Concrete Detail

Erika Hayes, Author – Write like a reader, read like a writer and edit like a beast!

images (1)Speech tags and action beats are the topics of the day.  They go hand in hand in building better dialogue.

Let’s start with what a speech tag is before we go any further.  Simply, a speech tag tells the reader who is speaking.


“That makes sense.” She said. <– speech tag. (also known as speaker tags)

Like most things in writing, it’s something that can be abused. When writing dialogue, it is not necessary to put a speech tag after every line of dialogue.  Imagine if you were reading a book and this is how it looked.


“She’s a real beauty,” he said.

“No doubt about that.  I’d like to take her for a test drive,” she said.

“That can be arranged,” he said.

“Let’s do it,” she said.            zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (sorry I fell asleep.)

This book would definitely be less than desirable.  If you only have two speakers you can have very few speech tags once the characters are established. Remember, trust your reader’s imagination and intelligence.  With more than two speakers in the dialogue, you may need to change up the speech tags to randomly identify the speakers, it is also helpful to add action beats in your dialogue.  An action beat is simply adding a description of the actions that go along with the character’s dialogue.


“She is a real beauty,” he said running a hand over the hood of the car.

“No doubt about that.  I’d like to take her for a test drive,” she said.

“That can be arranged.”

“Let’s do it.”

Next up, may seem tough for writers.

USE VERBS AND MODIFIERS sparingly.  Yes, I said it!  (ha).  The speech tag “said” is the most common (and for good reason) tag available to writers.  It is nearly invisible and allows your dialogue to do the work of revealing the action.  When we tag speech that changes and adds modifiers it may look like this “This is perfect, I knew it was going to go down like this,” she whined nervously.  As a writer, we are telling not showing.  If I use an action beat I am showing.


“This is perfect, I knew it go down like this,” she whined nervously.

“You still have a chance, to tell the truth,” he said.

“I am telling the truth,” she shouted.

“Sure you are, that’s why we found the knife in your car,” he barked accusingly.


“This is perfect,” Sarah bit at her fingernail, “I knew it would go down like this.”

“You still have a chance, to tell the truth,” he said.

“I am telling the truth.”

“Sure you are, that’s why the knife was found in your car.”

In the edit, I used the action beat here to:

  1. show her nervousness. This eliminated the need for the word “nervously”
  2. I built a small amount of tension in my dialogue as well.
  3. The final lines of dialogue don’t need speech tags, the lack of them speed up the dialogue again and give a sense of energy to the scene.

Using different verbs and modifiers is acceptable, we just want to be sure these verbs and modifiers are not making us lazy writers.  It is easy to use the speech tags to “tell” our readers what the character is feeling instead of allowing them to feel it with our characters!

Final thoughts on action beats in dialogue

  1. The use of action beats may create repetition if combined with speech tags.  It is often best to use a speech tag or an action beat.  An action beat can include the name of the character for clarity as seen in the above edit.
  2. Action beats in dialogue should not be very long.  It causes the reader to fall out of the conversation.
  3.  Don’t add action beats in every line of dialogue.  This interrupts your dialogue and will make your writing choppy and hard to read.
  4. Don’t add action beats for the sole purpose of identifying your speaker.  It will cause you to use the character’s name often and much to the annoyance of your reader.  If you can’t follow along in the dialogue you have written, then you may need to reconstruct to make it clear to the reader.

Look at these action beats in the middle of dialogue.

  (FYI: It hurt to write this.)

“This is perfect,” Sarah bit at her fingernail, “I knew it would go down like this.”

“You still have a chance,” Mike moved around the table,” to tell the truth.”

“I am,” Sarah frowned, “telling the truth.”

“Sure you are,” Mike laughed then stood back up and moved around to his seat again, “that’s why we found the knife in your car.”

These are just a few things that will help you strengthen your dialogue between your characters and give you a much more professional look to your piece.





3 thoughts on “Tag, You’re It!

  1. David Hayes says:

    Agreed too much of the “he said she said” stuff is annoying when reading but you need some of it or I get lost when reading. Great job on helping clarify this as it will be something I will look for when reading now.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

  3. Great stuff! Especially the overuse of verbs and modifiers. If the dialogue is punchy enough, their use is almost non-existent. The old “show don’t tell” rule.

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