Are Your Dialogue Beats Repetitious?

Even the most scintillating dialogue scenes require more than just dialogue to stay afloat. They need dialogue beats—and good ones at that.

You must pad the characters’ speech with dialogue tags (he said, she whispered, etc.), internal narrative, and body language and action—otherwise known as action beats.

Often dialogue beats will flow naturally from the characters. Maybe they’re beating each up while they talk, or maybe one of them is packing for a big trip, or maybe another is trying to figure out how to skin a whole chicken. In these instances, the actions usually pop right out between dialogue lines and are naturally varied and interesting.

But sometimes characters are just sitting around talking. In these scenes, authors can be hard-pressed to come up with enough actions to keep scenes from suffering from “talking-head” or “white-wall” syndrome. As a result, you may find yourself recycling the same action beat over and over.

For example, in a historical novel I read recently, the only dialogue beats to break up a lengthy scene were the characters’ fiddling with their cigarettes. They lit them, puffed on them, stubbed them out in the ashtray, re-lit them, puffed some more, stubbed them out again—and again and again. What began as an effective action beat illustrating the characters’ nervousness ended up feeling like rehashed hash browns.

If your dialogue beats start to repeat themselves, take a step back from the scene, delete every third beat, and start thinking of fresh replacements. Internal narrative can often take the place of an action beat, and if your characters don’t have anything to do with their hands, be sure to utilize facial expressions and body language.

That said, the easiest way to avoid this problem is to simply set up your scene so your characters do have something important to do while they’re talking.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you ever run dry on dialogue beats? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I’m having some trouble with this right now, writing a mystery that features a few long scenes where two detectives talk out their theories. Trouble is I really don’t know what it is they’re doing in the meantime. Right now I’m just concerned about getting the plot straight, so those dialogue beats can wait till the second draft. 🙂

  2. Often, when I’m in the heat of writing a good scene of dialogue, the characters will “talk” in my head, faster than I can write it all down. I’ll hammer down the dialogue as fast as I can, before I forget it, then go back and fill in the beats.

    • pamelareese says

      that’s usually how I do it, also… or there are quick one or two word notations in the dialog to remind me what I saw them doing or feeling as the dialog happened

  3. I don’t worry about the beats as I write the dialogue because, as you say, once the characters get into it, I don’t want to interrupt the flow. Later when I’m reading the scene over, I’ll try to visualize the scene and fill in the action, either internal or external.

    One of the downsides I’ve experienced using this method in the past is that sometimes (read: way too often) the scene has been so vivid in my head that I’ve shortchanged the beats during the editing and ended up with a string of script-like dialogue with minimal connective tissue. Now that I’m more aware of this tendency, it’s easier to catch the gaps.

  4. I call the voices in my head “Happy Bobblehead Dolls” because i tend to overuse ‘smiled’ and ‘nodded’ as action beats. I still do this to a large extent while writing the first draft but, like you suggest, I look at the completed scene as a whole and edit those beats to reflect both alternate actions and/or inner monologue/emotion.

    The reasons that I allow myself to keep the ‘bad’ habit of using ‘smiled’ and ‘nodded’ in the original write-up is I don’t want to ‘break stride’ focusing on in-line edits/breaking the habit, and keeping to those two over-used terms makes it VERY easy to do a “find” go-through with the word processor when it comes time to edit and be slapped in the face with “…found 97 instances…”, etc., showing me my ‘placeholders’ where editing needs to happen.

  5. @Kern: Most of the time, I’ll try to work the beats in as I go, if only because they’re so much more organic that way. I only abandon them to record the dialogue, when the characters are talking too fast and too much for me to keep up if I slow down to insert the beats.

    @Christopher: “Breathed” or some variation is my big repeater in dialogue. I wear out my CTRL + F on that one.

  6. This was extremely useful for me! I just wrote a scene a few days ago that had repetitive beats. It’s been driving me crazy. Thanks so much for the advice!

  7. Glad it came in handy! Happy rewriting.

  8. I find myself having far too many similar action beats whether they be happy or angry depending on the scene. The post was great and I will try the third beat reject idea and let my mind run wild. Thanks once again for the help.

  9. Something that always helps me is visualizing the scene as if it were in a movie. Or, going even further, as if I were the actor *in* the movie. How would I move around, or what interesting prop could I find to play with, to make the scene more interesting? I love the story of Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven. He’s a secondary character in this movie, but he’s *always* moving, fiddling with his hat, doing something to draw the viewer’s eye. Reportedly, Yul Brynner, the leading man, was very irritated because he, rightly, felt McQueen was stealing the show.

  10. Watching movies is a good way to pick up action beats. I need to start a folder of the best ones to use. I haven’t seen The Magnificent Seven in a long time. I may need to add that to my list.

  11. Magnificent Seven was my favorite movie as a kid. I probably watched it every week.

  12. I loved this and tweeted about it. Thanks for the great advice.
    I try to keep my dialogue fresh by using action tags instead of the “he said” tag that seems to become over used. I’m going to check my novel to make sure that every third dialogue has something different going on. Thanks for the heads up.

  13. It’s hard to overuse “said,” since most readers skim over it so fast it’s as good as invisible. But, in general, I prefer action tags as well. They do double duty, since they not only keep the reader informed about who’s talking, but they also add to the context.

  14. I have to admit, I’m certainly guilty of missing the beat more than a few times. I ended up with a lot of scowling and more editing work.

  15. A writer’s editing is never done! At least once you know what the problem is, you’re halfway to fixing it.

  16. my characters probably smile and nod quite a bit..or sneer, etc. I have tried to make them do things with their hands to avoid such repetition, such as, take out a sword and slash things.

  17. Can’t go wrong with swords and slashings!

  18. I think I have a good range of action beats I know I can use, it’s just that I don’t put enough variety into the scenes, they’re nomally just stood around, walking or sat down. They never really talk during anything else like fighting or whatever. I guess I should revise that a bit 🙂

  19. It can actually be a lot of fun to dream up new and interesting things for characters to do while they’re talking. Not only does it make our job of creating variety easier, but it can also lead our stories in entirely new and better directions.

  20. So glad I stumbled on your youtube videos. I had written the first major dialogue scene in my story and thought it didn’t mesh well with the narrative. It felt very clunky but I couldn’t figure out why. I stewed over it for a bit and even went to the library a couple blocks down the road and picked up a book on dialogue lol. Then I hopped on here and identified it and it was an easy fix after that. I had taken the characters to a location and then opened the conversation and neglected everything around them until the end of the scene. So, yeah, I went back over it and gave the characters different things to occupy themselves with in the environment while they chatted. It instantly took away the stiff, robotic vibe I was getting from the scene and before I knew it the characters were coming alive and felt very human and sincere! I was very satisfied with the revision and again have you to thank KM! 🙂

  21. Don’t you love it when the fix turns out to be something simple? I’m glad the video was useful to you.


  1. […] Avoid using the same action over and over again. I have to look out for ones along the lines of “John turned to Sue” in my writing. K.M. Weiland has a good post about over-using the same dialogue beat here. […]

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