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.