Actions Speak Louder than Dialog Tags: Using Beats in Writing

 This month our editors are taking a hard look at pesky adverbs and “weasel words”—our Fatal Flaw #11. Even a story with a great plot and engaging characters can suffer reader ennui due to the overuse of these words. No matter how long your novel, every word should be chosen with care. Words have weight, and all those extraneous words can sink your story. Editor Rachel Starr Thomson kicks off our look at this flaw with a discussion of dialog tags and narrative beats.

Our focus this month is on words: specifically, adverbs, superfluous verbiage, tics, and “weasel words.” Overuse of such words constitutes our Fatal Flaw #11, a pox on many writers’ prose.

Before I jump into my own topic on this flaw, a few words about said.

Said, when used with a pronoun, creates what’s known as a dialog (or speaker) tag: it’s a phrase that tells us who’s speaking. He said, she said, they said, he called, she cried, he replied, and all the rest.

Beginning writers, zealous to eliminate weasel words (and occasionally armed with bad advice about “passive language”) sometimes slash this one mercilessly. But that’s not always a good idea.

Said, while it’s admittedly boring, is invisible. Readers don’t really notice it unless it’s used so often that it becomes extreme. In almost every case, the words we would use to replace it are worse: “Shut up!” he implored. “No!” she protested. “Please stop!” they cajoled. (Tags that actually identify a special action—like screaming, whining, or whispering—are fine where appropriate.)

But you don’t just want to end every line of dialog with “she said” either. And while paragraphing and conversational interplay will sometimes let us know who’s speaking without any extra direction from the author, writing dialog without any tags at all can get confusing (especially if you have more than two people in conversation).

The best call is to use dialog tags—use said, in fact, and its equally invisible counterpart asked—but use them sparingly, not after every line of dialog. And for the rest of the space? There are action beats.

Introducing the Action Beat

While it’s fine and good to use said as long as you do so sparingly, in a longer conversation you can still end up with the problem of white space—the dialog will lose contact with the setting, and your readers will get the sense that they’re hanging in midair.

This is where the skilled use of action beats comes in. Used well, action beats not only do away with the need for a whole lot of speaker tags, they also keep us in touch with the setting, enhance characterization, and occasionally even help out the plot.

Here’s a visual of what I’m talking about, borrowing from my novel Comes the Dragon. 

BEFORE: 

“Of course we can’t leave without helping them. What is happening here is wrong, and we can stop it. We must stop it.”

“But how?” Rechab asked. “How, if they won’t let us?”

 “They are not free to trust while Azeda is still in power.”

“What then?”

“We can take Azeda out of power.”

 “How?”

“Through seeing justice done,” Aaron said. “You know the law. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Blood for blood.”

“But the people won’t come and accuse him.”

“Not while Azeda and the elders are the judges,” Aaron said. “We should have known they would not. No, we would have to bring another court to bear.”

“I don’t know,” she said again.

“Rechab! Remember the beggars! Remember the maimed women, the children who are slaves. Remember the greed in Azeda’s eyes!”

“But you can’t just kill him!” she yelled. 

AFTER: 

 “Of course we can’t leave without helping them. What is happening here is wrong, and we can stop it. We must stop it.”

“But how?” Rechab asked, her eyes pleading. “How, if they won’t let us?”

A muscle in Aaron’s face twitched. “They are not free to trust while Azeda is still in power.”

“What then?” Rechab asked.

“We can take Azeda out of power.”

She blanched. “How?”

“Through seeing justice done,” Aaron said. “You know the law. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Blood for blood.”

Something in Rechab’s core grew hard, and she swallowed. Her mouth went dry. “But the people won’t come and accuse him.”

“Not while Azeda and the elders are the judges,” Aaron said. “We should have known they would not. No, we would have to bring another court to bear.”

She put her hands to her temples. She felt like a fox that had chased something down a hole and discovered too late that the thing she had cornered was a poisonous snake.

“I don’t know,” she repeated.

“Rechab!” He stopped, every muscle quivering. “Remember the beggars! Remember the maimed women, the children who are slaves. Remember the greed in Azeda’s eyes!”

She shook her head. “But you can’t just kill him!” 

Those bits of action that intersperse the dialog—a muscle twitching, swallowing, hands to temples, stopping—all give the dialog a visual element. They keep the conversation inside the scene.

Action beats (also called narrative beats) are pieces of action that intersperse a conversation. Description and internal monologue can be used this way as well. They identify the speaker, making the conversation easier to follow, but they also make the scene visual and reveal more about the characters through their actions as they’re speaking.

In this example, most of the action beats are body language—expressions and minor actions. But you can also use beats to frame a whole conversation within a continuous action, such as having your characters chat while sparring, driving, fishing, climbing a mountain, building something, whatever. Since that continuous action may be something integral to the story, beats then have the potential to reveal themes, character, and plot with far more power than “he said” could ever have.

Your turn:

Do you have a conversation in your book that could be improved by replacing tags with beats? Is there a pivotal moment that could be improved by framing it in within a continuous action series? What do you think of the advice to use said rather than other dialog tags?

 

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2 Responses to “Actions Speak Louder than Dialog Tags: Using Beats in Writing”

  1. Glynis Jolly November 5, 2015 at 5:42 am #

    Although I’m aware that speech tags are necessary and I do put them in sometimes, I prefer the action beats. They let the reader know whose speaking AND makes the characters and the scene three dimensional.

  2. Sara Beth November 12, 2015 at 11:37 pm #

    This is a great blog post. I actually learned this by reading some random western romance novel from a library. I noticed it RIGHT away, the complete difference that it makes in the way the story flows. At that time I was reading this book, (so random, I don’t even remember the title) I had been struggling with what to do with dialog tags and so I had been ‘studying’ by reading in books what other successful authors did. This author, by far, was one of the best I have read when it came to how she balanced the use of actions v. dialog tags. So, it goes to show you, reading can make you a better writer. (If you read the right authors). But of course blog posts like this are MUCH appreciated. I have not read another book like that one before and since, and I have read horrible ones in between. So these lessons are sorely needed! Thank you again!

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