Did you read the title of this post and ask yourself, What is a beat? or What is an attribution? If so, let me answer your question.
A beat is a sentence or phrase that describes what is happening while the character is speaking. It serves as a technique for characterization, for showing your reader more about your character.
The word “beat” is used in screenwriting circles and, possibly, derives from the same term used in music. In scripts, the word “beat” means that the screenwriter wants the actor to stop for a moment before speaking his line.
A beat often gives a clue to what a character is thinking or feeling. It may reveal the effect of something a character has just heard. So the character pauses to process the information or the event.
In fiction, we use beats to express what is going on inside a character. Here are two examples, the first without a beat, the second with a beat:
“Have you finished your homework yet, Joey?” Mom asked. She was angry that he had procrastinated yet again.
With beat underlined:
“Have you finished your homework yet, Joey?” Mom narrowed her dark eyes and placed her fists on her hips.
In the first example, Mom asked is a simple attribution. It serves to attribute the previous spoken words to Mom. In the second example, I have changed the simple attribution to a beat that makes Mom come alive. Unlike the first example, the second example gives us a picture of Mom.
Take a scene from your current work of fiction and highlight all the simple attributions. Then replace them with beats that show in physical terms what your character is feeling or thinking.
Photo Source: Microsoft Clipart