Dialogue tags–or speaker attributions–tell the reader who is talking in a written conversation. The common wisdom these days is to limit the verb in attributions, with some occasional exceptions, to “said.”
In other eras, strong verbs were in fashion, so characters were often found to mutter, shout, cry, mumble, whisper, and the like. In addition, adverbs often added insight as to how a character delivered lines of dialogue. Consequently a tag might be she said coyly or he said warily.
Many writing instructors today frown on using adverbs in that way, though authors such as J. K. Rowling and Stephen Lawhead use them successfully. The favored approach instead is to replace the dialogue tag with an action beat–a simple action the character does while talking.
Action beats, then, serve to let the reader know who is talking but also show the character in motion.
Some writers might favor one method over the other, but in reality, there is no conflict. Both should be tools in the writers kit.
Below is an example of a conversation taken from the Grimms fairytale “The Dragon And His Grandmother” which favors dialogue tags (attributions marked in bold type).
“I haven’t had much luck to-day,” he said, “but I have a tight hold on three soldiers.”
“Indeed! three soldiers!” said she. “Who cannot escape you?”
“They are mine,” answered the Dragon scornfully, “for I shall only give them three riddles which they will never be able to guess.”
“What sort of a riddles are it?” she asked.
Contrast that to this dialogue which uses action to paint the scene as well as to help the reader keep track of who is talking (subject and verb in boldface font).
When he reached his brother, Jim bent toward him to keep from raising his voice. “Hey, Eddie, you have a minute?”
“It’s your reception, bro. Here, have some food.” Eddie pushed his plate into Jim’s hand and gave him a paper cup. “There’s punch with a little kick, ice tea, or coffee. Take your pick.”
“I just wanted to talk to you for a sec.”
“Talk away.” His brother picked up another plate, piled it with a variety of stuffed pastries, a handful of baby carrots, and a couple cauliflower clumps, then spooned dip into the center.
“Maybe someplace a little more private.” Jim edged toward the patio.
“If this is about the golf tournament, my hands are tied.”
Notice that not every line contains an action beat. Too many actions can distract from the conversation. Nor is there a speaker attribution with every line of dialogue.
James Scott Bell summarizes the principle in “Creating Active Dialogue” (Writer’s Digest, June 2003):
The action tag is often the better choice, because it offers a character’s physical movements … This is not to be done every time, of course. Variety is called for, and often the best choice is no tag at all. If the reader knows who is speaking–because of alternating lines or a distinct manner of speech–that’s often enough.
A word of caution. Be sure the action beat belongs to the person who spoke the line of dialogue. I just completed an Advance Reader Copy of a novel that did not follow this guideline, and more than once I had to go back to check who was actually talking. (I can only hope that the final edition corrected this problem). Here’s a sample:
“Immensely.” Celaena patted Chaol’s arm as she took it in her own. “Now you must pretend that you like me, or else everything will be ruined.”
“You and the Crown Prince share the same sense of humor, it seems.”
“Perhaps he and I will become dear friends, and you will be left to rot.”
“Dorian is more inclined to associate with ladies of better breeding and beauty.” She whipped her head to look at him. He smiled. “How vain you are.”
The offending paragraph is the last one. The back and forth is clear up to a point, but her action following his line of dialogue in the same paragraph is the confusing element. An adjustment in paragraphing would make it clear:
“Dorian is more inclined to associate with ladies of better breeding and beauty.”
She whipped her head to look at him.
He smiled. “How vain you are.”
What are your thoughts concerning speaker attributions and action beats? Do you favor one or the other?
15 responses to “Dialogue Tags Versus Action Beats”
This is one technique I’ve managed to master! My skills with it did get a workout when I was editing someone else’s story a few weeks ago – it’s so easy to overlook since the grammar is correct even when the action beats are in the wrong place.
Thanks for your comment, Katie. Yes, when a writer has been working on fiction for a while, this is one of the skills we should master. But you’re write about how it can be overlooked because there’s nothing wrong with the grammar. I suspect that’s what happened to that writer whose book I quoted from. I sure hope her editor fixed those (many) places.
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I’ve always been irritated with the gratuitous use of tags. This is pretty awesome stuff. After getting use to it, it becomes an intuitive skill. Although I use an occasional tag, it’s cool to have options!
Thanks for your comment, Brent. I agree that it does become intuitive with practice. And yes, tags still serve a purpose and can be very effective when used selectively. Great to hear from a writer who has learned this!
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Dialog tags are actually the writer breaking into the story, i.e. disturbing the fictive dream. The “s/he said” also, but it’s the least intrusive one. The alternative is confusion who is speaking and that is also a dream disturber. So, the writer is crushed between a rock and a hard place and the s/he said is the least of evils.
Action beats are effective but variation is key to avoid a staccato effect.
Great thoughts, Leonardo. You’re absolutely right—the attribution is the author stepping into the scene and telling the reader the important information they need to know about the conversation. So it is definitely better to minimize that intrusion as much as possible. But nothing is worse (from my perspective) than confusing a reader, and variety is important, so yes, there are those times the tags are needed.
This is a really good article especially for beginning writers. I ran across the term action beats while doing some reading. However, I had no clue what they were until stopping by here. It seems writers have their own jargon, huh? When is the best time to use them in your writing? I’ve tried using the action beats, but it seems awkward and not very believable.
Thanks, Janice. You’ve asked some good questions. I think I’ll need to write a post on the topic to answer them adequately.
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Thanks for the article, can you make it so I get an email sent to me when you make a new article?
If you subscribe to this blog, you should get the posts in your inbox. Sadly, I haven’t added new content for some time. Hope to change that soon.