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I was wondering if there is a list of ideas on how to add beats to dialog. For example:

"Listen to me!", John said excitedly. "We can sell all these coins now and get rich today." He got closer to Sarah. "Let me take care of it for you, ok?", he said as he lowered his voice.

"But what are the risks?", Sarah said shifting in her chair. "I'm sure it wouldn't be that simple."

My question is what are some alternatives that can be replaced for beat phrases like "John said excitedly" or "Sarah said shifting in her chair". What are other things that people do while they talk? My list of things to add are short and I quickly run out of them. I really want them to add something to the scene and the character rather than just to break a long monologue.

Here are a few things that I have on my list:

  • Replacing "said" with other words
  • Doing something to their body: scratching head, what else??
  • Doing various things with their props (glasses, cigarettes, etc.)
  • Moving (shifting in the chair, getting closer to the other person, etc.) , what else??
  • Saying (adverb)ly, like he said excitedly.
  • Saying while there is a change in their body language or body: she said smiling or she said with a twinkle in her eye , what else??
  • What else?

My problem is usually with the second or third beat in a monologue:

"Listen to me!", John said excitedly. "We can sell all these coins now and get rich today." He said as he got even more excited. "Let me take care of it for you, ok?", he said as he lowered his voice. "I can make you rich Sarah, just trust me!" ----[usually harder to add beat phrases here]--- "I have made many people rich in the past. I know how this is done." ----[usually harder to add beat phrases here]---

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    All of these are external. None of them are immersive. The advantage of writing over film is the opportunity to get inside a head. Your prose will improve if you add beats that are inside a head. "Listen to me." This was important. These coins--they could buy an entire month's worth of food. Surely Sarah remembered how hungry they'd been on the streets. "Sarah, listen!" Basically, you want to learn to add thought as narrative. It's not telling, it's immersing, and there's a fine line to do with balance and rhythm. – DPT Nov 4 '19 at 17:05
  • A related question of mine. – F1Krazy Nov 4 '19 at 21:06
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You are trying to describe two talking heads. Or One talking head.

Do not replace "said" with anything else that means basically the same thing.

Use adverbs extremely sparingly, it is far better to show some action that implies excitement, than to say "excitedly". This is somewhat an opinion, but an opinion shared by the majority of best selling authors. JK Rowling is an exception, she uses adverbs liberally, but then her books are intended for children that often need to be told what the characters are feeling, because they do not properly interpret the actions when shown what is happening.

Your scenes are under-imagined. You do not show setting, you do not show your characters interacting with the setting. The characters aren't doing anything as they talk, and it is seldom the situation that one person gets to have a complete monologue while the other person just sits like a lump and listens.

Far more common is the other person responding, verbally, or better yet, arguing, or asking questions about something they don't get, or not wanting to listen, or just not believing. They have body language: They frown. They look away. They realize something they had not understood. They shake their head. Roll their eyes. Sigh. Try to interrupt and fail.

The point isn't to add pointless "beats" but to make the conversation longer with more description, and more action.

If you watch a stage play, or a movie, you will seldom find actors sitting still and talking to each other in a room, they will have some "business" to do, walking around the room, doing dishes, drinking. There will be something going on the background that they are watching. The same thing for their monologues; watch for one-sided conversations on the phone for example. The camera is almost never on one face talking, there is almost always something else happening.

Most writing allows the author to reveal the thoughts and feelings of at least the POV character in a scene. That is something you can do, what is Sarah thinking and feeling during this harangue? Is she excited to get rich? Or has she heard this pitch from John a dozen times? When he says he's made people rich before, why doesn't she ask him, "Then why aren't you rich, John?" Couldn't she at least think that? Is she wondering how she can turn him down without crushing his feelings?

As a general rule in writing, find something for your characters to do while they are talking; that will provide the "beats" you are seeking, and they won't be empty, they will also increase the immersion of the reader in the scene, revealing the setting and feelings of the characters involved. And try to add conflict or tension to the conversation, disagreement, even friendly disagreement.

Why are they having this conversation? What does John want out of it, and what does Sarah want out of it? Would either of them rather not be there? John is clearly selling something, an obvious conflict is if Sarah doesn't want to buy it. Or does but cannot afford it. A less obvious conflict is if Sarah wants to buy it, but figures she can get something MORE out of it, because she'd be doing a favor to John by buying it. Is John desperate enough to add whatever MORE Sarah wants? Maybe she wants him to do her a favor, or she wants a bigger share than he's offering, or she wants a romantic relationship with John and this is a way to keep him on the hook.

More fully imagine your scenes, the setting, the sounds, the smells, the temperature, and the feelings and thoughts of the people in them. Are they fresh, or tired, or irritated, or happy? Even if those things are not explicitly written in the book, they would plausibly inform their responses, and it will make the scene more realistic.

Unless you are intentionally trying to create a surreal experience, don't ever write dialogue that might as well take place in a white room with nothing in it but the two characters sitting in facing chairs, spouting words.

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    right. For example, why does he have to keep telling her to listen. What is she doing instead of listening. Describe that. And then describe him sighing or getting agitated or whatever because she isn't listening. When she starts to listen, don't say "she started to listen" say what she does: puts something down, looks at him intently, comes closer to him, goes pale, …. – Kate Gregory Nov 4 '19 at 22:19
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You're using too many beats, especially in your second example. You don't need to describe every minute change of tone while a character is speaking. It breaks up the flow too much. There's absolutely nothing wrong with:

"Listen to me!", said John. "We can sell all these coins now and get rich today. Let me take care of it for you, okay? I can make you rich, Sarah, just trust me! I have made many people rich in the past. I know how this is done."

Once you remove the beats, the short, rapid-fire sentences do a good enough job of conveying his excitement that you don't need to tell the reader he's excited.

Generally, you only want to use a beat if there is an actual pause in what the character's saying. That's what "beat" means, at least in scriptwriting terms: a pause. If the character is just speaking continuously, don't have them adjusting their glasses or shuffling in their chair or anything else that's not actually plot-relevant; it just interrupts the flow.

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  • +1, I think this is a valid approach for a monologue of this size, it's only 49 words. But I think it becomes ineffective for monologues in general, if somebody is speaking for more than half a page (which is about 125 words). – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 4 '19 at 23:02
  • Exactly. My problem is with long monologues that sometime take half a page, which happen even in real life. – Ari Nov 5 '19 at 16:20
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What I like to do is replace an adverb with an action. Not all the time, but a lot of the time.

"Listen to me!" John said, his voice beginning to rise in excitement. "We can sell all these coins now and get rich today." He lowered his voice, glancing around to make sure nobody was listening. "Let me take care of it for you, okay? I can make you rich, Sarah, you just have to trust me." John waited for an answer, watching Sarah in careful contemplation like a hawk watching a rabbit. He wondered if he was too forceful with her. Perhaps she viewed his persistence as nothing more than an attempt to swindle her? He raised his hands in a placating gesture, hoping he wasn't coming off as too forceful. "I have made many people rich in the past. I know how this is done."

I do use adverbs more than Stephen King and other high-profile authors recommend, as I think they can be quite handy in novels, but if possible I will use an action instead of an adverb.

But since you kind of asked about beats, here's some I use:

"How could you!" Trey said incredulously

He said with a smile

"It's time for you to leave," He said with a hint of bellicosity.

"Yeah, because she really gives a damn about me," He retorted.

"I also saw her at the mall," Mark added.

He continued.

"Wait," Trey began, backing up slowly.

He noted

"The best way to survive is to leave this place at once," Jessica opined.

Is that why he hates me? Jessica mused silently.

"Where are you going!" Steve demanded.

"Tell her," rejoined Tony, "tell her what you told me!"

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