Dialogue Tags vs. Action Beats

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

“I’m so glad you finally accepted my invitation to join me for coffee,” said Jason.

Karen said, “I figured if you’re so persistent, I should, at least, take the time to see if we have anything in common.”

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

When Tony paused his reading, he looked at Miranda, a smile on his face as he waited for her response.

Miranda leaned toward Tony. “That’s a beautiful love sonnet. You really feel it expresses your feelings for me?”

Tony reached to take her hand in his, still smiling, and nodded.

The dialogue under the first photo uses “dialogue tags”. The dialogue under the second photo uses “action beats”.

Today I’d like to look at the progress of today’s story writing and how it has come a long way in engaging the reader and making them a part of the story instead of just being a spectator.

So, first let’s talk about the “dialogue tags”. In older books, and especially in the classics, you will find that dialogue includes lots of dialogue tags. Take the following lines from the first page two pages of The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis:

“Hullo,” said Polly.

“Hullo,” said the boy. “What’s your name?”

“Polly,” said Polly. “What’s yours?”

“Digory,” said the boy.

“I say, what a funny name!” said Polly.

“It isn’t half so funny as Polly,” said Digory.

“Yes, it is,” said Polly.

“No, it isn’t,” said Digory.

As you read this, do you notice how stilted the dialogue is because of all of the “said Pollys” and “said Digorys”? Do you also notice it becomes tiring to read, and as you read, do you realize that all of those dialogue tags (“said Pollys” and “said Digorys”) are unnecessary?

So many dialogue tags, especially in dialogue between just two characters becomes quite annoying to read. However, years ago, that was how writers were told they needed to write so that their readers wouldn’t get confused in regard to who is talking when. However, I will say that, thankfully, the whole of C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew does not include such stilted dialogue.

Eventually the overuse of the “said” dialogue tags was replaced by more creative dialogue tags in hopes of preventing the dialogue from being so stilted and growing so tiring to the reader. So writers started using synonyms for “said”. Take a look at these dialogue tags from Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George:

Ayi,” she cried. “The pups must be nursing–that’s why there’s no meat.” Slumping back on her heels, she thought about this. Then she thought again.

“You can’t be nursing,” she said to Kapu, and plunked her hands on her hips. “Silver growls when you suckle, and drives you away.” Kapu twisted his ears at the sound of her voice.

“Okay,” she called to him. “Where are you getting the food that makes you so fat?” He ignored her, concentrating on Silver and Nails, who were coming slowly home from the hunt.

Other such tags included such words as: whispered, shouted, yelled, declared, stated, whined, etc.

Of course, there have also been the “telling” dialogue tags. Take this example from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling:

Professor McGonagall sniffed angrily.

“Oh yes, everyone’s celebrating, all right,” she said impatiently. You’d think they’d be a bit more careful, but no–even the Muggles have noticed something’s going on. It was on their news.” She jerked her head back at the Dursley’s dark living room window. “I heard it. Flock of owls . . . shooting stars . . . Well, they’re not completely stupid. They were bound to notice something. Shooting stars down in Kent–I’ll bet that was Dedalus Diggle. He never had much sense.”

“You can’t blame them,” said Dumbledore gently. “We’ve had precious little to celebrate for eleven years.”

“I know that,” said Professor McGonagall irritably. “But that’s no reason to lose our heads. People are being downright careless, out on the streets in broad daylight, not even dressed in Muggle clothes, swapping rumors.”

All of the above examples of dialogue tags served their purpose in their time, and readers did enjoy the above stories and still do. However, readers who read many more newer novels do find it difficult to pick up an older book, like those above, and read them with as much enjoyment as they would have years ago.

Why?

Because the majority of current books are being written with “action beats” instead of so many different “dialogue tags” or “telling dialogue tags”. Let’s look at this example from Cloak of Light by Chuck Black:

Drew’s gaze fell to the table. “From the first day you smiled at me, I’ve wanted to know you better, and now I know why.”

Hope filled her features. “Why?”

“Because it’s in our human nature to want most what we can’t have. I think deep down I knew this would never work, so it was all the more tempting for me to try for it.”

Sydney’s countenance fell. “What you’re really seeking isn’t me, Drew. It’s what’s in me.” Her eyes seemed to look straight into his soul.

“You say the strangest things. . .” Drew lifted his cup to his lips and swallowed the last bit of coffee, then sighed. Sydney looked beautifully sad. She slid out of her chair and and stood up. Drew stood with her.

“I guess I’ll see you around then.”

She bit her lip. “Yeah . . . I guess so.”

Do you see how much more smoothly the story flows and keeps the reader engaged with action beats. There are no “saids” or any other dialogue tags in this excerpt, yet the reader still knows to whom each dialogue lines belong, and the reader is drawn deeper into the story and the thoughts and feelings of the characters.

In most of today’s books, dialogue tags are used sparingly, and when they are used, they are limited to “said” and “asked” in order to draw the reader deep into the story and keep them there. I’ve also been told that readers can and do skip over the “said” and “asked” dialogue tags because they are expected. If this is true, then the reader is looking for that deep engagement in the story, so if you want to give your readers the kind of reading experience they want and that takes them deep into the story, making it more difficult to put down, be sure to use action beats instead of dialogue tags. And when you feel a dialogue tag is necessary, use a simple “said” or asked”.

Author: kellyfbarr

I became an avid reader as soon as I learned how to read, and as I read, I became fascinated with the idea of one day becoming a published writer. I have written interview articles for a magazine. I write articles for the Almost an Author website. I also write for my own blog and for the Hope, Hearts, & Heroes blog which is a blog by several authors. My first novel should be out before the end of 2021.

4 thoughts on “Dialogue Tags vs. Action Beats”

  1. I love using action beats – to me they’re an opportunity to describe, and I love description. It’s also an opportunity to include expression and body language which is so much a part of language. People use emojis for some of that effect, but better still is the asterisked actions, like *shrug*, *facepalm*, etc.. I wonder if there’s a way to find out how early and how often action beats have been used.

    From the examples one can see how the different kinds of tags can be used for different things. The dialogue from The Magician’s Nephew for example: Lewis knew the effect that repeated tags have, and used it, both subtly and plainly expressing the awkward and quite stilted interaction between a young girl and muddy-faced boy who has climbed over the wall of her back garden.
    Adverbed tags can be useful too in some cases – in Harry Potter, one can see how it expresses the attempted casualness of a conversation which is nonetheless charged with many and varied emotions – it’s almost as if the author is (in a quite British manner) keeping a stiff upper-lip, and simply stating the emotional states of these two particular characters. If I remember correctly, this gives way when Hagrid shows up, who makes no attempt at casualness. *checks* Yup, it switches to action beats with “said” synonyms when he shows up:

    Dumbledore took Harry in his arms and turned toward the Dursleys’ house.
    “Could I — could I say good-bye to him, sir?” asked Hagrid. He bent his great, shaggy head over Harry and gave him what must have been a very scratchy, whiskery kiss. Then, suddenly, Hagrid let out a howl like a wounded dog.
    “Shhh!” hissed Professor McGonagall, “You’ll wake the Muggles!”
    “S-s-sorry,” sobbed Hagrid, taking out a large, spotted handkerchief and burying his face in it. “But I c-c-can’t stand it — Lily an’ James dead — an’ poor little Harry off ter live with Muggles–”
    “Yes, yes, it’s all very sad, but get a grip on yourself, Hagrid, or we’ll be found,” Professor McGonagall whispered, patting Hagrid gingerly on the arm as Dumbledore stepped over the low garden wall and walked to the front door.

    🙂

    Like

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