Dialogue, Tags, and Action Beats

He Said, She Said


What’s a tag? He said. She said. It identifies the speaker. It should not convey emotion. Watch that you don’t “tell” with your tags instead of “show.”

Example: “You did what!” she said with astonishment. (telling)

She dropped the keys, her eyes wide. “You did what!” (showing)

Avoid the overuse of dialogue tags. She squealed. He roared. She whispered. He murmured. NOTE: Remember, it’s impossible to smile, chuckle or grimace dialogue. Said (or asked) is the best choice for dialogue tags because it’s practically invisible to the reader and doesn’t slow the action.

Another way to vary your writing and still identify your speaker is to use an action beat instead of a dialogue tag.

Example: Joe spit on the ground then crossed his arms. “You got something to say to me?”

You can vary your writing even more by placing the beat in the middle of the dialogue. “You got something to say to me?” Joe spit on the ground then crossed his arms. “Or you gonna climb in that truck and get outta here.”

Another mistake that troubles editors is the order of the name and tag. Always follow the he said, she said example. “I’m taking your car,” John said. NOT, said John. I’ve only recently begun fixing this error in my writing.

It’s certainly not necessary to identify each line of dialogue. In fact, overuse of tags is annoying as you can read in the following conversation.

“Hey, John.”

“Hi, Jane.”

“Want some pizza, John?”

“Not really, Jane.”

“Ok, John. How about some burgers?”

“That sounds better, Jane.”

You can see how monotonous that gets. Instead, you can have up to three interchanges without a tag before the reader gets lost.

When you write dialogue, be sure to use contractions and incomplete sentences just as you do in real conversation. Otherwise, your dialogue sounds stilted. Keep in mind who’s speaking. A child won’t sound the same as an adult.

Keep internal monologue (IM) with the speaker and use italics.

Example without IM: Why did he hide the green bucket? She thought she should ask him.

Example with IM: Why did he hide the green bucket? I should ask him.

One thing to remember when you use IM- it’s written as if the character is actually speaking (else it’s not an internal MONOLOGUE). This is what I mean. Using our previous example, an INCORRECT use of IM would be- Why did he hide the green bucket? She should ask him. You don’t think about yourself as ‘she’ or ‘he’.

Dialogue is an excellent way to introduce background information. Let one character tell another. Even that is tricky. The conversation has to sound like something real human beings would say. You also need to remember that a character wouldn’t go into a detailed description to someone that already knows the information. Like I said, tricky.

Let’s examine ways to write dialogue.
“Hand me that glass,” Jane said impatiently.
“Hand me that glass,” Jane snapped.
“Hand me that glass,” Jane said, snapping her fingers.

In general, adverbs (most words that end in –ly) are an indication that the author is telling. In the phrase “Jane said impatiently,” we are telling the reader how Jane acted. Weak writing.

“Jane snapped” makes use of an action verb that shows the reader exactly how Jane acted. However, many publishers/editors strongly dislike any dialogue tag that doesn’t refer specifically to speaking (i.e. Jane said, Jane called, Jane shouted, Jane whispered).

For that reason, I stick to literal ways of speaking and include some type of action to indicate the characters frame of mind when speaking.

Another no-no is using the word smiled as a means of speaking. Go ahead, try it. Say something while smiling. It’s rather unnatural.

“Do you want a cookie?” Jane smiled. WRONG

“Do you want a cookie?” Jane asked, turning her head to smile at John. BETTER

This site has further examples of dialogue, tags, and beats.