7 Mar

Amy stroking a Navajo rug at the SW Indian Art Fair

February brought dear visitors who also brought writing questions.  Mariana who’s writing a middle-grade novel, arrived first, and we spent a couple of days dreaming up new jewelry projects at the Tucson Gem Show.  A week later, my daughter Amy came to preach a sermon at the UU church in Sierra Vista.  Of course, she needed to write her sermon, something she’s better at than I am, but on Saturday, we made time for the SW Indian Art Fair on the U of A campus, admiring the rugs, the silver-and-turquoise jewelry, the baskets, and, of course, the frybread.  While enjoying all that Tucson has to offer, Mariana, Amy, and I talked about little things and big — beads, knitting, life and death, plans for the future.  And writing.

Mariana, after reading my last blog post, had reworked her chapter to include more dialogue tags — ones that characterized AND furthered the plot.  Because of her additions, not only could we could see the setting, a most interesting one, but we could also feel the growing tension in her characters.  Adding tags improved the chapter.  But I’m never satisfied and kept wanting more tags, more details of scene, weather, and emotion.  I pointed to line after line.  “What about here?” I asked.  “And here?”

“How do you find a place to insert another tag?”  she asked.  “Are you doing it by ear?”

Partly by ear.  But there’s something easier.  I use the THREE-BEAT RULE.

A few years ago, Cynthia Whitcomb wrote about the “Three-Beat Rule” in her monthly column in “The Willamette Writer Newsletter.”  Her words immensely improved my own dialogue writing.

When we’re talking in real life, we tend to ramble.  Sometimes, we even lapse into rants or lectures.  Just because it happens in real life doesn’t mean we have to repeat these habits in our writing.  No reader wants to be lectured or bored by a character — even if that character is innately boring.  (We can use summarized speech to show boring characters.  He talked on and on about the fiscal cliff is a good example of summarized dialogue.  We know he’s boring; we don’t need to make the reader plod through every sentence.)

What is the three-beat rule?

Give your character three beats of dialogue.  Then, figure out how to interrupt the flow of words.

A beat is a sentence or a phrase.  Consider this passage:  Mother’s voice shrilled through the night.  “You kids get in here.  I’ve called you too many times.  You never listen to me.  I’m not telling you again.  I come out here one more time, you’re grounded the rest of the week.”

The real mom probably was frustrated enough to rant like this.  But for better writing, let’s prune these five beats to three.  Remove two of the five sentences — any two.  Something wonderful happens:  What is left packs more wallop, and the mother’s frustration is still clear.

The other thing we can do is interrupt the speech with a tag.  In the above passage, Mom’s repeating herself.  But what if every sentence she says is important.  Count to three and insert a tag.  Count another three beats and insert another tag.  Let’s try it:

Mom’s voice shrilled through the night.  “You kids get in the house.  You got homework.  You got chores.”  Under the dim light they saw her lean hard against the porch railing.  Her voice came softer now.    “I can’t do it all.”

Notice how the final sentence takes on importance.  It’s standing alone.  It’s spoken in a different tone of voice and with different body language.  It makes us sympathize with this shrill mother.

Mariana took a look at the novel she was reading.  “This author is doing it,” she said.  “The three beats.”  She hadn’t noticed this technique before and that’s good.  The three-beat rule does great writing work, but it isn’t obvious.  That’s good writing craft — something that does the job and doesn’t call attention to itself.

To do at home:  Take a look at the dialogue in your own story.  Apply the three-beat rule. Prune away the unnecessary words.   Add interruptions in the form of another person speaking, or as a tag.  (Go ahead and add an explosion if it fits!)  Whatever you add should be important to the story, just as the mother showing her fatigue is important.  Remember that any old detail won’t work; make your details significant, concrete, sensory,  — important.

On the health front, chemo sessions continue as the cancer marker goes down.  Jerry and I are planning a trip to Grand Canyon in early April, where I intend to gape at the views from the South Rim.  He, being himself, intends to go down to the canyon floor and back up in one day.

Yes, he can!  He’s been climbing to Romero Pools almost every day since we got to Arizona.  Fit, he is.


Look ahead to workshops in character, dialogue, plot and first pages taught by Linda Elin Hamner and me in mid-June.  Linda and I have been gleefully planning these since last summer.  Please circle June 15 and 22 on your calendars.  At Imagine Cafe in Corvallis.  More details will come.



  1. mfrances stilwell March 7, 2013 at 2:41 pm #


    The only thing I can add is a memory. I visited my twin nieces in Michigan when they were about four. Shy Francie was not yet very verbal but any adventure triggered great enthusiasm. We all attended an Ojibway pow-wow in Peshawbestown. I found the fry bread delicious and I went back for a second helping. When I returned with yet a third, Francie exploded with laugher and said, “More?” thouogh she wasn’t so verbal she did not miss tricks. this was probably about thirty years go, I know you could improve on the writing.

    That frybread tasted like the Yorkshire pudding we had in our dormitory at Smith.

    I”ve been so busy trying to describe plants I/ve forgotten how to describe people though the movies are still clear in my memory.


    • Sybilla Cook March 7, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

      Fry bread? At Smith? Our big thing was baked beans–usually on Saturday date night.

      Life goes on.. improved.

  2. Linda Audrain March 7, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

    What a wonderful post! I love the three beat rule and your explanation of it.

    We’re on sunny Oahu this week. I hope you’re doing well and enjoying Tucson.


    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Beverley Beckley March 7, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

    Dear Anne,

    The dialogue three beat rule is so right-on! Thank you, thank you. I’m looking forward to the June dates in Corvallis. I wouldn’t miss the chance to learn, but more especially to see you. I’ll even bring a croissant for you!

    Peeps tonight. I’ll send the news.


  4. Rebecca Smith March 7, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

    Sent from a tiny keyboard

  5. Lauri Richer March 9, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    Great post!

    While I was reading Nobody’s Fool I noticed that he had very little dialogue, did you? His pages filled with words (not much dialogue or tags) and the size of his book was daunting but so well written. He paraphrases a lot, remember? He does not follow any rules but it really works. I wish I could write like that!!


  6. Lynn March 11, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    “All this talk of sun and fry bread gives me cravings for both.” Lynn’s voice matched the grayness of the Oregon sky. 🙂

  7. Mike Kinch March 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    Nice to be reminded of the 3-beat concept. At first glance I thought Amy was you. So much similarity. We went to bottom of Grand Canyon and back in one day… in our late 20s!

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