Don’t Talk Like That: How to Write Good Dialogue–Tags & Beats

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Hi SErs! Harmony here πŸ™‚

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.

Not so.

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) …

From Harmony’s book Polish Your Prose, Chapter Nine: Dialogue Tags

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 πŸ™‚

Post One: Name Dropping can be found HERE.

Β©2021 Harmony Kent

67 thoughts on “Don’t Talk Like That: How to Write Good Dialogue–Tags & Beats

  1. Pingback: Don’t Talk Like That: Quotes and Paragraphs | Story Empire

  2. I’m writing a story about WW2 fighter pilots. I’m trying to use dialog and deep POV to recreate the confusion and isolation of not knowing where your other pilots are and what is their condition. Since conversation is among two or three people, I need the readers to feel the staccato nature of communicating only by radio. Is there a way to write this without attribution tags? I understand how to do this with two people, but not with three. I originally thought of using first-person in some scenes, but I feel I’m too inexperienced to pull that off. Perhaps if I establish each character’s distinct voice, the reader will know. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Mark. Thanks for this great comment. My first thought is to write it a little like a radio transcript … an example (kept simple to illustrate):

      RED 1: Bogey on your rear, Red 2.

      RED 2: Roger that. Three? Can you take him?

      RED 3: Copy. On his ass now.

      And that sort of thing. This identifies each speaker over the radio without the need for tags or beats or constant name dropping. I hope this helps, and all the best with your writing! πŸ™‚


  3. Pingback: Don’t Talk Like That: Talking Heads | Story Empire

  4. Pingback: Don’t Talk Like That: How to Write Good Dialogue–Punctuation | Story Empire

  5. Interesting. But isn’t the most basic rule for writing don’t follow rules? Of course, one can only break rules if one knows them.
    Thanks for sharing πŸ™πŸ™
    All the best. Happy Easter 🐣🐣
    The Fab Four of Cley
    πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would be weary of throwaway statements such as don’t follow any rules as they can too easily be taken out of context. At the bottom of each of these dialogue posts I make the comment: β€˜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.’ I believe that the essence of don’t follow rules is to remind us not to allow them to lock us in.

      Thanks for joining the discussion. Happy Easter! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 3 people

      • I find that often, when writers break the rules even for what they consider ‘artistic ‘ reasons, it grates. Sometimes I think it’s done simply forbthr sake of it.; like writing a book with no punctuation!
        Or for bloody-mindedness. I agreed to review a book of short stories where the author put the comma after the closing quotes and before the dialogue tag throughout. I contacted him and politely told him about it. His reply? ” That’s the way I do it. I’m not changing.”
        He didn’t seem to realise it made him look like an amateur. I found it annoying. Needless to say, I’ve not read anything by him since. Pity, because the stories were good.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Weekend Wrap-up: April 3 – Lines by Leon

  7. An excellent post, Harmony, and very well presented. I’ve been doing some critique work with a writer who is just starting their journey and dialogue tags/dialogue beats is one of our major points of discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. All good points. We tend to forget that most of the time our characters really are doing either: saying, asking, or answering. Using beats or alternating dialogue is a good way to eliminate a few “saids” here or there. As a reader, I tend to ignore overused tags.

    (After writing this, I’m almost certain that I replied on a similar topic. Here? Maybe.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I recall your lovely contribution to the comments on my last dialogue post. With a lot of these points, the reasons will overlap, I’m sure. I agree that most readers don’t notice the repeated saids after a while, which is why it works so well if done well.

      Thanks, Leon πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: #ReblogAlert – Good Stuff From #StoryEmpire | The Write Stuff

  10. An excellent post on dialogue, Harmony. Too many beats or interruptions take me out of the story. On the other hand, I hate it when I cannot figure out who is saying what in a story. As a writer, I like using beats to show more about the character, or establish mannerisms. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I love using beats for dialogue, but I have to watch myself that I don’t repeat the same ones too many times–which is an easy habit for me to fall into. I end up with way too many “He raised an eyebrow” and “he shrugged” tags:) Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This is a topic that many, many new writers (and a few not-so-new ones) need to ponder. And be reminded of. Often. πŸ˜€ Thanks for spelling it out so clearly, Harmony. And also for reminding me to add How to Writing Dazzling Dialogue” to my library. Gonna do that today. (Also going to finish Polish Your Prose very soon, too. (Seems like there’s always something interrupting my reading these days. I think they call it “Life.”) Great post, and so, so true. Sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. An excellent post, Harmony. Too many new authors overuse “he said, she said” or they fall into the habit of using the other words you listed, thinking that improves their writing. I love using dialogue beats.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. A lovely post, Harmony. I have read elsewhere that a writer should stick to using said and not attach other dialogue tags. The show and not tell definitely supports this usage as the reader should be able to grasp the tone from the writing and not the dialogue tag.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Pingback: Don’t Talk Like That: How to Write Good Dialogue–Tags & Beats | Welcome to Harmony Kent Online

  16. Excellent, Harmony. Your examples and explanations are very helpful. Writing may be an advocation for many of us, but it’s also an education. I’m always in the learner’s seat. Thank you! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Another great post on dialogs, Harmony. A good list of words to avoid, keeping it simple. You clarifed a lot of issues most authors go through and had good examples.

    Liked by 6 people

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