Whose Line is it Anyway? Mixing Dialogue and Action Tags for Your Author Toolbox

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He said, she said, they said, we all said. Especially in fiction, there is a lot of saying going on. Good dialogue can save you from telling, can demonstrate everything about your character’s personality and traits, can be funny, move the plot along, or explain backstory. All at the same time. Dialogue is the best!

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SO much going on here! Movies get lots to work with because they’re visual. Authors have to work HARDER to get all of it across with dialogue and action beats.

Dialogue is also a trap. A big Sarlacc pit, waiting in the middle of the WIP desert to digest you slowly. One of the oh-so-easy ways to go wrong here is when you get caught in the web of dialogue tags. While you struggle amongst the strands of endless options, growing weaker, action beats are standing at a safe distance yelling, “Use me! I’m here! Hallo? I’m showing, not telling!”

Learn to love action in your dialogue. Learn to hate the overuse of dialogue tags. We are writing fiction, my lovelies. Pretty much anything goes, as long as the dialogue flows.


So. What are dialogue tags? Make with the clicks to read this good succinct post on the basics, by The Creative Penn. To narrow it down to a sentence; dialogue tags are anything tagged on to the end of dialogue to indicate that person is speaking.

Most of the time your characters say something, it will be said. It can also be begged, shouted, screamed, hissed, called, cried, implored, protested, and any other of a million different ways to indicate emotion while talking. Available advice, which is based on solid evidence, opines that you should use said most of  the time. It’s an invisible word to readers. They take it for granted that your characters will be saying something and skim right over the word, leaving the actions and emotions to impress in their memory.

To back that up, here is a post on keeping it simple from Writer’s DigestBut! (there is definitely a but.) You can’t use “said” for every tag. There’s simple, and then there’s mind-numbing. It’s a good idea to kick that boring staple up a notch with any of the other tags that express what your characters are going through, while still leaning heavily on said. Think of it as a ratio of using said to using other -ed words, where said is the building block and another tag is used when you want the reader to specifically focus in on what your character is feeling.

An even better way to include some good showing? Mixing in some action.

C.S. Larkin has a good post on this topic over at Live Write Thrive. Action beats (also called narrative beats) are a great way to fill the empty space left around repetitions of “said” or “replied”. They make your writing visual, a scene playing out in the front of your reader’s mind. With a mix of physical action sprinkled generously throughout the scene alongside the dialogue tags, you can create any scenario you can imagine.

  • While your characters are talking, how are they feeling? Add that in with your dialogue tags as they react to the conversation.
  • What are they thinking? Change their non-verbal expressions as they listen.
  • Where are they? They’ll interact with their environment by moving, sitting, standing, touching things, picking them up or throwing them. All of those are action tags.

We’ll finish off with some examples of good dialogue mixes from popular authors:

“Now I want to make love with you more than I want to go on breathing.”

“To make love,” C.C. repeated steadily. “But you don’t love me.”

“I don’t know anything about love. I care for you.” He walked back to touch a hand to her face. “Maybe that could be enough.”

She studied him, realizing he didn’t have any idea that he was breaking an already shattered heart. “It might be, for a day or a week or a month. But you were right about me, Trent. I expect more. I deserve more.”

—Courting Catherine, Nora Roberts

In this emotionally charged scene the main characters are at an impasse. One is in love, one thinks love is something to sell greeting cards and refuses to trust enough to try. All of this is obvious from their words and actions. And the word “said” isn’t used once. Nora Roberts is a great resource to study.

The tortoise subsided. “How many talking tortoises have you met?” it said sarcastically.

“I don’t know,” said Brutha.

“What d’you mean, you don’t know?”

“Well, they might all talk,” said Brutha, conscientiously, demonstrating the very personal kind of logic that got him Extra [Chores]. “They just might not say anything when I’m there.”

—Small Gods, Terry Pratchett

In this tiny slice of dialogue, both Brutha and the Great God Om (currently in the shape of a small tortoise) lay out their respective personalities perfectly. One is immortal, wise, sarcastic, and a bit of a pill. The other is young, naive, extremely conscientious, and about to butt heads with his God. It makes for a very entertaining read.

“I’m not going to run away,” Stanley said.

“Good thinking,” said Mr. Sir. “Nobody runs away from here. We don’t need a fence. Know why? Because we’ve got the only water for a hundred miles. You want to run away? You’ll be buzzard food in three days.”

Stanley could see some kids dressed in orange and carrying shovels dragging themselves toward the tents.

“You thirsty?” asked Mr. Sir.

“Yes, Mr. Sir,” Stanley said gratefully.

“Well, you better get used to it. You’re going to be thirsty for the next eighteen months.”

—Holes, Louis Sachar

One end to one short conversation, and we know without a doubt what obstacles our character (Stanley) has in his way, what the stakes are, and how little help he can expect to overcome any of it. Brilliant.

“I doubt there’ll be a next time,” Olivia said.

“Oh, there will be,” he countered with eyes that teased her own, “and when we do [meet], you owe me something.”

“What?”

“A kiss,” he told her softly.

Olivia tried to speak around her suddenly dry throat. “What on earth for?”

“For letting you keep the rest of your money.”

—Something Like Love, Beverly Jenkins

In this tense scene the main characters are in the middle of their meet-cute, which is a train robbery. The first time the hero meets the heroine there’s an undeniable attraction, but business is business and he needs her valuables. Still, he lets her keep most of her cash money and only takes her earrings, which is something like love coming from an outlaw.

Good luck with your dialogue! I hope this post has enough resources to get you well on your way.

18 thoughts on “Whose Line is it Anyway? Mixing Dialogue and Action Tags for Your Author Toolbox

  1. We need to state who is talking whether by he/she said or by how the character reacts so our readers can determine who is speaking. It is true we need to use clues to ensure our readers do not become confused. Great post

    1. Thank you! Yes, thinking of them as clues is a good way to look at it. We’re guiding the reader through the scene without actively smacking them over the head by using too much “telling”.

  2. It’s all about balance and variety when it comes to presenting dialogue. Dialogue tags are often necessary. You need to keep them interesting when you do need them.

    1. It really is a balancing act. Whilst juggling a variety of multicolored balls at the same time! LOL

  3. Great tips. I was just watching a YouTube video by an author who recommended using action instead of dialogue tags. I’m trying to do that more, though you do have to balance it all out. Thanks for your tips.

  4. Wonderful post. I’ve heard that most people think said should be the only thing used, but that gets boring even if it’s an “invisible” word. The change up is needed as well as letting the actions speak where the dialogue doesn’t.

  5. Good examples! I use mostly action beats in my stories, keeping dialogue tags to “said” and “asked” when I absolutely need one to clarify who’s speaking, like in a group scene. My pet peeve: when authors use transitive verbs as dialogue tags without an object. “You must listen to me,” she persuaded. Ugh! Like fingernails on a chalkboard.

    1. I had no idea what transitive verbs were, but you’re right! That does read awkwardly to my ear. Now I know to watch out for those and kill them quickly in my manuscript 🙂

  6. Excellent Examples. Dialogue is a finesse with emotion, body cues and breaking lines of dialogue just right to turn it from words into a fantastic realistic movie.

    1. It’s a finesse I sometimes feel I don’t have, but then I remind myself that’s just my insecurity talking and buckle down to write the scene anyway 🙂

  7. I agree with not overusing dialogue tags but I find it hard when a scene has several people to NOT use dialogue tags. Why oh why do I continue to have these scenes with multiple characters?

    1. For sure you need them when multiple characters are speaking, haha. I tend to use them even when it’s just my two MCs, but I like dialogue tags and being grounded in the scene.

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