By Andrea Merrell
We’re taught the concept at writers’ conferences, read about it in helpful blog posts, and hear it consistently from our critique group: show—don’t tell. This key to writing well can make or break an otherwise good story. Last week we talked about the difference between speaker tags and speaker beats. Today we’re going to talk about speaker beats that are not only telling, but redundant and, well … flat.
Here are a few of the most common:
- She smiled.
- He laughed.
- She cried.
- He shrugged.
- She nodded.
- He cleared his throat.
- She blushed.
- He flexed his jaw.
- She sighed.
- He winked.
- She straightened her shoulders.
- He raked his hand through his hair.
Am I saying it’s never okay to use these beats? Yes and no. An occasional “she smiled” or “he shrugged” might be acceptable, but not just as a filler. And not if you want the reader to relate to your characters and feel like they’re watching them on the big screen. We need to show the emotions and inner conflict of our characters. Let’s look at an example.
Flat Speaker Beats
“I’ll be home soon,” Steve said. “Sorry, I forgot about the party.” He laughed.
Julie sighed. “You don’t listen to anything I say, do you?”
“Sure I do.” Steve shrugged. “I just don’t have the best memory.”
“You don’t care about my feelings. That’s the problem.” Julie cried.
What do you get from this section of dialogue? Not much. In fact, it’s pretty boring. We don’t even know whose point of view we’re in. Let’s see if we can set the scene a little better.
Speaker Beats that Tell a Story
“I’ll be home soon,” Steve said with a nervous laugh, wishing for the hundredth time he had put tonight’s party on his mobile calendar. He would have a hard time talking himself out of this one.
Julie’s weary sigh cut through the phone like a knife and reminded him of all the other important events he had conveniently forgotten. “You don’t listen to anything I say, do you?”
Steve shrugged his shoulders in a nervous gesture—the way he always did when he knew he was wrong—even though no one could see him. “Sure I do. I just don’t have the best memory.” Well, that was at least partially true. No need to make the situation worse.
“You don’t care about my feelings.” As usual, the sound of crying replaced the sigh. “That’s the problem,” Julie said between sobs. “You’ve never cared.”
Do you see the difference? Can you feel the conflict and tension between the two? Paint a picture with your words and pull your reader into the story.
Homework: Read through the first two or three chapters of your WIP and look for flat speaker beats. If you’re already aware of words and phrases that you tend to overuse, do a word search and see how many you can find. (Example: Do a search through your entire manuscript for the words smiled, nodded, laughed, blushed, and sighed. See how many times they pop up.) Then get creative and do some rewriting. Make your words count. Be sure they show what’s going on in the scene and drive your story forward.