beats to balance a novel's dialogue and description

"How do you balance dialogue and description in a novel?"

"That's a good question, self."  


"And I'm happy to answer it."

Hmm.... I think I've gotten too used to writing in dialogue. I read something interesting in Stephen King's On Writing (which you have to read if you want to write fiction; it's required) that discusses how introverts tend to write more/better descriptions and extroverts (me! me! me!) tend to write more/better dialogue.  This is probably what led one of my helpful pre-readers to remark that certain parts of that draft of The Senator's Youngest Daughter felt like reading the script of a play. 

What an insightful comment for me to hear.  In my rookie zealousness, one thing I'd done upon printing out my first copy of the book (then still entitled "The Doghouse") -- after celebrating that I'd written 214 pages and then lamenting how much paper and ink I'd used -- was to use a blue highlighter and mark sections of the book that I thought were too boring to look at. In other words, anything that was more than a paragraph or two of "description" I marked to be turned into dialogue. 

So, had I been writing a script?  Maybe!  Or maybe I was trying to keep my book from being boring. Either way, my uncle's instinct turned out to be also a professional insight as I heard the same thing framed in a different way from my editor, John David Kudrick.  His comment centered around "beats."  

What's a beat in writing?  I'll pass on his comment verbatim:

Nice to get in some “beats” (actions) during dialogue to help us better see the characters. 

This was a revolutionary discovery for me.  As a reader, I hate when an author inserts a lengthy description or character's thought in the middle of a conversation.  No one honestly has time between being asked "how are you?" and answering "I'm fine" to notice the color of the sky, the scent of the coffee shop across the street, and the man shuffling newspapers on the nearby bench.  So while still avoiding the interruptions I dislike as a reader, I can still engage my own readers' imaginations to picture my scene with simple "beats."  

Some examples I liked that editor John suggested:

  • I shrug.
  • Tate sighs.
  • Kyle nods.
  • Gabriel rolls his eyes.
  • Dad pauses, then continues.

So simple, right?  But yet, transformational.  I love what they did to my dialogue.  As an added bonus, they helped me avoid the dreaded adverbs with which I'm otherwise known to over-season my writing.

  • "Kyle nods,." before his agreement replaced "confidently"
  • "Gabriel rolls his eyes," before his retort replaced "sarcastically"
  • "Dad pauses, then continues," before the rest of his thought replaced "hesitantly"


"Kelley. how do you balance dialogue and description in a novel?"

I raise my eyebrows. "I don't know; The Senator's Youngest Daughter is my first book!"

"But I'm asking your opinion!"

I shrug. "Then, I'd say, try using some beats. They're simple actions that break up dialogue and help your reader better see the characters,"