Hi SErs! Harmony here 🙂
Today, I’d like to take another look at dialogue. Because this is such a large topic, I have spread the topic over a few posts. As the post title suggests, we’ll look at ‘tags and beats’ around dialogue today.
‘ “So, what’s the deal on dialogue attributions?” the young writer asked. “I’ll tell you,” said the wise old writer. “It’s not complicated, but it’s important.” “I’m ready to listen!” the young writer asseverated. The wise old writer slapped him. “Don’t ever asseverate anything again. Just listen.” ‘
The above amusing quote comes from How to Write Amazing Dialogue by James Scott Bell.
Top Tip: Basically, an attribution is what most of us call a dialogue tag. We use dialogue tags to identify the speaker to the reader, and a tag is an excellent way to avoid too much name dropping within dialogue (see my last post HERE).
While repetition within narrative is frowned upon and best avoided, in dialogue tags repetition is actively encouraged. A simple said is ample and more than enough. Too many writers make the mistake of thinking that the more descriptive a dialogue tag, the better.
As well as dialogue tags, the writer has another tool to use to break up too many ‘he said/she said’ lines. The same tool also helps to ramp up the tension within a scene of dialogue …
What’s the tool? Dialogue Beats … basically, this is where we assign an action to a piece of dialogue. This acts both as a ‘speaker identifier’ and a way to show the tension between the characters.
Take Care: Make sure you show rather than tell whenever you use a dialogue beat. And, definitely, don’t show or tell what you’ve just shown within the dialogue (more of that in the post on punctuation within dialogue). If you do your dialogue well enough, you won’t then need to say it in narrative because the speaker will have done that for you.
An example of a beat is shown in the quote at the top of this post: ‘The wise old writer slapped him.’ This both identifies the speaker and shows his annoyance at the young writer, which ramps up the tension nicely.
The use of tags and beats is the way to go, rather than constant name dropping.
An Example of Some Dialogue Tags to Avoid: (Except on VERY special occasions) …
Aim to show emotion and tension within your dialogue and avoid telling it by using descriptive tags such as ‘he said, angrily’ or ‘she snarled’ etc. And if you’ve used punctuation to show a trailing off or a sudden cut off, do NOT EVER then tell it (see my next post on April 21st). While we can bend or break many writing rules, the telling what you’ve just shown is the exception. Treat your readers with respect; they’re more than intelligent enough to get it.
Top TIP: Where possible, it’s best to put the beat before the dialogue rather than after. The quote at the top of this post shows the same sequence. By putting the beat before, you set up the identity of the speaker first, as well as shape the tone of the coming dialogue, and this helps you avoid the temptation to tell what you’ve shown (or, indeed, from repeating the showing).
The take-away from all of this is to use simple tags (said/asked) to avoid name dropping and talking heads (more on that in future posts), and also to use beats to avoid too much he said/she said and to ramp up the tension. As I said in my previous dialogue post: Before we break the rules, we need to know the rules, and we only break them if we have a valid reason to do so to enhance our artistic expression in writing.
That’s it from me for today. I hope you find this post useful. And I’ll see you again on April 21 st 🙂
Post One: Name Dropping can be found HERE.
©2021 Harmony Kent