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Dialogue. It has the power to give information, show personality traits, add humor, and convey tension. It moves the story along—and when done correctly, hooks the reader. There are so many aspects of dialogue that we could hash over, but today, I want to keep it simple and talk about dialogue tags and physical beats.
In school, you learn to add variety to compositions with tags such as replied, stated, exclaimed, screamed, whispered, etc. However, in fiction, there is a much stronger way to convey dialogue. Each time you insert replied, stated, exclaimed, or said, you, the author, are inserting yourself into your fiction. You’re saying, “hey reader, see Celia just said this…and she said it in an excited fashion.”
“Celia, wait!” Jake yelled. “It’s not what you think.”
“I saw you,” Celia replied.
“Then you must have seen me pull away,” he exclaimed.
“I need to go,” Celia whispered.
“Not until we clear the air. We’re getting married in three days,” Jake pleaded.
“No. No, we’re not. I can’t marry you,” she said.
I know they’re having an argument a few days before their wedding, but I am an outsider. I’m not invested in them.
Each dialogue tag tugs me out of the story. You don’t want to do this every line in a conversation. Otherwise, you play tug-of-war throughout the scene.
Now, if you must use a dialogue tag, use ‘said’. I know. It’s boring. But because it’s boring, the reader tends to skip over it. They focus more on what’s being said and what the character is doing rather than, “oh yeah, there’s that pesky author telling me what’s happening again.”
“Celia, wait!” Jake said. “It’s not what you think.”
“I saw you,” Celia said.
“Then you must have seen me pull away,” he said.
“I need to go,” Celia said.
“Not until we clear the air. We’re getting married in three days,” Jake said.
“No. No, we’re not. I can’t marry you,” she said.
I didn’t stop to read each ‘said.’ However, as a reader, I want to know more. The dialogue carries this scene, but as an author you can paint a picture with a little more depth. This example is jarring in the fact that the said gets redundant.
The solution is simple. Add action beats, internal thoughts, and facial expression. Stir together and you have a scene of dialogue that paints a picture that hopefully keeps your readers engaged.
“Celia, wait.” He caught her wrist and turned her to face him. The tears that slid down her cheeks bruised his heart. “It’s not what you think.”
“I saw you.” She ripped her wrist out of his grasp.
He framed her face with his hands. “Then you must have seen me pull away.” He dabbed at the tears with the pad of his thumbs.
Celia shook her head. “I need to go.” She slipped away from him and seized the door handle to her dilapidated car.
With little effort, he shoved the door shut. “Not until we clear the air. We’re getting married in three days.”
“No.” She seared him with her green eyes and tugged the diamond ring off her hand. His heart arrested. “No we’re not.” She held it out to him. “I can’t marry you.”
Now, what do you see? I see them standing outside by a run-down car, tension palpable. What do you feel? Her sadness, his anguish, his determination, her determination, his desperation. The physical beats, facial expression, and internal thought add layers to this scene.
Here’s the Breakdown:
Each action is a beat.
He caught her wrist.
She tugged the diamond ring off her hand.
I also included facial expression. I only did Celia’s facial expression because it is written in Jake’s POV and Jake can’t see his face.
She seared him with her green eyes.
I added little glimpses of internal thought. Since it is in Jake’s POV, it should only be Jake’s internal thoughts.
The tears that slid down her cheeks bruised his heart.
His heart arrested.
Key note: No head hopping. Jake can only see the signs of Celia’s pain. He can see her tears slide down her cheeks, but he can’t internalize for her.
Often, internalization is more figurative. Obviously his heart is not really bruised or arresting, because hey, he’s still kicking, but it makes a point. He’s panicked. His whole world is shifting and he’s about to lose the woman he loves because of a misunderstanding.
There are times that ‘said’ is necessary–that you don’t want to add action beats. Be careful not to slow down the scene with too many action beats. In this example, we have a heated argument. Jake is desperate to stop her from breaking off the wedding, so he’s not going to stand still and she’s trying to escape.
Instead of adding variety with different dialogue tags, add variety with physical beats, facial expression, and emotion. If you must use a dialogue tag, use ‘said.’
Break this rule only when you need to show how they’re speaking. Sometimes it is necessary to tell the reader that they whispered.
Once that’s done, you have a scene powerful enough to make your readers care for the characters you’ve created which in turns perks their interest to continue reading.
If you’d like to learn more about writing dialogue, here are some resources for you.