, I felt like I could do it for any favorite book or movie.

Since the conference, I’ve done a “Hero’s Journey” for the book I’m working on, just to see how it pans out. My book, Augustina, is in the final stages of writing, yet pinpointing the signposts of my story really helped me see where the story was weak and needing more plot. And stronger characters.

It helped a ton.

The other outlining method I really like is beat sheets, specifically Blake Snyder’s, Save the Cat.

The idea is similar to The Hero’s Journey in that all stories and all hero’s follow a similar path.Without going into too much detail, this method is used for screenplays, but it translates well into fiction. In fact, there are beat sheet calculators online that I used to help me pace Augustina. Instead of minutes in a movie, I used pages. A 300 page novel would look something like this.

  • Opening Image :1
  • Theme Stated :14
  • The Set Up:1 to 27
  • The Catalyst:33
  • Debate:33 to 68

Break into ACT II

  • B Story:82
  • Fun and Games:55 to 150
  • Midpoint:150
  • The Bad Guys Close In:150 to 205
  • All is Lost :205
  • Dark Night of the Soul:205 to 232

Break Into ACT III

  • The Finale:232 to 300
  • Final Image:300

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I like this method because I can see how long (approximately) each section of my hero’s adventure should be. I hope it helps you, too. Read more about it here. Or calculate your beats here.

When I started out writing fiction, I never really intended to write fiction. I just sat down and wrote. A pantser’s approach.

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Flying by the seat of your pants

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Since then, I’ve decided I need to do a little outlining. I’m not necessarily organized when I outline. As I mentioned, I came home from the conference and outlined my mostly-written book. But even if your book is not started, semi-written, or in the perfecting stages, I would suggest taking a look at the items listed above to see how your story fits in.

Readers have certain expectations when they pick up a book–many subconscious. As authors, we should fulfill most–if not all–of them. 

These two systems help ensure we’re doing that.

How about you? Do you outline? Have you used The Hero’s Journey (or beat sheets) to help? Or do you use something else to pace?

Comment here.