As usual, my thoughts and comments on in parentheses. All the other kicks are just there, man.)
Beats are the bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a
character walking to a window or removing his and rubbing his eyes- the
literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as 'stage business'.
As with interior monologue, it's very easy to interrupt your dialogue so often that you bring its pace to a halt.
As with the Fran Dorf example at the beginning of the chapter, there
is wonderful dialogue in here (another example)-surrounded by so many
beats, both internal and external, that its effect is lost. The fact
that the beats themselves are interesting and well written doesn't keep
the constant interruptions from irritating the reader.
As with physical description, some writers may overuse beats because
they lack confidence. After all, if you show every move your character
makes, your readers are bound to be able to picture the action you
describe...when you describe every bit of action down to the last
detail, you give your readers a clear picture of what's going on but you
also limit their imagination-and if you supply enough detail, you'll
alienate them in the process.
Of course, it is possible to err in the other direction and include
too few beats. Page after page of uninterrupted dialogue can become
disembodied and disorienting after a while, even if the dialogue is
What's needed are a few beats to anchor [your dialogue] in reality.
The idea is to strike the right balance between dialogue and beats.
So what's the right balance? (see page 149!)
Knowing where to put your beats is not as important as knowing what beats to insert.
Beats can be pointless, distracting, cliched, or repetitive.
So where do you find good beats? (Oh, the tip offered here has kept me busy all week. Page 152 folks!)
(The last two pages of the chapter consist of an example with and
then without beats.) The scene is still moving-the dialogue effectively
conveys what's going on and its importance, and it's easy to tell who is
speaking. What is lost is a great deal of resonance, the deepening of
the emotional content. You need beats for those.