Monday, June 4, 2012

Dialogue Tags vs. Action Beats

by Stephanie Morrill

Today's post is a revision of something I wrote around a year ago stating that said is considered to be invisible.

In that post, I told you guys that in your dialogue, your characters should be saying stuff rather than exclaiming or retorting it. I said your dialogue and action beats should be doing the work rather than your clever replacement of said.

I still think this is true, but what I would like to revise is my suggestion that the word "said" is invisible to the reader. Because I think saying that implied that something like this would be okay:

"I want to eat macaroni and cheese," McKenna said.
"Honey, we can't eat macaroni and cheese for breakfast," Stephanie said.
"Why not?" McKenna said.
"Because..." Stephanie said. "We just can't."
"But why not?" McKenna said. "I like macaroni and cheese."

Said is hardly an invisible word there, right? Especially on an audiobook. Can you imagine how obviously repetitive that would sound?

So, like a year ago when I said that said is invisible, what I really meant was if you have to use a dialogue tag, said is the most discreet, and you don't want to draw attention to your tags.

I listened to a POV class of Kristen Heitzmann's where she was asked, "Is there ever a time in a manuscript when you should use said instead of an action beat?" She laughed a little and said, "In the first draft when you don't want to take the time to come up with an action or emotion?"

She was joking ... but not totally.

In a way (and now I'm getting crazy picky here) using said or other tags is a form of telling. You're already showing that this is being said by putting those cute little quotes around it. (I find quotation marks to be absolutely adorable. Anyone else? Just me?)

Obviously people need to know who said what. But can you push yourself to achieve that without the traditional "he said"?

This is a brief scene from the second draft of a manuscript of mine. In this draft, I replaced all my he said/she said with action beats. I've marked my replacements in red:

There’s shouting and scuffling close by, but I can’t seem to lift my head. Pain sears my face. Someone groans. Or was that me?
“Sage?” Desmond’s voice is in my ear, and I tell my eyes to open. He’s crouched there beside me, with Hazel and Marshall too, but it’s as if the morning fog has rolled in. They’re hazy. “Sage? Are you okay? Sage?”
“I’m fine.” Did I say that or just think it?
There’s more shouting. When I open my eyes, my unit mates are all looking at something beyond me. Again I try to turn and see what’s going on. “What’s happening?”
“Everything is okay.” Hazel’s tone is soothing, the one she’ll someday use as a doctor. “You’re going to be fine, Sage.”
I don’t care about me! How’s Nellie?! But all I can seem to croak is, “Nellie?”
Marshall’s broad forehead furrows.“What’s she saying?”
Hazel bends closer to me. “I don’t know.”
Have they moved farther away from me? My eyes close, and I can’t seem to reopen them.
Their voices, repeating my name with increasing panic, are drifting away.
Sage? Sage? Sage?
Then they’re gone.

Again, all that red stuff is where, in my hurried first draft, I originally had a form of he said or she said. Sometimes I had it in addition to the action beat ("What's she saying?" Marshall asks. His broad forehead furrows.)

It's a lot better like this, isn't it? Not only is the writing tighter without the unnecessary saids, but it opens up the opportunity to show the reader more of what's going on and to drop in on more of the POV characters thoughts.

I know you see said and retorted and questioned in a lot of bestselling books that you love. I certainly do. I'm reading the Harry Potter series right now and there are dialogue tags all through that thing.

But my challenge for you - and this is something I've challenged myself to do as I edit my current manuscript - is to examine the saids (and its various forms) in your manuscript and ask yourself is this necessary or can I show this better with an action or a thought?


Question for you guys - where are you in your writing at the moment? Tackling a first draft? Researching your setting? Final edits?

57 comments:

  1. Great post, Stephanie! And where am I in my writing? Um... planning out another idea I hope won't fizzle out. :P

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    1. Which, as all writers know, is much harder than it sounds. Good luck, Annika!

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  2. Lol, about HP, I noticed that a while ago and I know people have said it makes the audiobook sound really repetitive because Jim Dale will do an awesome job reading something, then he'll have to add something like "said Harry angrily" even though you can tell Harry is angry.

    I'm in a first draft and I'm excited because this could be the longest story I've written so far. I think it's helping that my pacing is okay-ish in this draft and I'm not rushing the whole story. (okay, I know that doesnt have much to do with action beats, but you did ask where we're at in terms of writing and I like telling people about this big accomplishment. Though my story does have a lot of action beats. :)
    Oh and your book looks good, Stephanie!

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    1. Too true, Allison. Actually, I just listened to HP 4 on audio book last week. Jim Dale is incredible and the story is incredible, but all the saids are annoying.

      Pacing is a surprisingly tricky thing to figure out! I've given up on getting it right in the first draft :( For me it happens in edits.

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  3. Awesome post, Stephanie, thank you! :) My WIP is on it's 3rd-ish draft...still editing, sadly. I'm getting closer to the end of the road, though, which is good. ;)

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    1. Olivia! Congrats on making it to the third(ish) draft! That's awesome!

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  4. I think when I first started writing, one of the first posts I read a year ago was that post. I don't think I every use dialogue tags. I don't like reading a book with a whole lot of them either.

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    1. It's so nice when the "right" way to do something happens naturally :)

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  5. Such a great post, and exactly what I needed to read. One of my favorite parts about editing is getting to rework my dialogue tags into action beats. :)
    Hehe, I also think quotation marks are cute, and I find semicolons absolutely adorable. ;)

    Btw, I loved the little bit you posted from your manuscript. Gave me chills!

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    1. Thank you Clarebear, for the compliments and the solidarity :) Semi-colons are definitely cute too. And so misunderstood, poor guys...

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  6. I'm rewriting my first draft now, changing the POVs and plot/names to make the story better. When Camp NaNoWriMo is over this month, I'll get to begin editing :D so excited! I love editing!

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    1. Me too, Sarah! I feel like I spend the first draft feeling like, "I just thought the story was going to be better than this..." And then when I start editing, I'm able to figure out how to achieve that.

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  7. I have a hard time with this sometimes, too. It can be really difficult to find other words and phrases sometimes. Thank you for this great post! It is very helpful.
    And I have never thought of quotation marks being cute before, but they kind of are adorable.

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  8. Nice post Stephanie! I personally love saying the word 'retorted', but that's just me, and I totally get how doing alot of those tags makes things sound bad.
    As far as what I'm doing, I'm working out the first draft of a story. It can hardly even be considered a first draft. More like 1/2 draft, since I'm just carrying a tablet around with me and writing everything that comes to mind. I dont even say I'm doing the first draft until I start to put things in order. :)

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    1. 1/2 draft, ha ha. That's great. Should make your first draft an easier process, though!

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  9. Love this! I realized in my first draft i used said way to much but left it because I didn't feel like thinking at that mount! I'm saying your finishing question for edits :)

    I'm in the stage of letting my first draft rest and trying to comen uo with another idea. Nothings tickling my fancy right now. Part of me just wants to have the idea pop in my head but I probably have to play with more than one a little before I feel the "I want to write this story" huh?
    And Ofcourse the ideas im most intrigued by & give me the giggles are ones I really don't think my writing is strong enough to write yet. Or I just don't have the plot yet.hmm

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    1. I'm letting my first draft rest too! Feeling kind of antsy to get into editing. It's always harder to let it sit than I remember...

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  10. I'm currently 18K into my first draft. I've been stuck here for a while...no more good ideas, yikes! ;)

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    1. Tess, I can sympathize! I've definitely been there. Happens to everyone :(

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  11. I've found, when I was writing my first novel, that using all action tags just sounded wrong. Is it wrong to use said retorted exclaimed announced, etc. or is that one of those rules that you can break? Also, is it ever possible to use too many action tags?

    I'm working on the first draft of my second novel! You said previously that your favorite part was the editing and you don't like the first draft so much, that struck me as funny because I'm exactly opposite! :D I love the first draft and don't like editing. lol

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    1. Is it wrong....? Well, that's a toughie. When I talk to agents and editors, they're pretty adamant that they don't want to see them used in excess. The occasional "she snapped" is fine, but they consider it a mark of weak writing if you're using them too much.

      That being said, I see a lot of very successful books (particularly middle grade and YA) that use dialogue tags like that.

      I think you can definitely use too many action beats, especially if you use a repetitive structure OR if you pick boring beats.

      I passed John the butter. "Words words words."
      John picked up his dinner knife. "More dialogue here."
      I spread my napkin on my lap. "Blah blah blah."

      That's no good, right? Sometimes - in a zippy conversation between 2, especially - you don't need something for each piece of dialogue because the reader understands formatting.

      Or it's great when you can work in emotions.

      John glared at me. "Words words words."
      What a liar. "More words."

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    2. "Words words words."
      That whole thing made me laugh.

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    3. "words words words" makes me want to use that as dialogue somewhere! LOL

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  12. Lydia Grace HartJune 4, 2012 at 12:57 PM

    I'm playing with the ideas. This plot just won't let me go, and I'm trying now to rationalize whether or not I can get a full book out of it. Stressin' me out just a little.

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    1. The plot having a grip on you seems like a very good sign, Lydia. When I was trying to write the synopsis for my current manuscript, there was definitely some blood and tears that went into hammering down how it was all going to work. And I think it turned out to be my fullest, "biggest" first draft. So even if it's causing some stress now, that can work out okay :)

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    2. Lydia Grace HartJune 4, 2012 at 9:26 PM

      Thanks :)

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  13. I'm on the third draft, waiting for more feedback from people. Luckily I was careful about dialogue tags when I first wrote it, so there aren't too many things like that I'm editing.It's mostly just a ton of repetitive words and phrases that keep popping up everywhere in my manuscript.

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    1. Giselle, wow, third draft! That's awesome!

      I often have to read my drafts aloud before I can really clean out the repetitive words, phrases, and structures. Even then, there are always a couple that sneak through.

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  14. One time the "said" tag is necessary: when you have more than two people in a conversation that needs to move quickly. Still shouldn't use it after every instance, of course, but that's when it's really handy. =)

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  15. Hmm. I guess this is something I'm good at without thinking about it. That's good to know :)
    And I'm only a few chapters in to my WIP.I'm still trying to see if I can write it or if it's too difficult a topic for me. If it is, I guess I'll leave it and try it again in a couple of years, but I don't want to give up on it yet.

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  16. I'm on my final edit, but you're right, I have to look at all my "saids" and take a bunch of them out. I think "said" is such a strange word, anyway. Also, quotes are pretty adorable. :D

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  17. Yeah, editing out 80% of my "said"s is going to be a third draft process for me...I don't want to take out all of them, because I want to leave some variation. I will toss in the occasional sentence that has both speech and action, like this: "Well, that would depend on whether time is absolute or relative," Jonathon said, snatching a textbook. Because my writing sounds choppy if I always have separate sentences for dialogue and action beats.

    But I am probably way over-analyzing this, especially since I'm in the first draft stage. I just hit 50,000 words the other day, and the story feels about half done to me. Now that I'm on summer vacation, I can crank out almost 2,000 words a day. :) The second draft is going to be all about content for me. The story will need some serious overhauling. :)

    Thanks for the post!

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    1. 2,000 words a day is excellent, Jessica!

      And it's definitely a "feel" thing. It's like adverbs and adjectives. You shouldn't cut them all out, but you shouldn't rely too heavily on them either.

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  18. I love that bit of your manuscript! If you don't mind my asking, what happened to your character Sage?
    I'm completely rewriting my first draft. I definitely use "said" too much, but right now I'm drastically changing the plot, so I figure I'll come back to the little stuff later.
    Thanks so much for this post!

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    1. Great thought, Margaret. That's the way I edit too - I deal with the big stuff first before all those niggling issues.

      And I don't mind at all! Sage was trying to rescue a little girl from being kidnapped and fell and clunked her head.

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    2. Yeah, otherwise you never get anywhere. :)

      That was heroic of her! I really want to read your book now. Once it's published, that is. I love the Skylar Hoyt series.

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  19. Stephanie, about what you said earlier about boring action beats (like the one about spreading butter) what are some way you could spice your action beats up? Because I feel like I tend to have boring beats a lot.

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    1. My first attempts tend to be boring too, Allison. That's because my tendency is to go for straight action beats - like "John reached for the butter."

      What I forget is that I'm not just trying to convey what the scene looks like, I want to convey what the scene looks AND FEELS like to my POV character.

      So John can still reach for the butter, but maybe instead:

      John averted his eyes and reached for the butter.
      John's cheeks reddened as he reached for the butter.
      John held my gaze as he reached for the butter.

      You can go overboard with that, of course, but I think the emotion/feel aspect is an important one to keep in mind when picking what action you portray.

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    2. Thanks, l'll take a look at my beats as I edit and see if that helps!

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  20. I love the line, "It's as if the morning fog has rolled in." The whole thing was awsome but that line stood out to me.

    I am currently in the planning stage of my novel. I am determined that this idea will become a full story. I tend to get side tracked every time a new idea pops into my head, but this time will be different.

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    1. Thank you, Julie-Anne!

      I love your determination! It's very easy to get side-tracked by new ideas, so you're certainly not alone!

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  21. I'm in the final editing stage. Actually, I'm writing a query letter. You know how I feel? Like I'm Little Me, dreaming about being an author. Only I've gone into more detail in the dream this time 'round because I didn't know what a query letter is back then. It's like something beautiful and I don't mind what I have to do because it's... what I love to do. Living what I always dreamed. For me, this is the dream coming true; writing a book. Editing. Thinking about publishing and all that. It's all beautiful.

    Thanks for this blog Steph. It's created possibilities for my childhood dream.

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    1. Oh, Emii, I've been exactly where you are! I so remember that first batch of REAL query letters that went out. It's an accomplishment - congratulations!

      And thanks for being one of our first readers! For a long time it felt like it was me, you, and Roseanna hanging out every Tuesday and Thursday :) (Or probably Wednesday and Friday for you, huh?)

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    2. And it all just feels right.

      I went back to February of 2010, scrolled through a couple of comments. Was I only thirteen? Life goes fast when you're writing stories.;)
      Wednesday and Friday... we only needed Monday and we could've pretended we were having Baby-Sitters Club meetings. :P

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  22. Wow, loved that excerpt. Sage sounds like a heroic character forced to be vulnerable...*adore*

    This is such a great post because I skip over the "saids" in books I read and appreciate it when there are few of 'em. Helps the flow and pulls me into the story, I think. I've noticed my fiction writing becoming much stronger now that I limit my use of "said" to maybe one a chapter. For the rest, it's beats. Although I can go overboard with those too. I think it was the Writer's Alley where I read one writer got a comment about all of her beats sounding like "tics." Ouch. I can swing that way if I'm not too careful. But that's what second drafts are for. :)

    And I'm only in the first draft. :)

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    1. Thanks, Rachelle! I love her too. I'm ready for her to find a home... :)

      My natural tendency is to have said in there a ton. In second grade, I showed a teacher of mine one of my stories. She told me I needed more "he said, she said" so she would know who was saying what. That REALLY stuck....

      But like you, my writing is much stronger without it. Cut, cut, cut.

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  23. This was a really great post! Interestingly enough, most of my favorite authors do not use 'said, retorted, ect,' and therefore I write without them naturally. In fact, at one time I wondered if I was making a mistake always using tag lines. I am glad to hear it is a good thing! And I am about 20,000 words into one rough draft and 40,000 into another... Trying to not get distracted with all the story ideas floating around in my head!

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    1. Emily, you must be reading some great writers! It's so important to feed your brain good writing.

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  24. Can I just say how much I absolutely love the name Desmond? :) Such a cute name and it makes my heart think of some dark mysterious handsome dude that the heroine falls for... ;) lol

    Anyway, on to what you posted about...
    This was very helpful! Thanks for posting it. I think I tend to put to much action things in there sometimes though and not enough "I said" "He said" "John Said" type of stuff.

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    1. Jazmine--I laughed when I saw you comment! I have never thought about the name Desmond like that before; it's kind of true though! Or maybe a villian name? Mayhaps not.

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    2. Isn't it a great name?! We talked about it for our son, but it was tough to wrap my mind around calling my newborn, "Desmond."

      And both of you are spot-on with the Desmond in my book - part of the time he's the dark/mysterious/handsome dude .... the other he's a villain :)

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    3. I agree! I also have a character with the name, but my Desmond is quite different; he's the cute, naive little brother of the MC that you always have to look out for and make sure he doesn't wander off and get himself in trouble. ^_^

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  25. Wait a minute. So I'm not making idiotic mistakes? I'm not doing something wrong? REALLY?
    Well, that's certainly a relief.
    I use action beats, and I use them a lot. I do use 'said', but just barely.
    Something I also DON'T do is just leave dialogue hanging in there, without any sort of tag whatsoever. Even though I know a lot of writers do it and make it work just fine (mostly in scenes where only two characters are involved) I simply can't make that work, so I avoid it. So my dialogue is always next to some sort of thought, action beat, or the occasional 'said', 'asked' or whatever else is fitting.
    As for what I'm writing, I've been working on a first draft for the past week or so, and am 30,000 words in *happy dance*. But this is only because I: signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo (so I have something pushing me to write), have had a very, very easy week at school, and because I am absolutely in love with my idea.
    I'm a slow writer – a very, very slow one. Needless to say, I feel very proud of myself at the moment :D

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  26. This is the best advice I have seen regarding this topic! Extremely helpful, especially considering that this is one of my weakest points...
    I remember in one of my first books, I thought anytime someone said anything, it had to be retorted sarcastically or answered softly or questioned incredulously (everyone in that book was incredulous about /everything/). I've gotten much better about it, and I this is going to be a great help.
    Thank you so much!! ^_^

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  27. This is sort of like deep PoV, which I'm using in my novel. It's a bit difficult to write in, but the results have been much better than in first person PoV! I love it! Your tips helped me improve on my draft, and I'll forever be thankful to you for not making me throw my notebook across the room in frustration!

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