Writing Quote

A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

-William Zinsser

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Dialogue Attribution – Pt 3 ‘Action Beats’

When writing dialogue an aspect to consider is ‘attribution’ also known as ‘tagging’. This is usually a simple cue to alert the reader to who is speaking and sometimes how a line of dialogue is delivered.

Dialogue conventions of any given genre aside, there are still some core issues worth looking at. Previously on the blog we’ve looked at ‘Said’ as a core tag and ‘Redundancy and Adverbs.’ Today it’s on to ‘Action Beats.’

Action Beats

Action Beats are short snippets of narrative placed before, in between or after lines of dialogue. They serve two main functions, providing rhythm and creating space, adding an extra ‘beat’ or two, and representing emotion or revealing action.

They generally take the form of physical actions and can also serve to move the plot forward within a scene.

For example, a character may lift a gun between lines of dialogue or they may place their head into hands. Each ‘action beat’ should show the reader something useful. These beats can also take the place of adverbs.

Compare:

“This way,” Lisa shouted loudly.
“Sounds like a bad idea,” he said.
“Trust me, can you?”
“Love to but your track record isn’t exactly great,” said Robert.
“Dad would have agreed with me.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re the favourite. I remember,” he said bitterly.

With:

Lisa dashed toward the car. “This way.”
“Sounds like a bad idea,” he said.
“Trust me, can you?”
“Love to but your track record isn’t exactly great.”
“Dad would have agreed with me.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Robert shook his head. “You’re the favourite. I remember.”

 

Again, like in the previous dialogue post, you can see the first example is quite laboured. Every emotion is prescribed for the reader even to the point of redundancy in the first line. A ‘shout’ is by definition ‘loud’ and so the adverb adds nothing to the dialogue.

In the second example the reader is given more information about the character’s state of mind and even the location. It’s clear Lisa is in a hurry because she ‘dashed’ and further, we know it is toward a car. The scene is becoming fleshed out, as opposed to being two talking heads in space.

In addition, you are given a sense of Robert’s state of mind. He shakes his head. This, combined with his dialogue, allows the reader to see his bitterness. Action beats could also be used to show character quirks – imagine Anthony Perkins in Psycho for instance, without the nervous eating of candy corn.

Action beats can also subtly change the way we infer the delivery of a line – consider these degrees of anger and reflection:

“Yeah, yeah.” Robert sighed. “You’re the favourite. I remember.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re the favourite.” Robert turned back to the trees. “I remember.”

Robert threw his hands up. “Yeah, yeah. You’re the favourite. I remember.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Robert made a fist and hid it behind his back. “You’re the favourite. I remember.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re the favourite. I remember.” Robert spat.

Next up, writing dialogue with a large cast in a single scene.

Classic Tip: It’s vs Its

Here’s a classic tip for anyone who might occasionally get tripped up  – courtesy of Grammar-Monster.

It’s

It’s is short for it is or it has. This is a 100% rule. It cannot be used for anything else. If you cannot expand it’s to it is or it has, then it is wrong.

Its

Its is like his and her.

Visit the Grammar-Monster post for a good list of examples and even a quiz! And make sure you check out the example with frogs – the best frog-related trivia we’ve ever seen.