Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tags and Beats. Huh?

     Dialogue is a vital part of most stories. Whether it brings the story to life or bores readers half to death is dependent on how the writer handles it. Done well, it fleshes out the characters and advances the storyline. Done poorly, it falls flat.
     Naturally, there's a lot of territory to cover when it comes to dialogue, and we'll get to those areas another day, but for now, let's limit this discussion to speech tags and action beats. What the heck are those? They're those nifty little "identifiers" found outside the quotation marks that help the reader keep track of who's saying what. They serve the same basic purpose but in different ways.
     Speech tags are brief and to the point--he said/she said, and the like, being examples of the most common and unobtrusive, which is their claim to fame.
     Action beats identify the speakers by describing non-verbal communication taking place during the dialogue exchange. In addition, when done right, beats help set the scene--a definite plus.
     It sounds simple, but either can go seriously wrong as in the following sample.

     "Ron!" Clay shouted loudly. "Where do you think you're going?"
     "To Dave's place," he grumbled. "I'll be back in an hour."
     Clay looked at his stepson. "You're not going anywhere until you mow the lawn," he snapped angrily.
     Ron shook his head. "The grass can't wait an hour?" he asked defiantly.
     Clay's arms were crossed. "You can get away with that crap with your mother, but not with me."

     Look at the verbs used in place of "said." While an occasional variation may liven up a scene, in general, they're better saved for action rather than speech tags. They sap the strength of the dialogue and do nothing to help the reader visualize the scene. In fact, in the case of a conversation involving only two people, speech tags can often be eliminated without causing any confusion at all.
     Check the adverbs in the sample's speech tags. They weaken the dialogue. The emotion should come through in the character's words and actions, not in an explanation. It's the age-old case of "show, don't tell."
     Beats require careful use as well. If they're used randomly and without purpose, they're a waste of time and ink, not to mention being a source of irritation. On the other hand, when action beats are used to complement and strengthen the dialogue, they become the writer's ally. A word of caution. Focus on the most important actions in the scene. Don't flood your prose with shrugs, smiles, and other generic actions that don't enhance the scene.
     Here's a revised version of the conversation with improved tags and beats:
     "Ron! Where do you think you're going?" 
     "To Dave's place. I'll be back in an hour." Eyes diverted, he chanced a step toward the door.    
     Clay placed himself between his stepson and the exit. "You're not going anywhere until you mow the lawn."
     "The grass can't wait an hour?" His hands fisted at his side.     
     "You can get away with that crap with your mother," Clay said, "but not with me."
     In an excerpt as short as this, you might even expect to find fewer beats and tags, but it should give some idea of how dialogue can be enhanced rather than encumbered by action beats and speech tags.
     Well, I'm off to make sure I've followed my own advice. Happy 4th of July, everyone, whatever country you call home.




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