Dialogue Tags vs Descriptive Beats

In any good ‘how to write fiction’ book you’ll find at least one chapter if not two on the use and formatting of dialogue. Since dialogue can reveal a writer’s strengths or weaknesses, crafting good dialogue can be difficult. There are many pitfalls that writers can stumble into with dialogue.

There are skills you can develop to strengthen your dialogue. I would like to offer some insights into dialogue tags, descriptive beats in place of tags, and how to punctuate them. While these mechanics aren’t actually dialogue, they do draw attention to it and can influence how your readers will read a character’s dialogue and draw a reader into your story.

Dialogue tag: A manner of speaking. Comes before or after dialogue.

she said.
he shouted.

I find there are two common mistakes or misconception we all have with the use dialogue tags.

First: Being afraid to use said or asked.
Second: Believing said or asked becomes repetitive.

As a result, many writers have their characters constantly, stating, shouting, mumbling, murmuring, whispering, responding, commenting or commanding. When we feel the need to explain how a characters says something, then his or her dialogue isn’t strong enough. At the other end of the spectrum, if your dialogue is strong enough, then your tag only repeats to the reader what your character has just shown them.

There is a time and place for non said or asked dialogue tags. The excessive use of these tags is considered weak writing.

I’ve asked and heard the question asked, “Doesn’t the use of ‘said’ or ‘asked’ become repetitive and boring?”

The short answer is: No. As writers we are attuned to words. We pay attention to them. But if you’re doing you job right, the average reader is engrossed in the story and connected to the characters. A reader’s eyes tends to pass over ‘said’ or ‘asked.’ If these tags stand out, it usually means your narrative isn’t being woven sufficiently into the dialogue.
Another mistake is over using the said or asked tags when there are only two characters in the scene. An occasional tag should be used in a long scene of dialogue to help the reader keep track of who is speaking. In scenes with more then two characters a combination of dialogue tags and descriptive beats will keep the story moving and the reader engrossed.

In his book ‘The Sixteenth Man” Thomas B. Sawyer’s entire manuscript is written without a single dialogue tag. Rather, Tom effectively uses descriptive beats for two person dialogue and for scenes with multiple character

Descriptive beat: A sentence before, after, or breaking up dialogue that describes a character’s response or action.
Janet finished brushing her hair. “I’m ready for my close up.”

Len held out a steaming mug.”Coffee, Mark?”

These examples are very basic. You can effectively eliminate all or most dialogue tags by weaving descriptive beats into your dialogue. However, any writer must be cautious about the use of descriptive beats. You need to pick quality descriptions, ones that reveal a character’s personality, motivation or adds to the setting and feel of the story. Having a characters make too many meaningful glances, or smiles, or nods will make your descriptions feel repetitive and unoriginal.

Another area easy to fix, that will strengthen your writing is punctuation.
Dialogue tag: “Hand me that book,” he asked. (Comma inside the quotation marks)
Descriptive Beat: He pointed to the tome. “Hand me that book.” (Period inside the quotations)
It’s as simple as paying attention to what you’re writing. Ask yourself this question. Is this a way of speaking? If yes, then punctuate with a comma. If no, use a period.
A final note, there are always gray areas. Groaned for example, is it a way of speaking or a noise made?

“Oh no,” he groaned.

“Oh no.” He groaned.

This is where you, the writer, has ultimate control of your story, by determining the best way to use the rules of the craft to tell your tale.

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