By: A. Beckert
Creating rich dialogue requires a variety of tools. Action tags and beats turn dialogue from a flat exchange into a multi-sensory experience. They incorporate the wide range of human communication by allowing for nonverbal cues, sensory detail, and indirect characterization during a verbal exchange.
Often defining a tool is easier when you point out its context. An action tag belongs to the tool group of dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are used to supply necessary information about the line of dialogue, including who said it, why it was said, how it was said, and sometimes to whom it was said. These make up for the particular challenge of not actually seeing the exchange, which would instantly convey these crucial contextual details.
Descriptive tags are an expanded dialogue tag. The go-to simple tag is “he said”/”she said”. A descriptive tag adds some descriptive information, like an adverb (“…,” he said icily.) or a descriptive phrase (“…,” he said, his expression distant.). This tag can also describe something about the setting for the interaction, or some other enlightening detail.
Action tags expand the dialogue with movement, action, or demonstrative behavior. Swapping description for action boosts the “show” factor, reducing incidents of simply “telling” a character’s emotion. Consider how different emotions or internal processes look from the outside. These often come up as action tags:
“…,” he said, picking at a scratch on the table.
“…,” she said, looking him up and down with a sour curl in her frown.
“…,” he sang, rising up on his toes at the high note.
Unique actions by a character turn these visual communication cues into valuable characterization tools too. People have certain ticks, habits, or preferences. What you show your character doing contributes to a cumulative picture of who they are. A character who drums their fingers when happy, swipes on their phone screen like slashing with a sword, or doodles on legal documents has more color than characters who simply nod, grimace, or smile when they speak. Get creative.
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