By Andrea Merrell
Dialogue can make or break a story—too much, too little, too stilted, or too corny.
When we read, we want to see the characters interacting with each other. We want to know what’s going on in the scene and/or what the POV character is thinking or feeling. The communication should be real and flow in such a way that we get pulled into the story.
The role of speaker tags and beats is to enhance your dialogue. Let’s look at the difference.
A speaker tag shows the speaker’s name and a speech-related verb (said, asked, shouted). This is generally the best way to show which of your characters is speaking, but sometimes we tend to overuse tags. They’re not necessary each time someone speaks, especially in a long section of dialogue.
“That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing,” Wendy said.
“Thank you so much,” Beverly replied.
“Where did you get it?” Wendy asked.
“It came from Dillard’s,” Beverly answered.
“Oh, that’s my favorite department store,” Wendy said.
Do you see how annoying—and boring—that is? Let’s try it again adding beats.
A speaker beat is the action that accompanies what the speaker is saying. It also indicates to the reader who is doing the speaking.
“That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing,” Wendy said, wishing she had worn something besides jeans to the party.
Beverly’s face lit up. “Thank you so much.”
“Where did you get it?” Wendy hoped she wasn’t being too forward.
“It came from Dillard’s.”
“Oh, that’s my favorite department store.”
“Mine too.” Beverly lowered her voice to a whisper. “Especially when they’re having a big sale. I got this for only twenty dollars.
Just like speaker tags, don’t overuse beats. Too many will interrupt the flow of dialogue. They’re not necessary every time, but they work well to help set the scene when used correctly. You can use them at the beginning or end of the dialogue. You can also break up the dialogue by inserting a beat in the middle. Mix it up.
Side Note: This is a common error when using speaker tags: “That’s a pretty scrawny dog,” Jim laughed. Since Jim can’t laugh at that comment, the proper way would be: “That’s a pretty scrawny dog.” Jim laughed. This now becomes a speaker beat instead of a tag.
Create a small section of dialogue and play around with tags and beats.
Photo 1: Image courtesy of Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Photo 2: Image courtesy of BRRT from Pixabay
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