Kelly Mortimer

Kelly Mortimer of Mortimer Literary Agency represents clients in both the ABA and the CBA.
She’s the founder and current president of the Christian Media Association (CMA), dedicated to helping all Christian and Jewish writers. She made the Top 5 of the 2008 Publisher’s Marketplace Top 100 Dealmakers - Romance Category, and she won the American Christian Fiction Writers “Agent of the Year” award in 2008. In addition to this column, Kelly writes the “Ask an Agent” column for the Romance Writers United newsletter.

Beat It

Gimme a beat . . .

Okay, so I just stole Michael Jackson’s title and Janet Jackson’s lyric. (I like to dance; is that a crime?)

Let’s not beat around the bush. (Sorry.) What’s a “beat,” and do ya need it?

Beat: a description that replaces or accompanies an attribution (Renni Browne; Dave King).

Perfect definition, as long as ya know what an attribution is. (Well . . . do ya?) An attribution tells the reader who’s talkin’. Examples of attributions, or tags, would be: she said, John said, they said, and so on. When using an attribution after dialogue, the dialogue ends with a comma inside the closing quotation mark, followed by the attribution. Example: “Kelly Mortimer is nearly perfect in every way,” she said. (I like the movie Mary Poppins as well.) A writer can also use attributions between two sentences or before the dialogue.

Without beats, this dialogue featuring three people would look something like this:

“How are you?” Sally said.
“Fine,” John said.
“Did you miss me?” Janet said.
He said, “No. I missed her.”
“How can you say that?” Janet said.
“Because he never loved you. He loves me,” Sally said.

Oy! Talk about beatin’ a dead horse. (Sorry.) Fair warning: If anyone sends me a submission like that, I may haveta beat some sense into ya. (Sorry.)

Now that I’ve explained an attribution, let’s go back to beats. Unlike attributions, beats are complete sentences. You don’t use a comma, as with an attribution, you use a period. Beats usually consist of snippets of action and give the writer another option to show the reader who’s doin’ the talkin’. You can use ’em to break up dialogue or at the beginning or end of a sentence.. All beats can be just as bad as all attributions, so use them in moderation.

Can ya imagine:

“How are you?” Sally moved toward him.
“Fine.” John dropped his bag to the floor.
“Did you miss me?” Janet’s expression mirrored hope.
He grabbed Sally’s hand and pulled her closer. “No. I missed her.”
“How can you say that?” Janet crumpled to the couch.
Sally’s smirk was bigger than Alaska. “Because he never loved you. He loves me.”

No comments on the cheesy sentences. This ain’t Gone With the Wind, so don’t beat me up over it. (Sorry.)

Let’s try a mix. (It can’t get any worse. At least I hope it can’t.)

“How are you?”
“Fine, Sally,” John said as he dropped his bag to the floor.
“Did you miss me?” Janet’s expression mirrored hope.
He grabbed Sally’s hand and pulled her closer. “No. I missed her.”
“How can you say that?
“Because he never loved you, Janet. He loves me.”

Well, if that don’t beat all! (Sorry.) I know; it’s horrid, but it beats a kick in the rear. (Sorry.) Still, the sentences served their purpose. (Namely, to get my word count up so I can finish this darn column.) It’s the best of the three sections because it incorporates action, leaves some stuff out to improve the pacing, and it ain’t as repetitious.

If you have only two people in a scene, you don’t haveta identify characters every time they say somethin’, as long as it’s clear to the reader who’s saying what. It’s annoying to haveta go back and pick up a thread because you’ve lost track of which character is jabbering. (And we all know it isn’t wise to annoy a bipolar Italian. . . .)

Did I answer the question? Y’all remember: Do ya gotta put beats in your manuscripts? . . . Beats me. . . . (Sorry.)

Until next month (I’m beatin’ a hasty retreat.) (Sorry.), miss me.

Christian Media Association