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?

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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. I think I use both correctly, although I probably occasionally combine both action beats and tags (mea culpa!) I guess I’ll be on the lookout for those in my next editing pass. Unfortunately, it’s something I picked up from a famous author, so I may have a hard time shaking it.

    Other than that, I think I’m in good shape. 🙂

  2. Oh, those bad habits we pick up from famous people! 😉

  3. Good reminders — I’ll be doing a workshop on dialogue for Savvy Authors in June, and these are good points to remember. However, the use of commas in the example of action beats looks “off” to me — more like a run-on sentence. I tend to use dashes to set them off.

    And YES to using ‘said’ rather than “clever” tag words. It does disappear from the page, whereas all those fancy tag words jump right out, slowing the reader who usually stops to make sure the dialogue matches the tag.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  4. One thing I like to do with action beats is – all other things being equal – if there’s any question at all about who the speaker is, I like to put the action tag first, then the quote.

    Carla grabbed the knife from the counter. “Why are we even talking about this any more?”

    rather than the other way around. That way, by the time the reader gets to the dialog, they know for sure who the speaker is, rather than reading the dialog, having a split second of wondering, then being like, “Oh, that was Carla, right.”

    It’s not a hard and fast rule, but I like to do what I can to avoid even momentary reader confusion (unless I’m deliberately going for that).

  5. @Terry: Truth be told, if I were actually using that sentence in a manuscript, I probably *would* separate the independent clauses into individual sentences. But, as it is, it’s not a compound sentence, not a run-on.

    @Cameron: I agree. Always identify the speaker as quickly as possible, whenever there’s any doubt about who’s speaking. When you have a short dialogue clause preceding the speaker tag or action beat, you’re usually okay, since readers will see the name near the beginning of the sentence even before they’ve actually read that far.

  6. I tend to overuse action beats. You’d think my characters were all on crack with the way they fidget and twitch and wiggle, even in the middle of a conversation. 🙂

    It’s one of my writing quirks that I always have to pare down in revision.

  7. I tend to overuse them in the first draft myself. But when the big red pen comes out, they have to scram!

  8. I could probably make more use of action beats but I think I’m pretty good with the way I use speaker attribution.

    It amuses me that in primary school, I was taught not the use “said” because it was too common and boring. The teacher had a big poster on the wall titled “Instead of Said” and we were encouraged to use alternative tags at every opportunity.

    It wasn’t until I started reading books about writing as an adult that I discovered this was wrong.

  9. Using “said” instead of more imaginative alternatives is counter-intuitive. In all other areas of writing, we’re *supposed* to use big, bold verbs. The difference here is that the big, bold verbs become repetitious when paired with strong dialogue.

  10. I just did a flash fiction piece this Friday which relied solely on dialogue. It was a little tricky, because I needed to switch back and forth between two separate dialogues. I think I did pretty well, but I could have used some more action beats to replace the redundancy of all those “saids.”

  11. One of my favorite “gimmicks” is solo dialogue. I love the dependency on the spoken word and the complete lack of explanation. It allows the subtext to speak loudest of all.

  12. Great advice KM! The run through the piece usually results in a few too many or too few tags and actions. Since I prefer the first person I like using internal monologue or analysis to tell who’s carrying the conversation.

  13. That would be my preference as well. Whenever possible (and it should almost *always* be possible), let the narrating character tell the story. Everything should be filtered through his lens, even other characters’ dialogue.

    • Susan Lewallen says:

      Thanks for this comment. I”m a bit confused though. I understood that in 3rd person, the narrator is invisible. She can be allowed inside one or more characters’ heads (limited omniscience) or inside all characters’ heads (omniscient narrator) or inside no one’s head. But in any of these three cases it is still the narrator relating the events, isn’t it?

      Maybe a “narrating character” one of the characters whose thoughts are open to the the narrator?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        A narrator *can* be omniscient (essentially, the author), but deep 3rd-person is basically like 1st-person in that it is told strictly from one character’s perspective and in that character’s voice.

  14. This was so helpful. Thank you!

  15. Glad it was useful! Thanks for reading.

  16. I tend to go tagless, specially when it is a two-character conversation. The deeper I go, the less tags I use, letting their words define them.

    Or maybe I just lazy.

    😉

  17. As long as there’s no risk of reader confusion, that’s the best way to do it. Dialogue is the most organic manner of *showing* available in written fiction. The more we can allow it to stand on its own, the better.

  18. Joe Zaynor says:

    Good advice. I think I use tags and beats pretty well now, but I’m finding poor use in things I wrote a few years ago that I’m now revising and editing. Thanks!

  19. Seeing mistakes in old stories is a sure sign of growth. It’s definitely something to get excited about!

  20. So in another post I read a proposition of a whole list of “busy work” for characters to do to avoid them becoming “talking heads”. Here I read I should avoid doing action beats too much to specifically avoid the “busy work”. Am I missing something or there’s inconsistency between the posts?

  21. If it’s “busy work” in the sense that it’s something *just* to fill the character’s hands and give him something to do while talking, you’ll want to avoid it. But, at the same time, it *is* important to vary dialogue with action and internal narrative. The trick is to make certain that whatever the character is busy with in the scene is something that brings added depth to the story. It needs to either advance plot, develop character, or provide subtext.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Sentences like “I didn’t throw the cat you,” Leigh grabbed a vase of flowers, “but I am going to throw this!” set my teeth on edge. Aside from the missing word “at”, the grammar can’t be correct. If I were writing this, I would write: “I didn’t throw the cat at you,” Leigh said, grabbing a vase of flowers, “but I am going to throw this!”

    I’ve seen way too many examples of action beats that turn into speech tags, and they make no sense. In my mind, “I don’t know,” John walked across the room will always be wrong.

    • Anonymous, I’m with you. But I don’t think you’re contradicting anyone here about it.
      Action beats can be SO awkward and SO overused, that they themselves become interruptions in the dialogue.
      Less is best, and variety is the spice of life – to quote two time-worn clichés.
      I try to write tags and beats (a) only to keep track of the speaker, and (b) by the rhythm of the words.

  23. My pre-editor, ie, my brother, said that my tag lines are driving him crazy. I think he’s talking about things like, “I have to go to the store,” Katra said, standing to put on her coat.
    Is that a bad idea? Should I try to eliminate those from my dialogues?

  24. You’ll very rarely need both an speaker tag *and* an action beat. I would suggest whittling down your example to either, “Katra said,” or, “Katra stood to put on her coat.”

  25. Thanks, that’s a big help.

  26. You bet!

  27. @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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

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

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

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