pleasantries of everyday communication when we write, because who really wants to read:
“Nothing much. You?”
“Eh, not much.”
Etc., etc. From there we can move onto the weather and rehashing of things that already happened. But that’s just boring for readers. So why include it? When writing dialogue, we’re seeking to convey information that moves the plot forward and/or develops characters. But in real life, much more than just words flows in a conversation. When I talk to someone, I often judge just as much by their body language as by what they’re saying. And I am usually thinking much more than what comes out of my mouth. Words, body language, and thoughts are all essential parts of dialogue.
Together, they are considered action beats. To understand them, we must first realize that dialogue tags, especially when they include something other than “said,” generally hinder your dialogue. Below is an excerpt from my book, Raiders’ Rise, that I modified by replacing most of the action beats with dialogue tags.
Zana said, “What’s that?”
“My stuff,” he replied. “I was sure it was gone.”
She dropped stiffly to her knees beside him, saying, “That’s wonderful, Gavin! A different current must have taken it.”
Grinning, he murmured in agreement and picked the bag up. “I never expected…”
“It’s important to you, then?” she said.
“It was my father’s,” he replied. “My mother gave it to me the year before I left. She just didn’t tell me what it was.”
“And you haven’t figured it out in nine years?”
He said, “Maybe it really is nothing. I just have trouble believing that. It acts too strangely sometimes.”
“What do you mean?”
He pulled the orb out of the bag. “See?”
She examined the blue-purple sphere and said, “It’s beautiful. I didn’t really look at it when I had it.”
“Yes.” His eyes widened. “But it looks frigid.”
She said, “That’s different than normal?”
“It’s usually brighter and warmer,” he said, then hesitated. “It’s almost like the river changed it.”
She asked, “Why would – how?”
“I don’t know,” he said. Now tense, he put the orb away. When Zana’s stomach growled, he grimaced. “Unless we catch some fish, I don’t know what to eat around here.”
She said, “I don’t even know what there is around here.” She squinted into the fog. “I’m not sure that I prefer this to the rain.”
He said, “Well, at least you’re not instantly soaked. Without shelter, rain would be much worse.”
“I suppose you’re right,” she responded. “But I dislike this blindness.” Then she twitched. “And it’s still wet.”
Written this way, the dialogue tags really jump out of you. And most of them are unnecessary. You don’t need “said,” “replied,” “asked,” or “responded” in order to show who said something. If you’re pointing out someone’s action, such as hesitating, like Gavin does at one point, then obviously that person is the one speaking. I don’t need to tell you he spoke and then hesitated. A mistake we can make when writing dialogue is to stop all action. But in reality, most people shift and do things while they’re talking. They play with their hands; they avoid eye contact; they don’t just sit statically. Action beats replace the need for dialogue tags by showing what the characters are doing as they speak.
Action beats also convey emotion. Unless someone is telling everything on his or her heart and has a perfect command of their language, words won’t give the whole picture. And even if a person is being completely forthright, action beats reinforce the emotion we should be feeling. This scene is written from Gavin’s perspective, and he goes through several emotions in the course of it, especially when the full scene is taken in context. Unfortunately, its was too long to include the whole thing here. When the action beats are mostly removed, you lose the sense of both his and Zana’s emotions. The factual info is told through the words, but their respective thoughts aren’t really clear. Here’s the
scene the way I wrote it:
Zana’s soft voice broke the stillness. “What’s that?”
“My stuff.” He shook his head, chuckling. “I was sure it was gone.”
She dropped stiffly to her knees beside him, a smile blooming on her lips. “That’s wonderful, Gavin!” She fingered the twine fastener. “A different current must have taken it.”
Grinning, he murmured in agreement and picked the bag up. The weight of the orb felt comfortable in his hands. “I never expected…”
She faced him, touching the round shape. “It’s important to you, then?”
He half-smiled. “It was my father’s.” As memories tugged at his mind, his expression drooped and his grip on the bag tightened. “My mother gave it to me the year before I left. She just didn’t tell me what it was.”
She raised an eyebrow. “And you haven’t figured it out in nine years?”
Pursing his lips, he cocked his head. “Maybe it really is nothing. I just have trouble believing that. It acts too strangely sometimes.”
Her gaze narrowed. “What do you mean?”
He pulled the orb out of the bag. “See?”
She examined the blue-purple sphere. “It’s beautiful. I didn’t really look at it when I had it.”
“Yes.” He stared at it. The pink highlights were unusually dim; he could barely see the others. His eyes widened. “But it looks frigid.”
She frowned. “That’s different than normal?”
He pressed harder against the surface. “It’s usually brighter and warmer.” He hesitated. “It’s almost like the river changed it.”
That makes no sense.
Her body stiffened. “Why would – how?”
He blew out forcefully. “I don’t know.” Now tense, he put the orb away. Ignore it. When Zana’s stomach growled, he grimaced. “Unless we catch some fish, I don’t know what to eat around here.”
Her laughter was nervous. “I don’t even know what there is around here.” She squinted into the fog. “I’m not sure that I prefer this to the rain.”
He smirked. “Well, at least you’re not instantly soaked. Without shelter, rain would be much worse.”
She moved her hand to her bandaged forehead. “I suppose you’re right. But I dislike this blindness.” She twitched. “And it’s still wet.”
See? This way, you can tell that Gavin’s got painful memories of his family, that he’s confused by his orb, and that he’s avoiding the possibilities. You can also see that Zana’s concerned. And I didn’t use “said” once, yet it’s easy to follow who’s speaking.
When writing dialogue, it’s important to remember the emotion of the scene and of each participant. In the above example, Gavin had just found his only possessions, which they thought had been lost, when Zana walks up. Thus, he’s initially ecstatic. Then he turns reflective. Zana, meanwhile, has just awakened and is hungry, wet, and cold. But she’s happy for Gavin and curious about his mysterious orb. Their emotions come through much more clearly with the use of action beats. Looking back through the first book I ever wrote, I cringe to see how much telling I did instead of using true action beats. For your readers to truly feel the emotion of the moment, you have to describe what it feels like. How does your character’s face react? Does he cringe when he’s hurt? Does she twitch when she’s agitated? We can’t feel that emotion unless you show it to us. I’ve found The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi to be incredibly helpful in finding unique action beats to go beyond “He smiled; she frowned.”
Another element of showing emotion is thoughts. When you’re writing from a specific character’s POV (point of view), you get to paint a more vivid picture of their emotions because you have access to their thoughts. People hold different views on whether italics should be used to set off thoughts or not. I tend to put some thoughts in italics and leave others without. It usually depends on the pacing and emotion of the scene. In this example, I played on Gavin’s lack of experience with the nobility and servants in his thoughts:
“Well, sir, the master’s brother thought it’d be better if they didn’t stand out like they do with these.” She [the maid] lifted her tunic-laden arm.
Gavin stared at her. No one ever called him “sir.” “Are Marius’ other servants coming?”
“Leiza is, sir. She’ll be here shortly. Jadon is staying near the master in case he’s needed for anything.”
“The master’s adjutant, sir.”
Gavin blinked. What was an adjutant? He chose not to ask.
She smiled slightly. “Is that all, sir? I need to take care of these.”
“Go ahead. Sorry I kept you.”
I like using someone’s thoughts as a counterpoint to their words to reveal their true feelings.
“So, do we fight them?”
What happens to me then? “Of course.”
“Will you go out with me on Friday night?”
Do you think I have no self-respect? “I’d be happy to.”
Those two examples were made up on the fly with no context whatsoever, so I don’t have answers for the inevitable questions. But, in some ways, that illustrates the beauty of this technique: someone’s thoughts and words don’t always agree, and the juxtaposition can raise questions that help propel your story forward.
I know that was a lot of prose, so let me sum up my thoughts for you in a list:
- Dialogue tags are rarely necessary.
- A conversation is never static. Show the movements of the characters who are interacting.
- Dialogue is an excellent place to convey emotion. Show, don’t tell, by describing facial expressions, gestures, and thoughts.
- Your story doesn’t stop just so your characters can talk. Weave their dialogue into the action of the story so that it flows.