Stories are about people doing things. Along the way, they say things. To one another. As a conversation progresses, it’s necessary to remind readers which character is talking. Thankfully grammar rules help out—requiring a new paragraph for each change of speaker. But if the conversation is lengthy or if it involves more than two people, attributing lines of dialogue by tagging them with said Jane (or Josephine or Jeremy or Giraldo or Jorge) may become necessary.
I say, “May become necessary” because there is another option—inserting an action beat instead. Action beats are nothing more than bits of action.
The best kind of action to use during a conversation is that which shows something about the character, the setting, or the forward movement of the story. In other words, action beats should not be extraneous fillers that add nothing else to the story other than an indication of who is talking. Those types of unnecessary actions detract from the flow of dialogue and may paint an odd picture of characters flailing about while they’re talking. I know, because I’ve written scenes like that. Here’s one in an old version of JOURNEY TO MITHLIMAR, Book 2 of The Lore Of Efrathah:
“Where is Paloh?” Remalín propped himself on his elbow and stared around the campsite.
Bilg swung about. “Paloh!”
Mikkán slumped to his bedroll. “I knew it.”
Medát rushed up behind Jim, booming Paloh’s name in his deep voice.
Not a single said in the exchange, but all that action by four different characters doesn’t accomplish much more than indicating who is talking. In fact, the beats are far more distracting than said would be.
Action beats used in dialogue should accomplish more. First, they give readers action to imagine so that the scene doesn’t devolve into talking heads.
Second, they show character emotion. The best of the action beats in the above example is line three: Mikkán slumped to his bedroll. This line gives a hint at the character’s emotional response to the missing individual. It’s important to use action beats for this purpose because the alternative is to tell the readers what the character is feeling.
Action beats can also serve to provide information about the setting without stopping the conversation to deliver description. In the following snippet of conversation from LIARS AND THIEVES, Josiah is talking to Geret:
[Josiah said,] “I can assign Lieutenant Nidan to devise a slate of games—”
“And housing. How many are we expecting?”
“See for yourself.” Geret waved in the direction of the advancing force—two columns of soldiers flanking a large conveyance carried on the shoulders of a handful of servants.
“Less than forty it looks like, counting the servants. We can billet them in one of the barracks.”
Without stopping the conversation, the reader “sees” what the characters see.
Action beats can also effectively work with internal monologue to flesh out the setting.
The innkeeper shook her crooked finger in Abihail’s face. “The whole town suffers because of the likes of you.”
Abi squared her shoulders, ignoring the accusation, as well as the hunger pangs prodded to life by the yeasty aroma from the oven. The town suffered all right, as did all the towns bordering the valley, but certainly not because of the dissenters. “I only want a bit of bread, Mistress Trent, and I’ll happily work for it.”
Third, action beats can move the events of the story forward. They can set up or contribute to the conflict. Here’s an exchange between a stranger and the leader of a group of would-be robbers:
“I want no trouble.” From the opposite side of the portico, a stranger gripping the leather strap of a bag slung over his shoulder eased into the open. Sunlight and shadow danced across his face.
Two men, wearing the smocks of fishmongers, mirrored him, one on either side, each with a stiletto in hand.
“If you’re lost, we’re obliged to help you find yer way.” The sturdiest of the two curved his mouth into a tortured grin.
His wiry companion closed to within arm’s distance. “But we can’t let yer lordship visit the undertaker looking like this. Why, you’d be an offense to the dearly departed.” With a flick, his blade sliced apart the ruffled tie around the stranger’s throat, exposing a gold necklace. “See there? Too gaudy fer a funeral. We’ll just help you out by relieving you of such a disrespectful article.”
The others laughed.
The stranger backed up a step, but his voice remained steady. “You’re making a mistake, friend, to your own detriment. I apologize for my foolishness in wandering into your camp.”
Each of the action beats above intend to advance the developing conflict.
There are several important things to keep in mind when choosing to use action beats:
1. The action should be natural to the character. For example, a stoic character is unlikely to gasp in response to something another person says. Make his action fit his personality.
2. The action should not read like information inserted by the author for the sake of the reader. Rather, the action should seem natural to the situation. For instance, the character shouldn’t take out the medallion his grandmother gave to him just because the author wants readers to know he has the medallion. He should only take it out if he does so as a nervous habit or purposefully to make sure he doesn’t lose it or to secure it in a safer place. In other words, there needs to be a story reason for the action.
3. Action beats should be sprinkled throughout the conversation rather than delivered with every line of dialogue.
4. Finally, in a tense scene that requires a faster pace, omit both action beats and speaker attributions. Let the lines of dialogue speak for themselves. Of course, that means those lines should be full of emotion or whatever meaning you wish them to convey—they should be poignant, powerful, or purposeful. But that description should characterize all lines of dialogue, shouldn’t it. 😉