Let’s Talk About Dialogue: Tags and Beats

As an editor (check out my rates at JMTuckerman.com/editing-services), I see a lot of new writers attempt to break their dialogue up with beats. Beats are handy for adding rhythm to the dialogue and forcing natural pauses where you want action to happen, but when you use them incorrectly they become a burden on the reader, and, before it even gets there, the editor.

First, let’s define dialogue tags versus dialogue beats.

Dialogue tag: shows the speaker’s name and a speech-related verb.

Dialogue beat: shows the action the speaker is taking while speaking.

A dialogue beat can stand on its own without a tag and most tags are not accompanied by a beat. Most readers will read past tags without seeing what they said. Examples of common dialogue tag words are said, sighed, shouted, and grumbled.

When dialogue ends with something like “…,’ Maribel said.” most readers’ brains will register which character said the line, but not how they said it.

As writers, we want to paint the clearest picture possible and often used dialogue beats to move the action of the scene or to interact with the setting. We write lines like, “…’ Maribel said, sitting down to the table and adjusting her forks so they were all exactly one inch from each other.” In this example, we’ve placed a table in the room, some forks, and even Maribels anxiety.

But too many of these beats can get annoying. As Stephen King says:

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Stephen King, On Writing

That’s not to say that adverbs and adjectives don’t have their place, but too many of them too close together can get sloppy.

Tags and beats are also punctuated differently. A tag is preceded by a comma. A beat is preceded by a period.

EXAMPLES

TAG: “No thanks,” said Beatrice. “I don’t want any peanut butter.”

BEAT: “No thanks.” Beatrice waved her hand. “I don’t want any peanut butter.”

Even if you italicized your dialogue or don’t use quotation marks (a style choice I’ve never particularly enjoyed), these are the ways to punctuate your dialogue tags and beats so that your work is clear.

Remember, when you use tags and beats, you should consider what is being said and whether or not it needs further detail before adding anything extra around the dialogue. If a character says “I hate you!” the reader can fill in the body language for it and doesn’t need the explanation. But if the character says something like “I think it’s this one.” then we need some clarification about what was picked up.

Use your beats as needed and you can bring your characters and setting off the page. Use them too much and your writing will suffer.

Originally posted on August 27, 2021 @ 12:00 pm

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Published by J. M. Tuckerman

J.M.Tuckerman is a neurodivergent writer with a big education. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, an MA in Writing, and a BA in Writing Arts (specializing in Creative Writing, New Media Writing, and Publication; concentrating in New Media Production), which she somehow managed to earn despite her three very loud and large dogs. Jessica was lucky enough to intern at Quirk Books and Picador, USA while earning her master’s degrees. Her service dog, Ringo, is very proud of all that she has accomplished and hopes to be on a back cover of a published book with her very soon. An avid reader, writer, and lover of young adult and middle-grade literature, Jessica’s bookshelf is overflowing with hardbacks, paperbacks, and a million half-filled notebooks. She is a proud fur-mommy to two lab/st-bernard littermates, a retriever-mix service dog, and one orange little hobgoblin cat, all of whom have made very audible appearances on the Booked All Night podcast.

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