3D Dialogue with Action Tags and Beats
Creating rich dialogue requires a variety of tools. Action tags and beats turn dialogue from a flat exchange into a multi-sensory experience. They incorporate the wide range of human communication by allowing for nonverbal cues, sensory detail, and indirect characterization during a verbal exchange.
Often defining a tool is easier when you point out its context. An action tag belongs to the tool group of dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are used to supply necessary information about the line of dialogue, including who said it, why it was said, how it was said, and sometimes to whom it was said. These make up for the particular challenge of not actually seeing the exchange, which would instantly convey these crucial contextual details.
Descriptive tags are an expanded dialogue tag. The go-to simple tag is “he said”/”she said”. A descriptive tag adds some descriptive information, like an adverb (“…,” he said icily.) or a descriptive phrase (“…,” he said, his expression distant.). This tag can also describe something about the setting for the interaction, or some other enlightening detail.
Action tags expand the dialogue with movement, action, or demonstrative behavior. Swapping description for action boosts the “show” factor, reducing incidents of simply “telling” a character’s emotion. Consider how different emotions or internal processes look from the outside. These often come up as action tags:
“…,” he said, picking at a scratch on the table.
“…,” she said, looking him up and down with a sour curl in her frown.
“…,” he sang, rising up on his toes at the high note.
Unique actions by a character turn these visual communication cues into valuable characterization tools too. People have certain ticks, habits, or preferences. What you show your character doing contributes to a cumulative picture of who they are. A character who drums their fingers when happy, swipes on their phone screen like slashing with a sword, or doodles on legal documents has more color than characters who simply nod, grimace, or smile when they speak. Get creative.
First off, anyone unfamiliar with screenwriting may not know this term. The simplest non-medium-specific definition is this: a unit of narrative time between dialogue lines. Obviously this is adapted for writing in general. Screenwriting also uses “beat” as an organizational term for their unique forms, but for dialogue in prose, the first definition is a bit more helpful.
The most direct use of an action beat is to fill a natural pause in speech by sharing the action of the character. Between comments, a character could take a draw from a spent cigar, or grind down a bug with their boot heel. Depending on context, this kind of pause – and what the character does with it – can speak volumes.
An action beat can be short or long, and the longer ones look like a small 2-3 line paragraph between comments. A useful way to think of it is as a nonverbal response:
Trish never broke eye contact, but slid the knife across the table. It reflected her small smile and the amber glass she lifted to her lips. She waited.
It can also show a mental digression of the main perspective character:
He knew Kirk was furious, but the way he paced ruined the effect. Kirk skipped. It was small, but there, as tied to his rapid steps as to his blustering mood.
Alright that was more a descriptive beat, but it was active description at least.
An action beat can also form a few key portions of the exchange, as in those moments when words aren’t needed or when speaking would cheapen the exchange. The romance genre uses this often, but in any story some of the most meaningful communication is wordless. This requires some well-structured context and rich characters if it’s going to be used to the highest effect.
A common but exciting example is the anti-hero’s pledge. Usually it takes the form of the anti-hero character soaring in at the last possible second to save the hero, plus some inside-joke method of saying, “Yes, I’m here. Don’t make this mushy, but I’m with you. Get on with the fight.” It’s a crowd-pleaser to say the least.
This is just one type of tool for sharing characters’ nonverbal communication. As with any tool, use it in moderation and in conjunction with other tools. Listening to (and watching) both real and fictional conversation can inspire creative, active uses of action in dialogue.