Action beats

January 17, 2011

I’ve blogged about dialogue tags before, but now it’s time to go into a little more detail about action tags.

Dialogue tags, also called “speaker attributions” serve to let readers know who’s speaking. Usually, you should use “said” because tags like muttered, quipped, grumbled, etc., are distracting and pull the reader’s attention away from the dialogue itself.

Example: “This looks weird,” Anna said.

Action beats, also called action tags, can also be used to identify the speaker. These are sentences that describe the action of that character.

Example: “This looks weird.” Anna pushed her glasses up her nose and squinted at the text.

While dialogue tags give no additional information other than letting us know who’s talking, action tags also have other functions:

  • Breaking up long passages of dialogue.
  • Creating a picture of setting and actions in the reader’s mind.
  • Giving information about the character and her emotions, especially when her actions contradict her words. Example: “I’m fine.” Jorie dragged trembling fingers through her midnight black hair.
  • Action beats help pace the conversation by creating pauses.
  • Action tags can make the use of adverbs unnecessary. They are “showing” where an adverb would be “telling.”

A few do’s and don’ts:

  • Alternate dialogue tags, action beats, and untagged lines of dialogue.
  • Most often, action beats should be used instead of a tag, not in addition to it. Example: “You just need to sign,” she said, handing Lisa the contract. Rewrite: “You just need to sign.” She handed Lisa the contract.
  • Don’t use so many beats that it interrupts the flow of the dialogue. As long as it’s obvious who’s speaking, we don’t need a tag or a beat. But if you have more than two characters present, the need for beats and tags increases.
  • Try not to use boring or repetitive actions. Don’t have your characters nod, smile, or sigh all the time. Be creative.

Here’s an example from my work-in-progress:

The night clerk behind the front desk barely looked up from the blaring TV when they entered the otherwise empty lobby. “One room or two?”

“Two,” Rue said.

“One,” Kelsey said at the same time.

When Rue and the desk clerk stared at her, Kelsey lowered her gaze, her ears burning. “I didn’t mean… I just thought…”

“You thought I would try to sneak out to continue the search and just leave you here,” Rue said.

Kelsey ducked her head, but she couldn’t deny it.

“I wouldn’t do that.” Rue kept eye contact, but Kelsey couldn’t tell if the blue eyes hid anything or not. “But if it would make you feel better, we can share a room.”

Swallowing, Kelsey nodded. While it might make Rue feel as if Kelsey didn’t trust her, she couldn’t take the risk of being left behind.

Rue received the room key from the desk clerk and started up the creaky stairs. “Come on,” she said over her shoulder. “We can be like Thelma and Louise, sharing a room on our road trip.”

“Um…” Kelsey paused, then hurried after her. She wasn’t a big fan of human movies, but she’d heard of this one. “Isn’t that the movie where they die in the end?”

For the first time since leaving Clearfield, Rue laughed. “All right. Maybe not the best of comparisons.” She unlocked the door, stepped into their room, and sat on one of the beds, bouncing to test the mattress. Then her brow furrowed, and she reached beneath herself. “Look at that. A little welcoming present from the management.” She held up a condom and a handful of breath mints. “How romantic.”

Belatedly, Kelsey remembered that the motel was renting out rooms by the hour too. She rubbed her neck as if it would force down her blush. “Oh. You think he thought…?” She gestured in the direction of the lobby.

“That you insisted on renting just one room because you’re trying to have your wicked way with me.” Rue waggled her eyebrows.


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