Write Tight: Dialogue Tags & Action Beats How to Use Them

Week 2

This week we continue with the Write Tight Series. Last week we looked at Unnecessary Words and this week we move on to dialogue tags and action beats. Let’s jump in.

how to use dialogue tags and action beats

What are Dialogue Tags?

Dialogue tags are used to attribute a line of dialogue to a character.

Here is an example:

“Gogo, I don’t know where the broom is,” she said.

she said is a dialogue tag.

Dialogue tags can be placed at the beginning, middle or at the end of the dialogue.

Examples:

She said, “Gogo, I don’t know where the broom is.”

“Gogo,” she said, “I don’t know where the broom is.”

“I don’t know where the broom is,” she said.

What is the function of a dialogue tag?

Dialogue tags, as mentioned above, are to attribute a line of dialogue to a character. Their use is, purely, to give the reader clarity. Dialogue tags should strive to be invisible! Use the preferred “she said”, “he asked” or “she shouted.” These tags are invisible to the reader and help the reader move along as opposed to being weighed down by tags that intrude.

Example of a tag that intrudes: “I don’t know where the broom is,” she said sarcastically as she walked towards the door. ( A lot! There is too much information after the dialogue, the tag has become a story on its own, STOP!)

How to use dialogue tags…

Again dialogue tags should be invisible to the reader, they must not slow the reader down. they are there purely to offer clarity on who is speaking and not to add to the story.

Example:

“Bring me that damn broom Siphokazi!” said Gogo angrily.

In the above example, the added adverb is redundant information. The exclamation mark already suggests that Gogo is not happily requesting for the broom and the word damn in the sentence also suggests that Gogo is angry. Therefore, the dialogue tag, in this case, is adding to the dialogue instead of being invisible.

If you feel you need to add more information in your dialogue tag, it means you need to rewrite your dialogue.

And this brings me to Action Beats

What are action beats?

An action beat can be an action, a thought or a description.

Using the above example to show an action beat, in action LOL

Gogo slammed the door. (action beat) “Bring me that damn broom, Siphokazi!”

As you can see an action beat can help you eliminate a dialogue tag altogether. And get rid of those dreaded adverbs. In this example, you know who is speaking and you know what their mood.

Action beat as a thought:

I am so tired of her misplacing things and then blaming it on me. “I don’t know where the broom is.”

Please note: Action beats, unlike dialogue tags, are punctuated as full sentences, meaning they start with a capital letter and end with a full stop.

In a nutshell…

  • Dialogue tags are purely functional and should strive to be invisible
  • Stay away from adverbs as much as possible they defeat the purpose of invisible dialogue tags.
  • If you must add an adverb or further explain how something is being said, you need to rewrite your dialogue
  • Action beats are a great way to limit the use of dialogue tags… (don’t overdo any of these.)

The goal with this series is to introduce us to checking and rechecking our work. It is to learn and constantly refine our writing. I hope you have learned something new and are eager to research further.

Share examples of dialogue tags that annoy you when you read

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