Most Common Writing Mistakes: How Not to Use Speaker Tags and Action Beats

Don’t jeopardize your characters’ witty dialogue with punctuation and stylistic mistakes. Let’s a take a look at two means for indicating speakers and varying the rhythm of speech and narrative: the speaker tag and the action beat.

The speaker tag, which in its most basic form consists of the speaker’s name and a speech-related verb (said, shouted, asked, etc.), is often the simplest way of indicating which character is speaking.

Example: “I told you not to throw that cat at me,” Mike said.

How Not to Use Speaker Tags

  • Don’t overuse it. It’s unnecessary to say “he said/she said” at the end of every line of dialogue. If you have only two speakers, you only need to indicate the speaker every few lines. If you have more than two speakers, vary your speaker tags with action beats.
  • Don’t vary the verb too often. “Said” is your most utilitarian speech verb. Its near invisibility allows your dialogue to stand on its own two feet without telling the reader how to read the dialogue. Use other verbs (shouted, sniffled, whined) and modifiers (briskly, quietly, nervously) with caution.
  • Don’t underuse it. Whenever it’s possible readers might not understand which speaker is talking (such as after a lengthy paragraph of narrative), indicate the speaker at the first opportunity.
  • Don’t punctuate the preceding dialogue with a period. Unless the dialogue ends with an exclamation point or a question mark, finish it off with a comma inside the quote marks, followed by the speaker tag (see example above).

The action beat is a description of the actions (gestures, facial expressions, or even thoughts) that accompany the speaker’s words. It is included in the same paragraph as the dialogue as an indication that the person performing the action is also the person speaking.

Example: “I didn’t throw the cat at you”–Leigh grabbed a vase of flowers–“but I am going to throw this!”

How Not to Use Action Beats

  • Don’t combine it with a speaker tag. Used together, they’re almost always repetitious. When in doubt, cut the speaker tag in favor of the action beat, since the action beat offers you more opportunities for characterization.
  • Don’t use it solely for the sake of speaker of identification. If the only reason you’ve inserted an action beat is to identify the speaker, you’re probably better off with a speaker tag. Action beats must serve to move the story forward or advance characterization; they cannot exist only to give the character busy work.
  • Don’t allow it to interrupt your dialogue. A lengthy action beat in every line of dialogue will chop up the rhythm of the characters’ speech and destroy the flow of the conversation.
  • Don’t punctuate the preceding dialogue with a comma. Unless the action beat interrupts a dialogue sentence (see example above), always end the dialogue preceding the action beat as you would if it stood alone.

If you can expunge these common mistakes from your dialogue, you’ll not only strengthen your characters’ conversations, you’ll also mark yourself as a professional.

Tell me your opinion: Do you use speaker tags and action beats correctly?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Thanks, that’s a big help.

  2. You bet!

  3. @Anonymous: Sorry I missed your comment earlier. As I mentioned in my response to Donna’s comment above, there’s rarely a good reason to use both an action beat and a speaker tag (as in, “Leigh said, grabbing”). You’re absolutely correct that an action beat should not be used as if it were a speaker tag, by “hooking” it onto the preceding quote with only a comma. The only reason it’s acceptable in my example is that the action is interrupting the quote, as indicated by commas on both sides of the beat. Had the action come between two complete sentences of dialogue (e.g., “I didn’t throw the cat at you.” Leigh picked up the vase of flowers. “It was the dog!”), then commas at either end of the action beat would be incorrect.

    And thanks, BTW, for point out the typo! I’ll fix that right away.

  4. Glad the post was helpful! Some writers feel that “said” can be overused, but it’s so invisible, most readers don’t even notice its repetition.

  5. Apologies if comments are are no longer welcome since this is an old post, but I just came across this and was bothered by the example you gave for inserting an interrupting action. As I understand it, when interrupting dialogue with an action, em dashes should be used and not commas. Simply using commas would turn the action into speaker tags, which is incorrect as you’ve also said.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You know, you’re right! I’ll fix that.

    • Tay, I’ve never heard that or read it in any of the style guides. Can you share where you found that instruction for using em-dashes instead of commas to interject beats of action? Of K.M. Do you know where to find the source of that style?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        He’s right that it’s always incorrect to punctuate an action beat like a speaker tag: e.g., “Don’t do that,” she hit him.

        So, of course, it only makes sense for the same to hold true when the action beat is in the middle of the dialogue.

        But I couldn’t tell you what manual that’s from.

  6. Hi,

    The use of “said” as the only dialogue tag was drummed into my little head by my first book coach, a former editor for MacMillian and St. Martin’s press with over 35 years of experience. In the publishing business, they hate anything other than that, especially when the tag is beefed up with an adjective. [“I hate you,” she said angrily.] But varying the “said” with action beats, and using none all is great advice. Thank you for sharing. I have all your articles on speed link.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Said” is a workhorse in dialogue. It should definitely be our go-to tag. But it’s worth noting that alternatives don’t have to be avoided in toto. The occasional “murmured” or “hissed” are acceptable.

  7. I do like a good murmur, K.M., but some tags are really hard to do while speaking – like “I don’t want to,” he choked. Or one of my favorite from me editing, “You should be more careful,” she pointed out. What’s up with that? I know we should avoid being Robert Ludlum. One of his is my favorite. “I repeat,” he repeated.

    What I like about “said,” is that the tag disappears and lets the dynamic, highly-charged dialogue shine through. The only reason newbies (and I was a newbie once as well) use beefed up tags, is they don’t have confidence in their reader and must TELL the reader HOW the speaker meant something.

    But you’re right, there must be balance in the Force. Thanks for writing for us.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah, yes, that Ludlum line is infamous. I think he also wrote an “‘I apologize,’ he apologized.”

      You’re absolutely right about the power of “said” being its invisibility. But there are those occasional exceptions where the dialogue can’t stand on its own and does need the author to interpret for the reader. Still, as you say, it’s always an exception to the rule.

  8. I’ve always ended a sentence like “Don’t do that,” she hit him as this [“Don’t do that.” She hit him.] then go one with the rest of the sentence like it’s a new one.

    Something to consider. Hmmmmm!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The reason for this is that a character can “say” or “shout” or “whisper” a line of dialogue, but they can’t “hit” a line of dialogue.

  9. Thank you, you’ve reminded me of how much I still need to learn

  10. Christy Moceri says:

    I may be guilty of using action beats to give characters busy work. I actually hate dialog tags in most instances, because I feel like action beats can say so much more. If I have any reputation in my critique group, it’s for my crusade against overuse of dialog tags.

    My characters look at each other a lot though, via action beats. It’s annoying. If I do anything wrong, it’s that I emphasize facial expressions too much. I need to learn how to diversify the emotional subtext beyond just describing people’s faces. Just running through a typical dialog passage… narrowed eyes, flushed faces, shaking or nodding heads, mouths forming hard grim lines. I know it’s because that’s what I pay attention to IRL when I’m interacting with someone, but it creates problems in fiction. If I see the word ”eyes” in my MS one more time, I’m going to scream.

  11. Your example is below:
    Example: “I didn’t throw the cat at you”–Leigh grabbed a vase of flowers–“but I am going to throw this!”

    If the action beat were not inserted in the dialog, I would put a comma after you, e.g., “…at you, but I…” I believe the comma should still be included before the action beat insert. Therefore, I would punctuate thusly: “I didn’t throw the cat at you,”-Leigh grabbed a vase of flowers-“but I am going to throw this!” Am I in error? If I am, please, quote a source. Thank you Donna

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, this is incorrect. There’s no reason to double up the punctuation. Optimally, you will usually want to insert the action where a natural break occurs, so it will often go where a comma normally would. More here: Punctuation in Dialogue.

  12. Paul Nieto says:

    K.M.

    Should one always use dashes like in your example?

    Example: “I didn’t throw the cat at you”–Leigh grabbed a vase of flowers–“but I am going to throw this!”

    could a person do this:

    Example: “I didn’t throw the cat at you.”Leigh grabbed a vase of flowers.“But I am going to throw this!”

    Thank you,
    Paul Nieto

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes. As long as you’re putting periods to clauses that could stand as sentences in their own right, that’s fine.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.