Dialogue is one of my favorite parts of fiction writing. Good dialogue can make a story come to life. Bad dialogue does the opposite. And no one wants their story to die a horrible death. So let’s talk about one of the ways to make your dialogue flow without readers skimming. But guess what? It’s actually NOT the actual dialogue we’re going to discuss today.
It’s Beats and Tags.
Are you familiar with those terms?
Let me give you a simple explanation:
A Tag is when you “tag” a person’s words. Such as, he said, she said, he responded, she whispered.
A Beat is when you show action before or after a person’s words. Such as, tears dripped from her lashes as she sucked in a breath or the set of his jaw gave no room for argument.
See the difference?
In the world of Show v. Tell, tags are telling and beats are showing. Let’s take a bit of dialogue and use it as an example to see beats and tags at work.
“I can’t believe you would do such a thing!” Ron shouted. “It’s going to cost me a fortune.”
“It’s your own fault, you big bully… if you hadn’t taken my parking space day after day, I wouldn’t have had you towed!” She yelled back.
“I can’t believe you would do such a thing!” Ron wadded up the paper in his hand and threw it at her feet. “It’s going to cost me a fortune.”
“It’s your own fault, you big bully.” She placed her hands on her hips. “If you hadn’t taken my parking space day after day, I wouldn’t have had you towed!”
Now, since you don’t know what’s going on in the story, it’s probably not quite as engaging as it could be, but look at the tag. The author tells us that Ron shouted, after the author showed it by using an exclamation point. (So do you need to tell us after you’ve shown us? Remember tags are telling. BUT there are some times that a tag [telling] is more potent than showing.) In the beat example above, an action is given to Ron by the author to keep the picture clear to the reader. In the tag, we see the two characters arguing but not much else. In the beat, we’re given a hint at body language and movement. Which do you like better?
Here’s the conundrum writers face when writing dialogue: too much description in the action beats slows down the dialogue, too many tags stunt the dialogue and don’t give a picture of what is happening around the characters. It goes back to show v. tell. If you show, show, show in looooooooooong paragraphs, it’s too much for the reader and they get bored. If you tell, tell, tell then the reader never gets to truly connect with the characters.
In my personal opinion, I truly dislike tags. Especially said. I’m not sure what it is for me, but I hated reading them even decades ago when I was an avid reader and didn’t understand the craft of writing. To me, I skimmed them because otherwise it was like a speedbump. To some people, tags are almost invisible and aren’t a problem. Readers are all different and that’s okay. The key is to use different tags and action beats to keep the flow moving. If you use five sentences to show the action in a beat, that might be a bit much and might make the reader skim to the next chunk of conversation. If you use he said, or she said, after every snippet of speech, your reader will probably skim and get bored. Other tags: whispered, responded, replied, asked, etc. In the case of asked – again, why is it necessary to tell us that the character asked when you clearly showed it in dialogue with a question mark? In most cases, it’s better to give us body language or action to keep the reader in the character’s head. In the case of whispered – can’t you show that the person’s voice is hushed without telling us that she/he whispered?
All of this goes back to deep POV. Are you diving deep into each characters’ POV? Read your dialogue aloud and see how it flows. Can the reader see what is happening? Are there enough action beats to do that? Is the dialogue rapid-paced? All of these questions and more should be studied to make your dialogue shine.
I’m going to ask Kayla, Darcie, and Becca (and of course, any of you all!) to sound-off about beats and tags. What do you or don’t you like?
As always… happy writing!
With pen to paper,