Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Stage Directions, Action Beats, and Dialogue Tags, Oh My! (Lizzie)

Action beats are one of the hardest aspects of the writing craft to master, partly to due conflicting advice. Some teachers want you to be minimalists and hardly use any at all. Other teachers (and often critique partners) recommend you use them generously, seemingly as a replacement of all dialogue tags and the reader's imagination. The key, as with most things, is balance, which means understanding the principles behind the use of action beats instead of zealously following "the rules." Writing is an art, so the rules (aside from grammatical rules) really are guidelines designed to you follow the principles of good writing.
Are you over-directing your readers
with too many, too detailed action beats?
Beats, which involve description and are used with or in place of dialogue tags, are a particular thorn in my flesh and an embarrassing topic. Here's a comment given by an agent in a personalized rejection to explain:
There is a tendency to overwrite. This usually means unnecessary description and trying too hard to "write." [The agent] found a recent blog that could be helpful in one area: http://thewritepractice.com/mark-twain-dialogue-tags/
The story idea is fine. It is the execution of the chapters that sends it back for further seasoning.
Ouch. Painful, but tremendously helpful. I'd like to share with you a bit about what I've learned through my study on beats from the aforementioned blog post and Browne and King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I don't have the space or expertise to do a thorough discussion (for that I refer you to the above resources), but here is a brief discussion and checklist.

Beats are the character actions woven into a scene, what Mark Twain referred to as "stage directions." Mentions of character wiping her eyes or shifting from foot to foot, for instance, would be stage directions. Twain is rather sever on them, calling them "those artifices which authors employ to throw a kind of human naturalness around a scene and a conversation." He points out that "some authors overdo the stage directions, [and] they elaborate them quite beyond necessity." Aside from physical gestures, beats can also include short passages of interior monologue. Thus, beats serve the story by helping the readers know what the characters are doing, thinking, and feeling. Beats can also be used in place of dialogue tags to create variety (they aren't meant to completely replace them, however). The point Twain makes about beats, according to Sue Weem's post, is that the beats should serve the story (i.e., the reader) but aren't meant to replace the imagination.

When self-editing, always ask, are beats needed? Are they taking away from the reader's imagination? These points should help guide the answer to that.

1. Does the beat help set the scene or show characterization? Does it let us know the action has moved to another room, or merely that the character has looked out the window again? Does it tell us something about the character? Saying that she blows her nose on her sleeve, for instance, tells us about her upbringing.

2. Is is unique and fresh or overdone? Glances, blushing, and looking at hands are often overused. A description of every dish and every bite of food (or even more than one or two) at a dinner is too much.

3. Does it fit the rhythm of the scene? Few beats for tense scenes, more or longer beats for slower scenes. Read the scene aloud to see if the beats fit the rhythm or create unnatural pauses.

4. Does it provide hints to the readers, allowing them to use their imagination, or bombard them with details, treating them like idiots?

5. Would an easily ignored "he said," or nothing, be better if the purpose of the beat is only to let readers know who's speaking? Beats are more of an interruption than dialogue tags and should not totally replace them.

6. Is the beat written in the character's voice? Does it say something about the story world? For instance, in one of my fantasy novels the male POV character sometimes curses silently to himself "son of a rogue spell." This tells us a few things: he's irritated, he doesn't use bad words but isn't above a mild substitute, and that magic is a part of his world.

7. Is is varied in position? Beats shouldn't be always before the dialogue, nor always after or splitting the dialogue in two.

8. Does it fit the genre? Historical fiction or romance readers may want and expect more beats and descriptions that other genres. But still don't overdo it.

9. Find a book (preferably in your genre) that you particularly like and examine the beats for pacing, purpose, type, and length.

Do you have problems with beats? Is there an author who handles them particularly well?


  1. Great tips! Thanks for sharing them. I'll be using these points as I revise a short story! :-)

  2. I hope they help! Good luck on your short story. ;)

  3. Yes, thank you for posting this! I’m also working through edits, so these tips are helpful and timely.


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