Writer Wednesdays: Dialog tags vs. dialog beats

Don’t use dialog tags and beats together!

I casually mentioned this in a previous post, and I think a lot of readers were confused. Certainly some of my writers have been!

Here’s the dialog tag: “I hate you,” Joe said.

The “Joe said” is the tag. All it does is tell you who said it. (Note the comma in “I hate you” — you have to have the comma or you have a sentence fragment — Joe said — even if you have a subject and verb. Put a pause in where the comma is. Sounds weird, huh? That’s because you broke your sentence.)

Here’s the dialog beat: “I hate you.” Joe flew at George and began choking him, his face mottled with fury.

The action — Joe flew at George — is the beat. (Note the period in “I hate you.” No comma! A comma would give you a run-on sentence with “I hate you” and “Joe flew at George” — both complete sentences that stand alone. You would only have a comma if you used a tag that DESCRIBED HOW THE LANGUAGE WAS SPOKEN, like whined or growled or shouted. You can’t fly language, so “flew” doesn’t describe the language. You can’t snort it or guffaw it either.)

Some writers — most writers — will combine the two: “I hate you,” Joe said. Joe flew at George and began choking him, his face mottled with fury.

Now, why would you need a dialog tag when you already have a wonderful, informative dialog beat? You know Joe said it because of the beat.

I would take out the tag, and my writers would be confused. They like the tag. So they would accept some changes and reject others, ending up with something like this: “I hate you.” He said. Joe flew at George and began choking him, his face mottled with fury.

Or this: “I hate you,” Joe flew at George…

Sigh. If you don’t understand your editor’s marks, rather than picking and choosing, ASK. He probably has a reason for what he’s doing, but if he genuinely screwed it up, best to point it out (think how superior you’ll feel!). And maybe you just didn’t understand, and now you have a cluster of cringe-worthiness.

Here’s the deal — publishers hate having both. They will have their editors cut the tag and keep the beat. I used to think it was just a rule for saving space — less paper, less ink, mo’ money.

But it’s more than wasted ink and paper. It’s a waste of your readers’ time. Why take up space with a “he said” when you can add action, or emotion, or humor, or something actually useful and informative? Which is more interesting and engaging, “he said” or “he flew at George and choked him”?

No offense, but it’s kind of lazy writing. You get so caught up in the dialog, you forget that your readers are not in your head. They aren’t seeing the action you’re imagining. They aren’t seeing the emotion on the characters’ faces. They aren’t seeing the scene you’re building. You aren’t really a writer anymore; you’re more of a reporter, just repeating what is said without any embellishment.

Which isn’t to say there is never a place for  straight dialog. I have a scene in my book where two teen shapeshifters are trying to impress a girl with the exotic animals they have shifted into. The one-word dialog flies back and forth, faster and faster as they try to one-up each other in a frantic manly display. Beats would slow it down and ruin the effect. So leave out the beats if they interfere with the effect or ambiance you’re trying to create.

But here’s my recommendation: Whenever you have a “he said” in your copy, ask yourself, what could I replace that with that would help the reader see the scene/know the character/get involved in the action? Then delete the tag and insert the beat.

(BTW, if you don’t want to clutter up your dialog with beat after beat, and you only have two characters speaking to each other, leave the dialog bare. Your readers will figure out who’s talking. Throw in a beat occasionally to make it easier, but not on every piece of dialog.)

About alisaacarter

I am a writer of young adult novels, wife, mom of three, lover of animals, former magazine editor, reader of anything paranormal, and coffee fanatic.
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