by Bonita Y. McCoy
Dialogue is fun to write. You get to be witty or sassy; snarky or angry; wise or entertaining. But along with dialogue come tag lines and action beats. These two companions play a large role in forming solid dialogue in your story.
Tag lines are the he said, she said of the dialogue world. They are used to identify the speaker.
If done right, they practically disappear to the reader. For that reason, you don’t want to use anything odd or exotic in your tag lines. You don’t want your character to wail, snarl, or whine in the tag line. Save those actions for where they belong in the action beats.
Too many times writers will get their tag lines and action beats mixed up. An example of this would be: “You startled me,” Carol groaned.
Carol can groan, but she cannot groan and speak at the same time. Instead write: “You startled me.” Carol groaned. Changing the comma at the end of the statement to a period makes Carol groaned into an action beat instead of a tag line.
The same holds true for actions like laughed, hissed, giggled, and sighed. These need to be action beats instead of tag lines.
The best advice with tag lines is to stick to the plain Janes of he said, she said, he asked, or she asked.
Now action beats are a horse of another color. You want them to be filled with strong, vibrant verbs and nouns. You want them to paint a picture of your character and how they behave in your reader’s mind.
Good action beats should complement your dialogue. The danger is sometimes we use them to explain the dialogue instead of showing the action. An example would be: “You are so funny.” She said laughingly.
The action beat is explaining the dialogue. Instead the better use of the action beat would be to describe the character doing something someone does when they laugh.
“You are so funny.” She held her side as she tried to stand straight.
In using the action beat to portray what the character is doing instead of explaining the dialogue, you are drawing your reader into the story and moving the action of the scene along. Your action beats should help to paint the scene and your character for the reader.
The best advice with action beats is to make them count. Use them to add to the scene and give your character life.
Tag lines and action beats are staples in the dialogue world. As a wordsmith, it will be to your advantage to learn to use them well.
Bonita Y. McCoy