If you're having your character doing something as they speak, it should have meaning. If "he shrugged, she grinned, etc." is transparent, why use it at all? He/she said tells what the action is even if it's just the character saying something. Do you want your character to shrug when he makes a certain comment at that point in the story? If the answer is, yes, then use it. If you're using it just to be using it, then it makes no sense to use it in the first place. Otherwise, you're going the have a lot of shrugging, grinning, smiling, frowning, laughing, etc. going on all the way through the story for no clear purpose. That sounds like a lot of clutter to me and not near as clear cut as he/she said.
Also, I read somewhere that it's difficult to grin, smile, laugh, etc. when talking. You might do it afterwards or before but not during, which is why it's not in good taste to use it with dialog. It's best to let the dialog portray the action or the emotion of the character instead of telling the readers the result. I know since I've done this my dialog comes across much smoother.
I use a lot. In fact in a short story I bet I don't use but a handful of tags. Yes, heads nod, and heads shake, I probably should cut down on those, but I myself do it as i am talking. But those are just some of the beats, if you only use those, its still the talking head syndrome which you want to avoid, just bobbing and shaking. Other beats will enchance the scene.
Jarad leaned back in his chair, and rolled a smoke. "I don't know, Ed, but somethings eating you.
Ed ran his hand over his stomach. "More than you."
ok, not great dialogue, and or scene for that matter, but the beats add to it, the first sentence of course we can take simply as Ed has a problem on his mind. the second now we arent so sure, is it just a problem on his mind, or is something inside his stomach and literally eating him.
The thing with beats, is that people very seldom just talk, they gesture with their hands, their heads, they walk, drink sigh, look around. Even a conversation between 2 people sitting on the sofa is more than just words. the stretching of legs, repeatedly glancing at the clock on the wall, all of which add to the scene, furthering it. As said by previous posters though, a beat should have a reason.
I pretty much agree with you, Tiergen, but I notice in your examples that a period separates the action from the dialog instead of a comma. And that makes the difference. In my explanation, I was refering to dialog something like this:
"I'll be right there." Her attention returned to Jack, “You know I’m within my rights to tell Father about this.”
“But you won’t,” Jack grinned at the face she made.
To me, this is wrong due to the use of commas, but it can be corrected:
1) "You know I'm within my rights to tell Father about this," she said.
"But you won't," Jack said and then grinned at the face she made.
The he said/she said explains what the person did. It tells that Jack was the one speaking and then explains the results of what he said. But this is the way I would write it in the next draft to make it become more alive:
2)"I'll be right there." Her attention returned to Jack. “You know I’m within my rights to tell Father about this.”
“But you won’t.” Jack grinned at the face she made.
The he said/she said is left out, and the words are identical to my first sample except for one important thing. I used periods instead of commas to separate the action from the dialog, and I think this is where people get confused.
I must apologize that I really wasn't sure what beats were. So I learned something today in that respect .
He/she said clarifies action, because readers can see someone is talking. He smiled, she shrugged, etc. are actions, which is why I don't think they are (or should be) as transparent. Especially when you use these actions as "beats", they should show something important about the characters. Readers pause on beats, so they will notice the actions more.
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Let's see... the writing beats that I use a lot... that depends on the characters. Some smile a lot (usually as a cover for their real emotions), some scowl whenever the main character talks to them, and many stare during tense moments. Sometimes I think I overuse staring for beats.
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I'm in the Tiergan camp. Nods and smiles and the like most often contribute nothing and are not so transparent. Sometimes they can become annoying as they build up over time--you start to see every character as a smiley-faced bobble head doll with neuro-muscular medical conditions.
To break up dialogue, try to show unique mannerisms of the participants, things that add to the spoken conversation, or unique thoughts/insights from the POV character, and put them outside of the tags as much as possible.
I've been trying to tone it down---at least when I can remember to catch it. I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't say much and only breaks up the dialog a little. I suppose "he nodded" is probably the top on the list, but a lot of others pass through the mix.
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Just like he said/she said, beats can be used to good effect as speaker attributions. But both can be used too often, and in the case of beats, beats that are too generic can get old fast.
As dee_boncci mentioned, unique mannerisms are less likely to get old. nods and smiles have their place, but if someone is nodding/smiling/scowling after every single line, it may be too much. If no one ever has any facial expressions, that's probably not enough.
Keep in mind, if the dialogue is between just two people, you don't need an attribution after every line. You can assume that the speakers are alternating, in which case you can have 3 or 4 (short) dialogue paragraphs with no attribution and it can flow very smoothly.
To me, beats serve three main purposes: 1. attribution: lets you know who is saying what. 2. characterization: actions speak louder than words, this can betray a lie, show nervous habits, convey more subtle communication between characters, any number of other things. 3. pacing. A longer beat conveys a longer moment of time between speech.
An example for pacing:
Alice glared at Tom and slapped the countertop with her hand. "Tell me what you know."
Tom didn't look up from the dishwater. "I can't."
"You can't? That's baloney and you know it. This is important. You could save her life."
He rinsed a handful of silverware and set it in the drainer with a clatter. "It's not that simple."
"What's not simple?"
Once Alice and Tom start talking, she has no beats because she doesn't hesitate. As soon as he speaks to her, she has a response. She's very upset at Tom, and she isn't pulling her punches.
Tom, on the other hand has beats before both of his lines, and long ones at that. The beats slow down his responses, giving the impression of hesitation without actually saying "he hesitated". The second beat is longer than the first, implying a longer hesitation. His words make it clear he doesn't want to talk, and his actions support that by slowing his pace.
In this case the particular actions aren't even that important. Are clean dishes vital to the story? Probably not. He's fixating on them, using them to try to delay the conversation.
Also, a related point about point of view. To me, I want to see the story through the eyes of the character using the prose as a lens. What I mean by that is that so many things, down to scene descriptions, and in this case, beats, are opportunities to characterize.
In the case of my example dialogue, whoever is the protagonist notices Tom's actions in close detail during the argument. Let's say Alice is the protagonist. She notices when he sets the handful of silverware down because she's eager to continue the argument and she's frustrated at his hesitation. If she was just asking how his day was, she might not be scrutinizing every detail of his dishwashing. In that case I might have used different things for beats, something appropriate to the occasion.
Anyway, these are the concepts I think about when I think about beats. your mileage may vary.