Monday, July 25, 2016

Speaker Beats That Can Ruin a Manuscript

By Andrea Merrell

We’re taught the concept at writers’ conferences, read about it in helpful blog posts, and hear it consistently from our critique group and editors: show—don’t tell. This key to writing well can make or break an otherwise good story. There are many ways to describe this key element, but today we’re going to talk about speaker beats that are not only telling, but redundant and, well … flat.

Here are a few of the most common:
  • She smiled.
  • He laughed.
  • She cried.
  • He shrugged.
  • She nodded.
  • He cleared his throat.
  • She blushed.
  • He flexed his jaw.
  • She sighed.
  • He winked.
Am I saying it’s never okay to use these beats? Yes and no. (I recently edited a manuscript that used "he nodded" over forty times.) An occasional “she smiled” or “he shrugged” might be acceptable, but not just as a filler. And not if you want the reader to relate to your characters and feel like they are watching them on the big screen. (Check out Deb Raney’s post on Writing Cinematically.) As writers, we need to show the emotions and inner conflict of our characters. Let’s look at an example.

Flat Speaker Beats
“It won’t be long before I’m home,” Steve said. “Sorry, I forgot about the party.” He laughed.

Julie sighed. “You don’t listen to anything I say, do you?”

“Sure I do.” Steve shrugged. “I just don’t have the best memory.”

“You don’t care about my feelings. That’s the problem.” Julie cried.

What do you get from this section of dialogue? Not much. We don’t even know whose point of view we’re in. Let’s see if we can set the scene a little better.

Speaker Beats that Tell a Story
“It won’t be long before I’m home,” Steve said with a nervous laugh, wishing for the hundredth time he had put the event on his mobile calendar. He would have a hard time talking himself out of this one.

Julie’s weary sigh cut through the phone like a knife and reminded him of all the other important things he had forgotten. “You don’t listen to anything I say, do you?”

Steve shrugged his shoulders in a nervous gesture as he always did when he knew he was wrong, even though no one could see him. “Sure I do. I just don’t have the best memory.” Well, that was at least partially true.

“You don’t care about my feelings.” As usual, the sound of crying replaced the sigh. “That’s the problem,” Julie said between sobs. “You’ve never cared.”

Do you see the difference? Can you feel the conflict and tension between the two?

Another bad habit we have as writers is overusing our pet words and phrases. The list is endless, but here are some of the most common:
  • That
  • Just
  • Really
  • Seriously
  • Slowly
  • Gently
  • Silently
  • Softly
  • Carefully
  • Began to
  • Determined jaws
  • Lips twisting
  • Color rising to the face
  • Running hands through hair
Anything overused in a story will wear on the reader. If you are aware of redundancies in your manuscript, do a word search and see how many times you have used a certain word or phrase. Then get creative and do some rewriting. Make your words count. Be sure they show what’s going on in the scene and drive your story forward.

What about you? Do you struggle with overusing certain words and phrases? Can you add to the list? We would love to hear from you.

(Photos courtesy of Isolated Images/Idea Go.)



  1. OK. You pushed some of my buttons. I don't edit fiction, but I read a lot of it.

    Some phrases I'd like writers to find alternatives for:
    *Sucked in a breath
    *Blew out a breath
    *Steaming mug (they always use this when someone serves a hot drink)
    *He strode or she strode

    Thank you. Now I have that off my chest.

    1. Great additions to the list, Emily. I see those a lot as well. Thanks for sharing! :)


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