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Dialogue: Putting Action Beats To Work

coupleoncoachStories 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—”

“Fine, fine.”

“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:

men in conversation21. 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. 😉


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Dialogue Tags Versus Action Beats

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?


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