Look Who’s Talking: Dialogue Tags vs. Action Beats
I decided to do a post on this occasionally “controversial” topic because I’ve read a few books lately where it’s painfully obvious no one ever taught the poor soul either the difference between these two, or tips on how best to use them.
Don’t go scouring back through my book reviews, you won’t find any of them there… if I can’t give an honest, fair, and positive review, I don’t leave one! Not everything is for everyone, and I see no point in being cruel. My reviews are to pimp the awesome books I’ve read, not to tear my fellow authors down. Just my two cents! 😘
Anyhoo… let’s start with the basics and move forward from there. What are these pesky things, anyway??
These bad boys are responsible for telling readers who is talking in a written conversation. You know, the whole “he said,” “she said” mumbo jumbo. (More on various ways to format these a little later.)
The expectations and ideas on what is “best” in writing morph and change as frequently as the fashion trends. Currently, the great powers that be—whoever they are—say to limit verb attributions (with some occasional exceptions, of course) to “said” alone. It used to be common practice to see writers using a whole spectrum of strong verbs in place of said. Ergo, characters were often portrayed as doing things such as shouting, crying, mumbling, whispering, or muttering their lines of dialogue.
Regular use of adverbs was also seen during this era, which resulted in dialogue tags that read something along the lines of: he said shyly, or she muttered angrily. As most of you know, common wisdom encourages near complete removal of adverbs from our writing altogether. Can you image the cringe factor for these folks if they read books from the grand old days where adverbs were thrown around like candy?
The preferred approach in our current writing culture leans toward using action beats rather than excessive and creative verb/adverb combos. So, what exactly is an action beat?
These are simple actions a character performs while talking. They serve to both inform the reader who is speaking, just like a dialogue tag does, while also giving some sense of grounding in the scene. It provides the reader with something more to “see” within their mind’s eye, which creates a deeper, more enriching experience.
Let’s look at an example from some of my own writing to get a better feel for what I mean.
As you can see, I don’t use any dialogue tags in this section. (In fact, I'm not a huge fan in general. Action beats are my jam.) However, it’s still clear who is speaking based on whose actions are being shown. This is important: Always be sure the action beat is describing something being done by the character whose dialogue it accompanies, or your readers will get very confused. I often find myself going back and doing a mental count of who spoke last to try and decipher who might be speaking now. It's never a guarantee I get it right, and you really don't want your readers to be putting that much effort into figuring out your words. You'll lose 'em quick that way.
Just for craps and giggles, let’s take a look at that same snippet with dialogue tags (in the non-creative verb, non-adverb format... AKA "said.")
You still know who’s talking, right? But it loses a bit of that spark and panache. Kinda a little... boring, perhaps? Takes away some awesome opportunities to build character, and to anchor your reader in the scene, too.
However, it is important to note, I absolutely am not saying dialogue tags should be done away with and replaced entirely with actions beats. My personal style as a writer is to primarily utilize action to denote who’s speaking, but dialogue tags definitely serve a purpose. It is every individual writer’s choice, based on their style and preferences, as to how they do just about anything within their craft. This is no different.
In fact, mixing the two can be extremely effective. There are also times where using only dialogue tags to keep a scene of snappy, fast-paced dialogue flowing is essential. It’s up to the writer to determine what, when, and where to use these different forms of dialogue distinction.
The point of this post is to help writers understand the difference between the two, to introduce the concept of action beats to writers unfamiliar with them, and to provide a guide in how best to punctuate these bad boys. Because there is a difference between dialogue tags and actions beats, and often, this throws writers.
So, let’s look at that next.
Punctuating Dialogue Tags
Depending on where you choose to place the dialogue tag affects how it's punctuated. Let’s take a look at the various possibilities. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to stick with “said,” although it's totally acceptable to toss things up every now and again. Just don’t be heavy-handed about it, m’kay?
Also… if you do decide to step outside the “said” boundary, be careful you’re using a descriptive verb for dialogue, not action (i.e. whispered vs. laughed.) Someone can whisper a phrase but cannot physically "laugh" a phrase. They can laugh around the words but can’t physically “laugh” them. Laughing is action and should follow action beat rules.
Dialogue Tags Following the Dialogue
There should always be a comma at the end of the final sentence spoken (within the quotation mark) followed by a lower case he/she (or, obviously, a properly capitalized noun if it’s a character’s name.) For example:
Dialogue Punctuated with Question Marks or Exclamation Points
This follows the same rules as above, only rather than the comma, there is a ? or ! For example:
Dialogue Tags Inserted Into the Middle of a Sentence
To toss things up, you can slip dialogue tags into the middle of a sentence. Sometimes this is also used to provide a pause for impact. When this is done, the dialogue tag is set off with commas, and the sentence itself is capitalized as if the dialogue tag weren’t present. For example:
Note: Sometimes the dialogue before the tag and after are supposed to be two separate sentences. In that case, the second would need to be capitalized, but a period would follow the “said.” For example:
Now, what about action beats? Let’s check those out real quick.
Punctuating Action Beats
The first rule to remember about action beats is they are not dialogue tags and should not be treated as such. For example:
If an action interrupts a character’s sentence, there are several ways to denote this. It’s up to the writer to decide which fits their style best but consider being consistent.
Set Off by Commas
Be very, very careful with this one. Only use it if it is interrupting a sentence, not when the action is simply stuck between two sentences. In my personal experience, it’s best to avoid this avenue, as it’s easy to use this incorrectly without meaning to. But, if you so choose to go this route, here’s how to accomplish it:
Set Off by Em Dashes
Again, use this when the action is interrupting a sentence. For example:
Set Off by Ellipses
Same goes here. Interrupting a sentence. For example:
Okay, now you know how to use them. Let’s talk about when you shouldn’t. Or, perhaps “shouldn’t” is too strong of a word. How about we discuss when you can choose not to use them. Again, up to you as a writer. These are just some suggestions.
Not everything a character says must have a tag or an action beat. Sometimes too many can distract from the conversation or bog down a scene where the dialogue is meant to be quick, either for intensity or humor or some other writerly prerogative. As long as it’s clear due to predictably alternating lines between two established characters in scene or from an easily notable speech pattern, then you can skip the occasional tag or action beat to tighten the flow and avoid distraction.
For simplicity’s sake—and to save me from having to search my manuscript for a different example—let’s pick up where the last scene left off between Gretchen and Josh.
As you can see, I left off any action beats or dialogue tags on the last two lines because it’s clear Josh and Gretchen are the only two speaking, they’re alternating, and it keeps the conversational pace moving in the punchy direction I want.
So, the most important thing I hope you take away from this post is… you’re the master of your writerly domain. There really is no “right” way, so long as you follow the proper punctuation rules. I’ve seen fantastic writing utilizing lots of dialogue tags, and others using only action beats. I’ve also seen superb examples of writers who mix the two. Whatever your flavor, it’s important to have all the necessary tools in your kit so, if you need ‘em, they’re there!
Until next time,