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,"



Sounds in Silence

I wish John Williams would craft a soundtrack to my entire novel... something to accompany the appropriate moods through the story.  Related to that, one of the challenges of writing a novel is using sounds as part of the story.  

For example, in real life, if you hear glass break, you just hear it. Crack.  You don't take eight words to think, Now I'm hearing the sound of breaking glass.  It's a challenge, I think, to startle readers with sounds.  

Additionally, sounds are so often part of the ambience of a scene, rather than the content, that drawing attention to them can be distracting.  It's a balancing act to set the audio scene without making your reader feel like they need to swat away bugs.

I've picked a few sentences about sounds from The Senator's Youngest Daughter to share with you today.  (I'm trying to avoid **spoilers** [River song's voice], so these might not be verbatim from the book.)  By the way, I break glass in my novel a lot, and only this exercise pointed it out to me!  I didn't include all of those references; you'd have needed a band-aid.

  • Cement makes a surprisingly high-pitched sound as it cracks, almost like glass. 

There are so many sounds in an explosion.  Imagine a movie's foley artist watching a scene and slowly layering the sounds of each object you see being affected by the bomb or impact: first the bomb, then the flying fruit cart, the gasoline igniting, the yells of the people in the marketplace, the ceramic jars toppling, the building collapsing, the windows cracking...  Novelists don't have that privilege.  In my scene, I needed to focus on just one thing Brenna heard so I could get back to the action.  Here, I tuned into the facade of the building.

  • Cows moo restlessly, the sound accentuated by the night’s stillness. 

This is a scene-setter.  It's relevant to the loneliness my protagonist is feeling at a time, so it was worth including.  The cows feeling "restless" isa little bit of her projecting her feelings onto them.  The stillness is a contrast to her deep desire to take action and be impulsive.

  • The thud is cushioned, but I still wince as the sound reverberates through the hollow elevator shaft.

I love the word thud.  It's onomatopoeia without being silly.  In this case, since the characters are trying to be sneaky, every sound is a threat.  This thud could be the difference between success and failure, life and death!

  • A sudden scraping sound catches our attention, and we all whirl around, pointing our weapons at whatever will emerge from behind a nearby dumpster. 

This time, the hunted is the hunter.  (Cliché alert!)  Rather than any sound giving my characters away, they are now on the prowl, tuned into every sound.  Bummer that it might turn out to be just garbage blowing in the wind... you know, either that or the bad guy!


political fiction is cool

Some people who know me have asked why I'd choose political fiction when I decided to write a novel.  First, I didn't sit down to write The Senator's Youngest Daughter.  The story, the setting, and the characters all evolved as I wrote.  When I write, I basically type up a movie I'm watching in my head.  There wasn't a great deal of planning, especially during this first novel-writing process.

The question surprised me, because it's a genre I often enjoy to read.  But apparently I'm in the minority.  Many of my female friends lean more towards romance, historical fiction, and YA books.  (I'm not ripping those genres; I have some favorites on those shelves, too.)  Apparently, I'm also in the minority among female authors.  Lots of women write crime, supernatural, thrillers... but it's much less common to find a female writing about politics.

I'm not going to digress into a feminist rant: "I wrote this because anything a man can do, I can do better."  Because that wasn't my reason.  I wrote about politics because it's something I'm passionate about.  I wrote about a future that I fear we're heading towards.  I wrote about conservatism and socialism and capitalism for the same reason I wrote about family.  They're on my mind a lot.

I did some research and while there are plenty of great names (authors I like!) in the genre (Dan, Christopher), there just aren't a lot of women.  Ayn Rand shows up, of course, but that's not exactly recent.  I did stumble upon an older great read, though, by Gayle Lynds called Masquerade that I can't not mention.  Aside from a rather dating moment where a dude on roller blades (roller blades!)  mugs someone, it's the real deal.  The worldwide scope is huge, and the legends say that she got rejected for publication over and over because it was so realistic the male publishers didn't believe a woman had written it. (Girl power. Boom.)

Political fiction, in this case, is a loose descriptor for my book.  There are a lot of words I'd use to describe it, and of course "political" is one of them.  I don't shy away from my political viewpoint, and many of you will disagree.  But the political fiction element of The Senator's Youngest Daughter is more the setting than the plot itself.  At its heart, this is a story of family more than a story of a revolution.

I am obliged here to bring up science fiction.  Sci-fi and politics usually only align in tabloids, but I think they occasionally get similar bad reps among women. 

I've known those who've made the suggestion that they think it's weird that I like sci-fi.  One went so far as to comment that she thought I was "smarter than that."

Whoa.  So, to clarify, a story can only be good if it's in one of your approved/comfortable settings?  No, no, no.

All genres have good stories and bad stories.  Good fantasy and bad fantasy, good horror and bad horror, good romance and bad romance (gaga ooh la la), good historical fiction and bad historical fiction.

So I'm not going to judge a story as good simply because the protagonists are fighting Nazis just like I won't judge it bad because they're fighting cylons or aliens.  I like stories of family survival, so I love Battlestar Gallactica and I wrote my book on the same topic.  (Family survival, not cylons and resurrection.) 

Brenna Jefferson in The Senator's Youngest Daughter happens to be fighting humans, but I don't really see a difference.  Either the story is good or it's not.  Setting, enemies... make them what you will.  If I love the character I will cheer for her to defeat/eat/cross-over/deactivate the appropriate warlord/prey/ghost/Terminator.

So, political fiction is cool.  And if you're a sci-fi fan, you'll know that bowties are also cool.  (Eleven says so.)