Dialogue Tags VS Descriptive Beats (By Richard R Draude)

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.

Accepted writing practices change over time. When Jules Verne wrote Journey To The Center Of The Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, etc. or H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, the mode of writing for the time was ‘Let Me Tell You A Story’. Throughout the narrative Verne and Wells tell you what each character is doing and thinking.

As I said writing practices change over time. Go to good writers conference and listen to any book editor. The word said is the acceptable dialogue tag. Any good editor will tell you the word asked is less acceptable  now-a-days. Ask that editor about authors like Asimov and he or she will tell that the author of over 400 book not could get published under today writing standards. Why, because writing styles have changed. Among those changes are the use of dialogue tags and descriptive beats.

This is let me tell you a story.

Three year old Reese walked up to his grandmother and asked for another drink of milk.

Now a dialogue tag.

“Grandma, can I have some milk?” Reese asked.

The dialogue tag ‘asked’ is redundant here or anywhere. The dialogue by Reese already tells the reader it’s a question. But how old is Reese? By the above sentence you have no way of knowing Instead you could put an action in to enhance the scene and let your reader know more about the child..

Reese held up his sippy cup. “Grandma, can I have more milk?”

Here your reader can tell Reese is a young child, because of the style of cup he presented for a refill.

To make the scene even clearer, you can put the dialogue into a child’s language.

Reese held up his sippy cup. “Grandma, more milk pease?”

Now can you show Reese is very young  without telling the reader anything else. By this simple method the reader can figure the child is about 3 years old.

Definition.

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

Eg:

she said.

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

First: Being afraid to use said.

Second: Believing said 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 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’ 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 characters.

Definition.

Descriptive beat: A sentence before, after, or breaking up dialogue that describes a character’s response or action.

Eg:

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 said. (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.