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Serious about Smut

by Vincent Diamond

Beating Up Your Scenes:
Using physical beats to spice up your prose


Serious About Smut by Vincent DiamondMany of the authors I work with get a little confused about beating. No, not with leather strops or other implements, but beating up a scene with physical actions. It can be tricky and sometimes gets  mixed up with dialogue tags and interior monologue, so here are some tips on dealing with the beats in your stories. To start, a couple definitions.

Beat: Physical beat is action by a character on the page, usually interspersed with dialogue. Also known as an action tag. (If it’s a sequence of physical actions, then it becomes an action scene.)

Dialogue tag: The "he said, she said" and its variations that identify the speaker and how the dialogue is spoken. (Growled, whispered, hissed.)

Emotional beat: A dip into a character's emotional and/or mental state, also interspersed with dialogue. This is different than interior monologue, which is a character thinking to him/herself, usually in first-person. (For many genres, this is routinely set in italics.)

In a perfect world, a beat will enhance any conflict in the scene, help to serve scene setting as the character interacts with the immediate area, and help to break up dialogue into more manageable pieces. For erotica, beats can underscore the sexual tension on the page, and add an element of tension to the story.

Here’s an example of beats used poorly:

     There was so much confusion with his father’s estate, the eminent domain purchase, and the store’s debts.

     “Is this okay to sign?” Felipe finally asked. “You been to college. What does this mean?”

     Monique sat back. “It’s what we talked about on the phone." She glared at him. "The store’s only worth about ninety thousand now because the new highway is coming through that part of town. The state is taking the whole block.” She leaned forward, looking annoyed.

     “And the check from the state?” Felipe asked.

     “Is in my name because I’m a legal heir, too, and anything in your name is something that guy can attach later if he ever decides to sue you. Reggie says it’s best if you don’t have any assets until the statute of limitations runs out on his case.” Monique reached for her cigarettes.

     “Which is when?” Felipe asked.

     “2012. Six years for a civil suit.” Monique leaned forward.

     Felipe had to ask for a pen from the guard. He bent over the forms and signed his name with his face carefully set—neutral.

This reveals almost nothing about these characters, there are too many beats, the beats are boring, and they don’t show the setting clearly. It's not until the end that you even realize Felipe is in prison. Monique's actions are dull and do nothing to show her character or her relationship with Felipe.

And here's the published version:

     There was so much confusion with his father’s estate, the eminent domain purchase, and the store’s debts.

     “Is this okay to sign?” he finally asked. The phone handle was greasy, years of sweat and want etched into its plastic. “You been to college. What does this mean?”

     Monique blew her bangs off her forehead with an angry puff. Through the thick glass her face looked distorted, ugly. “It’s what we talked about on the phone. The store’s only worth about ninety thousand now because the new highway is coming through that part of town. The state is taking the whole block.”

     “And the check from the state?”

     “Is in my name because I’m a legal heir, too, and anything in your name is something that guy can attach later if he ever decides to sue you. Reggie says it’s best if you don’t have any assets until the statute of limitations runs out on his case.” Monique twisted the chain of her big bag, the glint of it looked too bright in the drab green of the room.

     “Which is when?” Felipe glanced at the guard at the door.

     “2012. Six years for a civil suit.”

     Felipe had to ask the guard to bring the forms through. He bent over them, chewing one side of his mouth and signed his name.

     (From Shepherd)

Try to really see your characters in action as they talk, argue, drive, make love, or fight. What do real people do? Sure, some people light cigarettes and snap back whiskey, but would your characters do? A man who professes to love his mother, but then slams her prized china into a box with only newspaper in between as he's moving her into a smaller house is different than a man who takes the same china, wraps each piece in bubble wrap, and places it carefully in a padded container. Couple this with dialogue that's full of conflict and emotion, and the subtext for the scene is on the page for readers to discern. Beats can do that, and it's terrific spicing.

Some general rules:
1- You don’t want to write characters that go on and on, paragraph after paragraph when speaking.  Dialogue is a dialogue, not a monologue.

2- Dialogue that has no beats or action in between can feel too rushed or relentless. There are times, of course, when relentless is exactly what you want in dialogue—for scenes of tension, conflict, and quick action. But for more everyday types of discussions, using physical beats can help show each character’s personality, appearance, and how they interact with the setting.

3- Using physical beats too much is just as wearing for the reader; you’ll tire them out and force them to start jumping ahead to get to more interesting action. Strive for a balance between beats that enhance a scene and beats that show character.

4- Don't use beats and reactions from Character A in the middle of dialogue from Character B. It's confusing and makes readers have to stop and think too much.

5- As much as possible keep beats and tags to the end of dialogue lines. It's all right to intersperse one in the middle, especially if it's interesting or dramatic, but don't do it too often.

6- Beats for an activity that’s unusual (scuba diving or tuning up a tractor) can be more extensive than everyday activities such as driving a car or putting on make-up.

Exercise 1: Pick out the beats in the scene below:

     A clatter at the door and a stoop-shouldered old man waited while the guard unlocked it.

     “You take care, Harley,” the guard said, his voice quiet.

     “Thanks, Al.” The old man held a brown paper bag with liver-spotted hands. A new-looking blue knit cap covered his head.

     Felipe rose from the bed, embarrassed that he’d sat on it. He held out one hand. “I’m Felipe.”

     The old man waved him away and sank onto the bed with a sigh. He tucked the paper bag under his pillow. “This ain’t no Chamber of Commerce meeting, no need to do that.” His eyes were pale blue and gray skin circled beneath them. Wisps of red hair lay against his collar.

     Felipe smelled him—something antiseptic on top of sickness.  He saw a small circle of plastic embedded in Harley’s chest. “What’s that?”

     “Chemo port,” Harley answered.


     “Cancer. I get treatments three days a week.”

     Felipe squatted against the concrete wall. “I’m sorry.”

     Harley shrugged and raised his gaze directly to Felipe. He looked over Felipe’s shoulders and chest then shook his head. “You’re gonna have some scuffles in here. Hope you’re ready.”

     “I got that vibe already.”

     “I’ll bet the girlies back home liked you.”


     “The girlies in here are gonna like you, too. And the boys.”

     (From Shepherd)

If you're having a hard time coming up with physical beats consider using a THAD, a Talking Heads Avoidance Device, (concept based on the work of Elizabeth Lyon). A THAD comes from character and has to relate to the person you’re writing about. A character who spends weekends working laboriously on his/her motorcycle and making repairs is different than one who merely drops it off at the dealer. A character who spends weeks slogging through flea markets to find just the right antique headboard is different than one who orders a faux one from an expensive catalog.

First, think of an activity your character(s) would do and that would fit into your storyline smoothly. It might be a hobby or part of their work life.
Second, list all the actions and verbs associated with that activity.

Third, list the items/props for the activity.

Fourth, weave the action and props into the dialogue smoothly.

Exercise 2: Using the activity you chose above, list the verbs and actions, list the props, and set the scene for the dialogue below. Work your physical beats into this dialogue so that a reader can identify when and where this is taking place, how Sandy and Tanner know one another and how well, if their relationship is smooth or tense, and what kind of person Sandy is.

     “Sorry if this is too forward or offends you, but man, I gotta ask. What happened to your hand?” Tanner asked.

     Sandy tugged his right shirt sleeve down; even in summer, he wore long sleeves. “We were executing a search warrant at a drug house and I threw a flashbang that ignited some painting supplies. The house was old, all wood, and it went up in about twelve minutes.”

     “You were a cop?”

     “Yeah, ‘til two years ago.”

     “You quit?”

     “Not exactly. I was certified as partially disabled but they offered me desk duty and I said no.”

     “How did you get burned?”

     “I told you. The house went up.”

     “So…. Why didn’t you just leave the house?”

     “There were kids in the house.” Sandy said.

     “And you tried to get them out?”

     “I was responsible. The fire was my fault.”

How did you do? Were you able to create realistic beats that showed a bit of each character's personality? Were you able to work in beats in such a way that readers could tell if Sandy was bitter or just depressed? Was there a bit of setting worked in? Can readers tell a bit about what these characters do with their time? Can they tell something of Sandy and Tanner's relationship?

To sum up, beating up your scenes works well if used properly. They can enhance conflict, show  both character and setting through interaction. Beats can diffuse tension and offer subtext to a scene so try beating up your scenes. And remember, not too many but not too few. Used like a strong spice, a little beating goes a long way.

Vincent Diamond
October 2010

If you have comments or questions about this column, please send them to Vincent Diamond

Find more of Vincent's Serious about Smut in ERWA 2010 Archive.

"Serious about Smut" © 2010 Vincent Diamond. All rights reserved.

About the Author:  The alleged Vincent Diamond once drove from Tampa to Anchorage, Alaska in the days before the Alcan Highway was paved. (Hey, Vincent was young and there was this hunky Army lieutenant—nothing more need to be said.) Diamond gleefully buys smutty periodicals for “research materials” and lists them on a Schedule C every year. The IRS has yet to question this deduction.

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