Introduction

This week, we’re going to take a look at dialogue. I’ve seen so many writers do this wrong, and to be fair, it’s hard to figure out sometimes. The rules don’t work the same way as regular sentence rules do. And then there’s the dialogue tags and actions beats to worry about!

Assuming a beginner knows how to use a tag or beat and when, punctuation often gets messed up. More often then not, beginning (and even intermediate) writers don’t know what a tag versus a beat is or when to use them, and punctuation is definitely a struggle.

So, for those of you who have always struggled with this topic or are just starting out and need direction, we’ll break it down one piece at a time and make this a little easier.

This week, we’re just going to focus on tags and beats because that’s already enough information to process without adding anything else. Next week, we’ll talk about some other aspects of dialogue that are important.

Tags vs. Beats

To start out, let’s cover tags vs beats. You can’t punctuate your dialogue correctly if you don’t know the difference because they aren’t dealt with the same way.

Tags

A tag is anything that you tack on the end of the dialogue to let people know who’s talking or how. For example:

“Megan. Megan, could you please calm down and listen? I can explain,” Dane said.

Dane said would be the dialogue tag here. Other dialogue tag examples might include:

He whispered.

She mumbled.

He snapped.

She asked.

The key with tags is to only use them when clarification of who’s speaking or how is necessary. If you use them after every single line of dialogue, it gets really old and repetitive. Consider this example:

“Anna said she couldn’t come,” Mary said.

“Why not?” Eric asked.

“Because she’s busy. Or so she claims,” Mary muttered.

“She’s always busy,” Eric grumbled.

“I know. But what am I supposed to do?” Mary asked. “Drag her out of the apartment?”

“Yes, if that’s what it takes,” Eric said.

Okay, at this point, you probably get the idea. This is not only repetitive, but it just looks like a beginner wrote it. Now consider how it looks with some cuts and revisions:

“Anna said she couldn’t come,” Mary said.

“Why not?” Eric asked.

“Because she’s busy. Or so she claims,” Mary muttered.

“She’s always busy,” Eric grumbled.

“I know. But what am I supposed to do?” Mary asked. “Drag her out of the apartment?”

“Yes, if that’s what it takes,” Eric said.

This second version reads cleaner because I only included dialogue tags where it was necessary. Otherwise, I just let the dialogue carry its own weight. If you have strong dialogue, it will be able to do that just fine without a tag or beat. If you don’t, it’ll become very apparent as soon as you remove the dialogue tag that’s propping it up.

Beats

Now that we’ve covered what a dialogue tag is and when to use them, let’s take a look at beats. Beats are actions that the speaker performs. They go with the dialogue in the same paragraph because the dialogue and the action belong to the same person.

Consider the same example I used earlier but with action beats instead of dialogue tags:

“Megan.” Dane slammed his book down on the end table. “Megan, could you please calm down and listen? I can explain.”

“Dane slammed his book down on the end table” is the action beat here. Notice that you can use an action beat to break up sections of dialogue if it makes sense to do so.

Just like dialogue tags, beats have their own pitfalls. Using too many can be as detrimental to your dialogue’s pacing as too many dialogue tags are. Let’s look at the example I gave with the dialogue between Mary and Eric again with action beats added in.

“Anna said she couldn’t come.” Mary crossed her arms.

“Why not?” Eric leaned against the kitchen door-frame.

“Because she’s busy. Or so she claims.” She paced the kitchen with a sigh.

“She’s always busy.” Eric ran a hand through his hair.

“I know. But what am I supposed to do?” Mary stopped pacing and faced him. “Drag her out of the apartment?”

“Yes, if that’s what it takes.” Eric pushed away from the doorway and stalked off.

Exhausting, right? It doesn’t read smoothly at all, and it’s honestly an eye sore. So how could we clean this example up and use the right amount of action? The key is to use the action beats to help set the scene. They should be reminders of where the characters are or what they’re doing, but they shouldn’t intrude on your dialogue.

If they are, you’ve got a problem. Either your dialogue is too weak to stand alone, or it’s going to appear weak because you tacked on an action beat unnecessarily.

Let’s look at that example again and see how it might be done better.

“Anna said she couldn’t come.” Mary eyed Eric as he came in from the yard.

“Why not?”

“Because she’s busy. Or so she claims.”

“What’s new? She’s always busy.”

“I know. But what am I supposed to do?” Mary crossed her arms. “Drag her out of the apartment?”

He shrugged. “If that’s what it takes.”

In this case, you no longer use so many action beats, but the effect is much better. The middle sections don’t need the support of action beats because the dialogue conveys the speakers’ emotions and intent on its own. But you do need some clarification of what they’re doing on occasion just to remind the reader that the characters are more than talking heads.

Conclusion

That’s a crash course in dialogue tags versus action beats. For those who are just starting out or aren’t completely solid on this, I hope this has helped. For those of you who already know how this works, next week’s article on dialogue may provide more useful information.

I know this can be somewhat confusing at first, so if anyone has questions, please feel free to drop them in the comments below! I or someone else who’s comfortable with the topic can help answer them for you.

One thought on “Thursday Technicalities – Dialogue Tags and Action Beats

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