Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Do You Use Too Many Generic Action Tags?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Rebecca Luella Miller was the first person who told me about generic action tags. And it was one of those "Ah ha!" moments for me. Many years ago, I had paid Rebecca to do a freelance edit on The New Recruit. And she said that I used a lot of generic action tags. And she underlined them all. And it was pretty embarrassing.

What's a generic action tag?

It's an action tag that comes before or after dialogue that tells the reader little or nothing of interest. For example: He shrugged. She laughed. He smiled. She sighed. She rolled her eyes. He groaned. He grinned. She scowled. He frowned.

It's not wrong to write these types of things. But using such little sentences too much makes the writing feel blah to the reader. Generic action tags don't characterize. And they tell, rather than show. My first drafts are packed with these. And I tend to fix them during the rewrite stage.

Action tags are great places to put character's actions, descriptions, character's thoughts, and infuse your character's voice into it all. Pick up some books and see how different authors do it. They'll likely all be a little different.

Here are a couple places from The New Recruit where you can see a variety of different things I tried to spice up what were once generic action tags. I've underlined the changes below. I also put notes in parentheses to explain my intention behind each one.

       Arianna forced me onto the bench beside Gabe. “Be right back.” Arianna nudged Gabe. “Make him stay.” (--This one shows Arianna's forceful personality. Her actions match her words. She's bossing people around. It's what she does.)
       “Spencer, Arianna says stay.” Gabe flashed his metal smile and looked at my shirt. “Ooh. What happened?” (--Here I remind the reader that Gabe has braces. Gabe looks at Spencer's shirt and comments on it because that's a natural reaction to the fact that Spencer is a mess, which reminds the reader what Spencer looks like, as well.)
       “Jeb Beary happened.” I flicked spaghetti off my black necktie. “I hate school uniforms.” No sign of Isabel yet. My tray looked like roadkill. I shoveled spaghetti into my mouth anyway, keeping one eye on the entrance for exotic Ee-sa-bell. (--Here we get Spencer's action to match the spaghetti mess problem. Then he's thinking about Isabel again.)
       “You normally sit with the basketball team?” Gabe asked.
       “Yeah,” I said, opening my carton of milk. (--A description of what he's doing.)
       And suddenly the goddess stood before me, giggling with Arianna. They’d come from behind me. Arianna snorted a laugh, her eyes filled with tears. But like a slow-motion scene out of a music video, Isabel tossed her hair and smiled. Her face glowed like bronze, her eyes sparked.
       “What’s so funny?” Gabe asked.
       Arianna’s expression sobered. “Do you have room for Bill and Bob?”  (--Shows Arianna's expression.)
       Isabel linked her arm with Arianna’s and murmured, “Mande? Which one is me again?”  (--Show's Isabel's movement.)
       “You’re Bob Rod, remember? I’m Bill Slo,” Arianna said.
       “Ah, si.” Isabel leaned toward Gabe and stuck out her hand adorned with glossy, claw-like fingernails edged in white. Her brown curls tumbled over her shoulder—again with the slo mo. “Me llamo Bob.”  (--This shows movement and describes Isabel through Spencer's eyes.)
       Gabe shook her hand, one eyebrow raised. “Nice to meet you, Bob.”  (--Describes Gabe and his actions.)
       I stared at her flawless cheeks as I stuck out my hand. “Spencer Garmond.” (--Describes Spencer's actions.)
       She turned her eyes on me and it felt like the heat of the bat signal. She shook my hand. “Me llamo Bob.”  (--Describes Isabel's actions and Spencer's reaction in his voice.)
       She let go all too soon, and, like a cloud crossing over the sun, the heat vanished. The girls sat across from me and Gabe. At least now, if Kip saw me, he’d understand why I ditched him. He and I had talked about the goddess before.
       Arianna leaned across the table and whispered. “We worked out undercover aliases in case we need them this summer.”  (--Describes Arianna's actions.)
       “So you came up with Bill and Bob?” I asked.
       The girls burst into hysterics again. I didn’t get it, but watching Isabel laugh was not unpleasant.
Gabe ripped off the end of his straw and blew the wrapper at Isabel. “You don’t need aliases yet, Isabel, don’t worry.”  (--Describes the action around Spencer and his thoughts.)
       “Yo sé. It’s only for playing.” She wadded his straw wrapper and flicked it back.  (--Describes Isabel's actions.)
       I wished I had a straw wrapper to flick. I must have lost mine when Jeb attacked.


       “Why do you people need an alias?” I asked Gabe. I mean, James Bond was one thing. But Biff Gar? Another thing entirely.  (--Gives the reader Spencer's thoughts.)
       “You don’t,” Gabe said. “Not until your second summer—before your first red card.” He huffed a laugh. “Bo Sto isn’t going to cut it.”  (--This is a generic action tag that I left in. Like I said, they're not wrong. You just don't want to use them often.)
       At least Gabe could see that much. “What’s a red card?”  (--Gives the reader Spencer's thought on Gabe's dialogue.)
       “An intercessor-assigned mission. That’s probably why Isabel is considering aliases. Who knows why Arianna’s doing it. She’s—”
       “You pick an alias, yet?”
       Gabe faked a cheesy smile that showed off his braces. “Maybe.”  (--Describes Gabe's actions/what he looks like, reminding the reader of his braces. I don't want to over do the braces thing. But in the beginning of the book, I'll try to remind readers a few times of a strong feature like that.)
       “I hope it’s better than Bo Sto.”
       “It is. But if I told you, I’d have to kill you, and I kinda like having you around.”
(I didn't need an action tag or said tag with every line of dialogue in this section. It's only Spencer and Gabe in the scene, so the reader knows who is talking.)

Action tags work best when they react with what's happening in the scene and reveal the character's personality.

Do you have any tricks that work for you with writing/re-writing action tags? Do you use too many generic action tags? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Those are great examples! Using less generic action tags is really something I need to work on. Once I finish my first draft, I'm sure I'll have a lot of rewriting to do. :)

  2. Yeah, I probably use to many action tags... especially this one: I sighed.

  3. I am terrible about using generic action tags. I'll have to make sure to work on that. Thanks for the post!

  4. ...Oops. Guilty. *facepalm* I learned the action beats instead of said tags pretty quickly and well...but there's always more to learn! Definitely adding this to the list for micro editing!

  5. I'm going to put this on my checklist for micro editing, because I have the feeling that I have a lot of generic action tags in my writing. Thank you for the post!

  6. I am SO bad about this, haha! Thank you for the tip and examples Jill! They really help. :)

  7. I use way too many 'generic action tags' and REALLY need to fix that! Thanks!

    Tabby (

  8. I probably DO use too many generic action tags. Ergh. Haha. Thank you for this helpful article!!!

  9. I'm very guilty of this!
    When I was editing once I found the phrase 'Lucas laughed' three times on one page. To be fair, I was very tired while writing that...

    1. That happens to me too, Kate. Another reason why the editing stage is my favorite. I know I'm making the book better catching all those things.

  10. Well, it's been a while since I commented and am now catching up since the beginning of November. Man, I missed this site, it's so refreshing to read over these posts.

    To actually get on subject, I realize generic action tags are a habit of mine. Recently I've been trying to show and not tell. It's quite different for me, but, I'm taking this seriously, because one day I do want to be published.

    Plus, I finally got a Kindle and have bought the Go Teen Writers book, except it was before it went on sale. : ( That's ok, though because I was dying for it no matter what price it was. It was the very first book I bought, too.


    1. Thanks for buying the book, MJ. We're honored to be your first ebook! And we're so glad you're back. :-)

    2. I'm glad to be back, I love GTW!! It's the best thing I could've found on the internet and that's the truth.


  11. Generic action tags? That probably describes my book in three little words. I guess I'll have quite a bit of editing to do now. :( Thanks for the post.


  12. I have problems with generic action tags, so THANK YOU. :D

  13. I had never thought about action tags (or, more specifically, using too many of them) unless this post. Thanks for pointing that out!

    1. Same here! Now when I edit I have to look out for those, too!

      Emma (

  14. I have a problem with them :/
    I can see a lot of editing ahead of me - thanks for this post!! :)

  15. Ugh, I hate myself when I type things like, 'he smiled, she smiled, he grinned, she grinned'. Most of the time I tell myself that I have to sit in that chair and write an action tag before I can get up. Sometimes it works other times I sit there for twenty minutes and still nothing has come, so I comment on it for the future. :)
    Great post, Jill, thanks so much!!

  16. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one addicted to using generic action tags! I think that it's just so easy to bang something simple out when you're trying to get your daily word count in and you don't want to slow down. I don't really intend to stop writing them. I figure if it helps me reach my word count for the day, I can fix them later. I've accepted the fact that I'll never be a writer who takes her time and writes and rewrites each sentence until she's happy with the book line by line, page by page. I write messy, then I fix it. Sounds like I'm not the only one. :-)

  17. It's actually a little bit scary how often these posts correspond to exactly what I've been wondering or thinking about at the time I read them. :) I've been writing and thinking, "Man, something about these actions just really... is bad. They're so boring, and I feel like I use the same words several times per scene or something..."
    And now I consciously know more precisely where I have been going wrong. :D

  18. Whoa! So, those are bad when you overuse them? Huh. Well, I definitely overuse them. My first drafts are loaded with those. But sometimes I don't know what else to write OTHER THAN that! Any suggestions?

  19. I admit that I do have problems with generic action tags as well and here is one way that I try to keep from using generic action tags. I describe the tone that is in the speaker's voice. Tones often show how whether the character is irritated, happy, or extremely sarcastic.