The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Can You Hear the Beat?

Pat Bertram offers a guest post:  She discusses the use of "beats" to enrich dialogue in our books.  There are some helpful ideas for all of us in this example of writing technique.

I once read the entire oeuvre of a bestselling author, trying to figure out the reason for her popularity, and I had a hard time slogging through her words. It’s not simply that I find romance novels unappealing, it’s that she does not use beats. Beats, as you know, are interesting bits of action used as dialog tags:
“No!” Mary rushed to grab the paring knife from her two-year-old son. So much more interesting than: “No,” Mary said.
Beats make the book; in many cases, they are the book. I first noticed this when I read an Iris Johansen thriller. I got bored with her series character and, for a change of pace, started reading only her beats. To my surprise, the entire story was there. The character’s fear, lessening of fear, relief, escalating fear, despair, desire, lust, all reaching to a crescendo of utter terror, and then finally peace and acceptance.
From that, I’ve learned to cultivate beats. When I’m looking at a movie that doesn’t capture my full attention, I watch the actors and try to put what I see into words. The other day I saw a character shoot a finger at a friend and smile as if he were agreeing with him, then the smile faded and he shook his head no. Not only did it have an element of humor (doing the opposite of what’s expected) it was a brilliant beat, perfectly timed.
Obviously, not using beats has not hurt the bestselling romance writer any, but for the rest of us, the beat goes on.
The following is an excerpt from my novel Light Bringer, showing the use of beats. Since there are only two characters, we’d know who was talking even without identifiers, but the small bits of stage business help set the scene.  The book is available at

Hugh turned his attention to the rest of the coffee shop’s patrons. Although his gaze drifted, not seeming to light on any specific person, his mind took snapshots of everyone he saw. The weight-challenged woman in the hideous red, green, and yellow dress. The senior citizens who looked as if they had been mauled by life. The young people too stupid or lazy to have left this isle of the damned.
Keith leaned across the table, his voice pitched low. “Did someone put an ad on the Internet — ‘Losers, welcome to Chalcedony. If you can’t make it in the real world, we have a place for you’?”
One corner of Hugh’s mouth twitched, the only crack he allowed in his granite mask.
Keith sat back, apparently satisfied with the success of his remark. After several minutes he said, “No sign of him.”
Hugh felt his hands clench and the cords in his neck tighten at the reference to the fugitive. He still couldn’t believe the cripple had gotten away from them. But then, he’d had help from it.
He repressed a shudder. What was it? He glanced over his shoulder. And where was it?
“We did see that thing, didn’t we?” Keith asked.
“We saw it.”
“Do you think she believed our report?”
Hugh gave him a sharp look. “Why wouldn’t she? As long as we stick to our story that a second person came out of the bedroom and got the drop on us, there’s no reason for her not to believe it. I know she’s supposed to be this genius, knows seven or eight languages, was some big shot in Interpol, but she’s not a mind reader.”
“It makes us seem inept, losing the subject and getting our vehicle stolen all at the same time.”
“We were inept.” He clamped his mouth shut. The challenging assignments in exotic locales he’d expected when he transferred to Teodora Zaroff’s unit had not materialized, and now it looked as though they never would.

A lot more from Pat can be found on her website at


  1. Thank you for having me as a guest, Jerry. It's always good to visit new blogs!

  2. Nice post, Pat. When I teach my dialogue workshops, one of the basics is that speaker attributes are only needed to make sure the reader can follow who's speaking. Beats are a great way to keep things straight.

    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery