Category Archives: writing tips

Dialogue tags x Beats: When to use them and how – Part 2

We’ve talked about diaogue tags. Now let’s discuss beats. What are beats?

Just like dialogue tags, beats are used in dialogue to identify the speaker–but, in this case, without using “said.” Beats are actions that identify the speaker without having to point out that he/she said that. It looks like this:

John scratched his head. “Are you sure this is how this works?”

In this case, we don’t need a “he said” in the end. We know John is the one doing the talking, because the beat told us so. Easy, right? So let’s move on to the rules!

Beat rules:

1) Punctuation:

Unlike tags, beats are separated from the quote by periods, not commas. A dialogue with both tags and beats would look like this:

“I love you,” she said.

He smiled. “I love you too.”

Tag with comma, beat with period.

2) Position:

A beat can come before or after the quote. But you do need to read your dialogue to make sure it’s clear to the reader who the speaker is. To better identify the speaker, have the beat on the same line as the quote. Starting a new paragraph can make things confusing, especially in a long dialogue.

3) Showing:

Authors seem to have go-to beats. In every dialogue, you’ll see characters (any of them) smiling, running their hands through their hair or turning. Those are fillers. They show absolutely nothing. You might as well just have a dialogue tag.

Instead of doing that, you should use beats to show and to create voice. Watch the scene. Get inside your character’s head. How would this person react to this comment? How would he or she feel in this situation? What quirks and habits match this character’s personality? When you do that, you show. You show people are really nervous without saying so if you have them pacing or chewing their lower lips. You show your character is a confident woman when looks straight into someone’s eyes and speaks her mind. Use beats for more than just telling your reader who is talking.

4) Mix and match:

If you have a dialogue using only dialogue tags, you have talking heads. If you use only beats, you end up with long scenes that don’t flow. The goal is to use both to create a dialogue that really moves your plot along.

After reading these two posts, do you have any questions about beats and tags? Do you need help with a dialogue? If you do, send me your scene and I’ll analyze it right here on the blog! Just email your dialogue (300 words max.) and a short blurb about your manuscript to with the subject line DIALOGUE ANALYSIS. I’ll tell you how to improve it right here!


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Dialogue tags x Beats: When to use them and how – Part 1

Last week, in my post about How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice on Jane Friedman’s blog, I mentioned that the details about your character are the stuff that will make your beats. I’m assuming here that, if you’re a writer, you have heard about dialogue tags and beats, right?

I know you have, but it’s not unlikely you have some questions about them. So I’ll write two posts explaining a little more about each of these necessary writing tools and how to use them.

First, I’ll talk about dialogue tags. Tags are everything that actually indicate a person is speaking. Said, yelled, whispered… Those are all dialogue tags. We use them to identify the speaker in the easiest way possible.

Tag rules:

1) Punctuation

You should always use a comma between quote and dialogue tag. “‘I love you,’ he said.” Or, if you’re going for the tag before quote approach (something you should only do when absolutely necessary): “He said, ‘I love you.'” If it’s a question, you should use the question mark and lose the comma, but you still keep your tag in lower case. “‘Are you okay?’ he asked.” Oh, and the punctuation should always be inside the quote marks!

2) Keep it simple

Avoid fancy tags. Objected, interjected, commented… Those are all more complicated versions of “said.” Of course you can use “asked.” You can even get away with things that indicate tone (whispered, yelled, etc.), as long as you use them with caution. Other than that, stick to “said.” I know it might sound repetitive, but it’s something readers ignore. Any other tag will give your reader pause. “Said” helps with flow.

3) Avoid anything that isn’t a way of saying things

Dialogue tags, as I said above, are the words that indicate a person is speaking. However, people often make the mistake of using general actions as dialogue tags. I see sentences like, “‘This is such a coincidence,’ she laughed.” That’s not a dialogue tag. You can’t laugh a sentence. If she said something and laughed, that’s a beat (we’ll talk more abou that in the next post).

4) Try to avoid tag before quote

That might be just a pet peeve of mine. But the truth is, tags before quotes sound a lot less natural than tags after quotes. Most of the time, tags before quotes come accompanying beats. Something like, “He turned around and then said, ‘I love you.'” But when you have a beat, you don’t need a tag. It’s easier to just eliminate the tag. If you have a dialogue tag before a quote, make sure it’s not a beat tag along and check to see if moving things around a bit wouldn’t give you a better flow. Only use tag before quote when there’s really no other way.

5) Avoid the overuse of tags

“What? But you just said readers ignore ‘he said/she said’, you crazy woman!” I know, Iknow. But if you have a long dialogue filled with “he said/she said,” not only does it get repetitive, you miss an opportunity to show. Instead of having a clear scene, you have talking heads. That’s why you need balance. Use simple tags to keep it flowing, and use beats to show. How? That’s a topic for the next post.

Do you have any other questions about dialogue tags?

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GRAMMAR – The case of the missing actor

It’s very common in a manuscript to see a sentence that starts with a phrase that modifies the subject of the next clause. Like this:

Having danced her whole life, Laura found her date’s lack of rhythm hilarious.

You can see that the phrase that comes before the comma has no subject, but it clearly refers to the subject in the next clause. So the sentence makes sense, right? You know that it’s Laura who has danced her whole life.

But many times, writers mess up that structure. They don’t put the actor of the first phrase as the subject of the next clause. And that’s when it gets confusing. You end up with a sentence like this:

Having danced her whole life, her date’s lack of rhythm was hilarious to Laura.

Now, that makes no sense at all. It sounds like it’s her date’s lack of rhythm that has danced her whole life. And it sounds easy to recognize, right? You’re thinking you would never write a sentence like that. But sometimes it’s not so obvious. Let’s see a few examples.

Upon entering the room, her eyes went straight to the big piano in the corner.

Turning around, her breath caught in her throat at the sight of him.

To appease his mind, the light switch had to be flicked five times before he went to bed.

Though exhausted, Jane wouldn’t let John sleep.

Don’t all of those look like sentences you might’ve seen, or even written yourself? Sometimes you use them because they seem smarter; sometimes because you’re trying to avoid using “was”, since you were told that equals telling. Or you just use them to vary sentence structure and to make the story flow. But the truth is they’re all wrong. In the first sentence, it sounds like her eyes entered the room. In the second, it sounds like her breath turned around. In the third, it’s the light switch that will appease his mind, and in the last one, it’s Jane who’s exhausted.

But how do you fix this? Very simple. You either add the subject to the first clause or you change the subject in the second.

As Lisa entered the room, her eyes went straight to the big piano in the corner.

When she turned around, her breath caught in her throat at the sight of him.

To appease his mind, Jack had to flick the light switch five times before he went to bed.

Though he was exhausted, Jane wouldn’t let John sleep.

See? It’s easy. They might look less fancy this way, but more often than not, simple is the best way to go.

So, do you do this a lot in your own writing? Do you have questions about writing? Send them to me and I’ll answer them here!

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Telling vs Showing: when dialogue is telling

Once, I overheard a very angry author complaining about a critique she’d received. Apparently, the critique mentioned something about her dialogue being all telling. The author was indignant. “Everyone knows dialogue is showing and exposition is telling!”

She was right, of course. But she was also very wrong. Yes, long exposition, summarized events or dialogue, and anything that involves a long time inside your character’s head and a large amount of indirect quotations adds up to telling. And that’s not what you’re looking for. (For those who are new to this, showing is always your goal.)

But you see, many authors try to find a sneaky way to beat that. They corrupt dialogue, the little devils! If exposition is telling and dialogue is showing, then what do they do? They use dialogue for back story dumping, history lessons, descriptions of physical traits, constant reminders of the character’s name… Anything they want to cut from their long exposition, they fit into the dialogue. You end up with dialogue like this.

“Jane, you need a haircut. Your straight, black bangs are so long they’re covering your beautiful aquamarine eyes. Really, they almost reach your freckled, perfectly surgically reduced nose. Here, wear my headband. Even though I never leave the house not wearing one, you need it more than I do right now.”

“Oh, thank you, Mary. You’re such a good friend. I could always count on you from the moment we met, fifteen years ago. Remember that time John broke up with me? You moved into my house and spent the entire week with me in my bedroom, watching old movies and stroking my hair as I cried. And then when we finally went back to school, you walked up to John and told him he’d better not date anyone else in school until we graduated or he would pay. And I didn’t even know you’d done that! When I found out, three years later, I almost cried. You’re the best friend ever!”

Now, does anyone think that dialogue is showing? Come on! That’s all telling in disguise! We can notice that for a number of reasons, right? Long blocks of dialogue, no beats, long back story, too much description… But what does all that add up to? Easy. The main clue here is that no one in real life talks like that. That’s how you figure out if your dialogue is real or just telling inside quote marks.

Real dialogue, the one that moves that story along and is a major part of showing, must sound natural. When you’re talking to a friend, you don’t say her name all the time. You don’t describe her physical traits in detail. And you definitely don’t describe memories in detail. Why? Because she already knows all that! Unless your friend suffers from memory loss, she knows exactly what she did, and just one sentence will trigger the memory. Dialogue may include hints to back story, but you can’t dump it all in one long paragraph and expect your reader to buy that.

Now, tell me, how would you rewrite that dialogue to make it show rather than tell? How do you write dialogue in your stories? And what questions do you have about dialogue that I can answer here on the blog? Let me know!

P.S. – Black Friday is coming and there will be a sale here! Come back on Friday!

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