In just about every general “how to write fiction” book you’ll find at least a chapter on dialogue and rightly so, since dialogue can reveal a writer’s strengths or weaknesses. Crafting good dialogue can be difficult and there are many pitfalls that writers can stumble into with dialogue.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are skills you can develop to strengthen your dialogue. In this article, let’s look at dialogue tags, descriptive beats in place of tags, and how to punctuate them. While these mechanics aren’t actually dialogue, they do draw attention to it and can influence how your dialogue is read.
First a definition (and note: I’m sure you’ll find other writers who call these by different names):
Dialogue tag: describes a manner of speaking. Comes before or after dialogue.
There are two common mistakes seen with dialogue tags. The first is being afraid to use said or asked or believing that said or asked becomes repetitive. As a result, characters are constantly shouting, murmuring, whispering, commanding, stating, and mumbling. Why is this considered weak writing? If you feel the need to explain how a characters says something then his or her dialogue likely isn’t strong enough. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, if your dialogue is strong enough, then your tag only repeats to the reader what you’ve just shown them.
I’m not saying there isn’t a time or place for non said or asked dialogue tags, only that excessive use is considered weak writing.
But doesn’t said or asked become repetitive and boring?
In short: no. The eye tends to pass over “said” or “asked.” We as writers are attuned to words. We pay attention to them. But if you’re doing your job right, the average reader is engrossed in the story and the characters. When said and asked stand out, usually it means the narrative isn’t being woven enough among the dialogue. This brings me to descriptive beats.
Descriptive beat: a sentence before, after, or breaking up dialogue that describes a character’s response or action.
She fluffed her hair. “I’m ready for my close up.”
“Coffee?” He held out a mug.
These examples are pretty basic, but you can effectively eliminate all or most dialogue tags by working these descriptive beats among your dialogue.
A word of warning about descriptive beats: pick quality descriptions, ones that reveal a character’s personality or motivation or adds to the setting or feel of the story. Too many meaningful glances, or smiles, or nods can make the descriptions feel repetitive and unoriginal.
Now that you know about dialogue tags versus descriptive beats, let’s take a quick look at punctuation (another area easy to fix that will strengthen your writing).
Dialogue tag: “Pass the peas,” he said. (note the comma inside the quotation marks)
Descriptive Beat: “Pass the peas.” He reached for the pot. (note the period inside the quotations)
It’s as simple as paying attention to what you’re writing. Ask yourself this: is this a way of speaking? If yes, then punctuate with a comma. If no, then use a period.
A final note on tags vs. beats: there are always gray areas. For example is groaned a way of speaking or a noise made?
“Oh no,” he groaned.
“Oh no.” He groaned.
And that is where you, as a writer, have the ultimate control of your writing, by determining how best to use the rules of the craft to tell your tale.