Writing Quote

You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.

-Truman Capote

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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.

Dialogue Attribution – Pt 2 ‘Adverbs & Redundancy’

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. Adverbs & Redundancy It’s easy to push a little hard with dialogue attribution in an effort to ‘make sure’ the reader understands tone or emotion in a conversation. This might include adding a modifier (be it one word or even a whole phrase) to clarify. The risk is over-explaining and straying into redundancy. Often these single word modifiers are ‘ly’ adverbs, though that’s not always the case. Generally speaking, it’s best to use any modifiers carefully and to effect, rather than using them to beat the reader over the head. Let the dialogue breathe, let it speak for itself and give the reader credit in their interpretive ability. Compare:

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

With:

“This way,” Lisa shouted. “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. You’re the favourite. I remember,” Robert said, a trace of bitterness in his voice.

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. Further, the pace of the conversation is damaged and there’s even a sense of the writer manipulating the characters by pressing ‘emotion buttons’ line by line and forcing the characters into melodrama. In the second example however, there’s a more natural flow to the conversation. This is partly because there are only two modifiers. First, ‘shouted’ where the volume of Lisa’s voice is still clear and the second, ‘bitterness’ whereby an emotion is given to the reader for a phrase that could be interpreted multiple ways; anger, regret, sarcasm:

“Yeah, yeah. You’re the favourite. I remember,” Robert snapped. “Yeah, yeah. You’re the favourite. I remember,” Robert said softly. “Yeah, yeah. You’re the favourite. I remember,” Robert said brightly.

The first substitution in the conversation also uses ‘shouted’ to replace ‘said’ and thereby adds variety for the reader’s eye. As mentioned at the end of Part 1, there are more techniques to follow this one and each of them can be used to deliver dialogue in conjunction with the other. More on dialogue next time!

Dialogue Attribution – Pt 1 ‘Said’

When writing dialogue one of the aspects to consider is ‘attribution’ which is 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.

Said

In some genres, ‘said’ is the preferred method for dialogue attribution. “He said/She said/Character’s name said” is just about all that’s used, which means the dialogue itself (and scene context) has to do the heavy lifting when it comes to conveying tone and subtext in a conversation.

However, overuse of the word ‘said’ can be its own problem, snagging the eye. In terms of the pacing of a conversation – dropping ‘said’ or all attribution can work just as well.

Compare:

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

With:

“This way,” Lisa said.
“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. You’re the favourite. I remember.”

The pace of the first is slower, and quite repetitive, whereas the second example reads smoothly. Of course, there’s even more variety and subtler means to create rhythm in a conversation – but more on that next time!