Tag Archives: showing

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 gabriela@gabrielalessaeditor.com with the subject line DIALOGUE ANALYSIS. I’ll tell you how to improve it right 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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Query Wednesday – How short is too short?

Dear Agent,

                Few things happen in the snooty town of Pappington besides yachting, shopping, and gossip. But when Peter Aristot—a handsome teenager from a Kennedy-like family—is paired to do a science project with classmate Lizzie Willard—a misfit girl attending their prep school on a scholarship—the usual upper-class activities come to a standstill. In fact, everything comes to a standstill. Only after a plane falls from the sky, crashed cars clog the street, and hundreds of piles of clothes litter the town does Maxwell Frederick Axington III—a strangely informative eight-year old with a penchant for fireworks—inform Peter and Lizzie that they are the only ones left in Pappington and that they were paired together to do something much more than an eighth-grade science project.

                Timshel is my first, but hopefully not last, foray into fiction. It is a 50,000-word, upper-middle-grade fantasy novel.  I wrote it for the shy kid in the back of his middle school class who, more than anything, wishes he could be on an adventure far, far away from anywhere algebra is taught.

                I have a degree in English, an advanced degree in management, and a J.D.

                I’d be delighted to send you my complete manuscript for your review. I know you receive dozens of submissions each day, so I truly appreciate your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


We’ve all seen the recommendation: keep your query short. But how short is too short? That depends a lot on the kind of manuscript you have. A straight-forward contemporary romance, for instance, will probably take less explaining than an intricate high fantasy. But, no matter what you’re writing, the first thing you need to do is make sure your story is clear. Worry about the rest later.

This sounds like an interesting plot. The characters sound interesting, the events sound interesting. But I don’t really know what the plot is. Not really. I just have a vague idea. I don’t need to know every twist and turn, but I do have to be able to picture it. The way it is, it’s too summarized. What does “everything comes to a standstill” mean? Does it mean they walk out of school to find everyone frozen? Or just the things like planes and cars? And how do they find out? Is it when the plane crashes? Is it inside the school? What is the scene that gets this started? What happens? I want to picture this, but I can’t because I don’t have enough information.

The writing in this query is really good. It all sounds intriguing, all the sentences have sort of a cliffhanger quality to them… It’s all very well planned. But it lacks a bit of showing. And it lacks a POV. It would help if we saw this through someone’s eyes. For instance: “Few things happen in the snooty town of Pappington besides yachting, shopping, and gossip. That much is clear to Lizzie Willard, the only kid attending the local prep school on a scholarship. No money, here, definitely means no friends. So she’s sure being paired up with Peter Aristot—the cutest boy in school, with a family that acts like they’re hotter than the Kennedy’s—can’t be a good thing. She just doesn’t imagine how bad it could be. When the clocks in school stop working, Lizzie and Peter think it’s odd. But when a plane falls from the sky? Yeah, bad. Now the entire world is on standstill and they have no idea what to do.” (This is just an example off the top of my head, guys. I haven’t read this author’s manuscript.)

Do you know how many extra words that was, when compared to the first five lines of the original query? 45. That’s all. And there you have POV, voice and a clearer explanation of what is going on. You have showing rather than telling.

Of course I won’t tell you to write a four-page query. Please, don’t! But when you’re cutting, make sure it’s really worth it. This original query is 232 words. No agent would complain about a 300-word query. Really, for most, as long as you stay under 500 words, you’re fine—although I don’t see a need to go that long unless your plot is really complicated.

(Unless, of course, the agent tells you otherwise on his or her guidelines. Agents’ submission guidelines always, always trump anything I say here. When I say most agents, it probably doesn’t work for all agents. Check guidelines first and follow them!)

And if you need cutting? Cut at the end. The fact that this is your first foray into fiction? Not necessary. That you wrote it for the shy kid? Really cute (I’d probably keep that, I’m a softy), but in the end, not necessary. Your degrees? Nope. How busy the agent is? Nope.

If you really need to cut, the last three paragraphs could be reduced to, “Timshel is a 50,000-word, upper-middle-grade fantasy novel that would compare to XX. I thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.” That’s it.

But your plot? Your voice? That certainly cannot be cut. Make sure that’s in your query.

Thanks for the query! I hope this was helpful!

Want to have your query analyzed too? Send it to gabriela@gabrielalessaeditor.com with the subject line QUERY WEDNESDAY.

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