Beware of ‘dud action’ in narrative beats
During the SCBWI Summer Spectacular I eagerly watched Deborah Halverson’s digital workshop titled “Submissions Studio: Writing Queries, Strategizing Submissions, and Ten Ways to Translate ‘No’ to ‘Yes.’” After all, Deborah Halverson was an editor at Harcourt Brace before she became an award-winning author in her own right. She also founded the popular writers’ advice website DearEditor.com. I’d heard a lot of the advice on querying, but when I reached the part of the workshop on narrative beats I sat up straighter in my chair. This was new.
“Narrative beats offer wonderful opportunities to enhance the dialogue and the overall story, yet too often writers fill them with dud action” like characters brushing hair from their eyes or looking down.
Uh-oh! I’m sure my main character brushed hair out of her eyes and looked down at some point in my story. I was rather proud of these additions. I thought they helped me ‘show, not tell’ more in my story. Come to find out, editors see these behaviors all the time and the action is meaningless. They are what Halverson refers to as ‘dud actions’ because they fail to move the story forward.
“You want action that takes its job seriously, revealing, illuminating, deliberately undermining, and pushing characters into action.”
Hmm. It was time to revisit my manuscript and examine my narrative beats.
Are your narrative beats filled with ‘dud action’? Are you ready change them. If so, this post may help.
What is a narrative beat?
Katherine Cowley explains beats as “the smallest story unit in fiction. Individual words are like atoms. Story beats are the molecules, the real building blocks of the story world. There are different categories or types of story beats including a line of dialogue, a moment of action, a moment of reaction, a moment of inaction, a visual image, an emotion, a setting, a theme, or an instance of meta-storytelling.”
In Deborah Halverson’s workshop she focuses on the action beats around dialogue. Is the action adding information to the scene? Does it reveal more about the character? Does it provoke an emotional response in another character or the audience?
Look at your action beats. Do they serve a purpose?
Good beats vs. boring beats
To truly understand action-enhancing beats it helps to contrast them with ‘dud action’ beats.
Sure enough, when I looked back at my manuscript I found plenty of examples of ‘dud action’ beats to share with you. Here are a few:
- Wayna sighed.
- Nairu smiled.
- Wayna looked at her, eyebrows raised.
- She nodded.
- Nairu groaned.
- Wayna laughed.
My prose is littered with ‘dud action’. None of these examples contribute to my plot or characterization. In and of themselves, these actions are meaningless.
Last night, I took a look through Hilary McKay‘s award-winning YA novel, The Skylarks’ War. Having enjoyed the book on the first read, I now have a new respect for the author as I study her writing. McKay uses action beats to their full advantage. Here are a few examples:
In The Skylarks’ War, Clarry Penrose’s mother dies when she’s born. Her father has no interest in his children and considers them a nuisance. At first, Clarry’s grandmother steps in to help, but she’s determined to return home to her husband. She doesn’t want her son assuming she’ll stay and take on the role of mother.
In the following scene, Clarry’s grandmother is speaking to a neighbor. The action beats reveal her attitude toward raising her two young grandchildren while she carries on a completely unrelated conversation.
“If you insist,” said the children’s grandmother, as she wiped Clarry’s chin for the hundredth time that afternoon and removed Peter from the coal scuttle.”
The grandmother is busy parenting while trying to have a conversation and it’s clear from her actions that she’s getting frustrated with the situation.
The grandmother does not just look at the neighbor before speaking. Instead, she’s bustling around taking care of her grandchildren and we can tell through the action she is clearly fed up.
Here’s another example of narrative beats moving the story along.
“Father wouldn’t listen,” said Peter, and then Mrs. Morgan, by far the most long lasting servant, came hurrying over, extinguished Peter with a bat from a damp dishcloth, removed Clarry’s thumb from her mouth, ordered, ‘Upstairs the pair of you, you’re forever where you’re not wanted!’ and told Miss Vane that she was sure Mr. Penrose would be very pleased to have Clarry out of mischief for an hour or so on Sundays, and they’d send her across is something clean or as best as could be managed.”
These action beats are so original and rich in detail we’re swept away with the children in the story. We discover Mrs. Morgan is the longest lasting servant in the house and see how she deals with the children while intercepting the nosy neighbor at the door.
Now that we’ve witnessed a master storyteller effectively using narrative beats, let’s look at a list of generic verbs to stay away from in our writing.
Red flag words
“You’d be surprised how often characters are looking or staring or smiling or frowning in manuscripts submitted to publishers.” – Deborah Halverson
From the above observation we can glean that look, stare, smile, and frown are generic verbs to look out for in our narrative beats.
Here’s a list of generic verbs to look out for in your writing:
- turn (to)
Narrative beats are not just about the expressions on the characters’ faces. Make them do something to reveal more about the character, setting, or story.
Try a word count test
If you’re ready to create narrative beats that sparkle, try a word count test to identify areas to improve. Run your manuscript through a word counter to reveal your dense words. Are they generic verbs? Go back and take a look at them to see if you can add action to these sequences.
Yesterday, I ran my entire middle grade manuscript through the free program, wordcounter.net.
These are the results of my test:
- Words: 43,017
- Characters: 247,729
- Sentences: 2,753
- Paragraphs: 2,465
- Reading Level: 11th-12th grade (I may need to look at this because it’s supposed to be a middle grade novel)
- Reading Time: 2hrs 37 min
Word density results:
- back 165
- when 147
- asked 145
- eyes 132
- one 123
- over 118
- *looked 117
- down 115
- all 104
- was 359
- took a deep breath 10
My middle grade novel is only 147 pages long so I need to take a look at my recurring generic verbs to see if I can add some pizzazz to these actions and not just have my characters look, smile, frown, or groan.
If you want your manuscript to shine, remove ‘dud action’ from your narrative beats. Identify your generic verbs with a word counting program. Surround your dialogue with action that serves a purpose, moves your story forward, develops your character further, or plants your reader right in the middle of your setting. Get rid of ‘dud action’ and make your novel sparkle with action-enhancing beats.