Reading the Beats

I’ve mentioned before that I’m reading the entire oeuvre of a bestselling author, trying to figure out the reason for her popularity, and it just dawned on me why I am having such 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.

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.

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