In this section, we will examine the roll of dialogue in both show, don’t tell and characterization. You’ll discover the importance of ‘tagging’ your speech, as well as examining the use of beats.

Tagging Dialogue

When considering dialogue, many authors’ eyes will glaze over, or they panic, as memories of incomprehensible school lessons come flooding back. To help ease the pain, we will start with one of the simplest, yet most powerful, aspects of dialogue: tagging. As a self-editor this is the bread and butter of your trade. It is essential that you are able to correct alter speech.

Tagging, or attribution, is the process of telling a reader who is speaking. For example:

“Hello,” John said.

The “John said” part is the tag. This is also known as ‘attribution’, in that the dialogue is attributed to John.

The best way to consider tagging is with this one simple principle:

Tagging is about showing the reader who is speaking, and that is all. It is not about telling the reader HOW the person is speaking. This is a simple principle but incredibly powerful.

Let’s look at another example. In this one we are doing it wrong. We are not only SHOWING the reader who is speaking but also TELLING them how:

“Hello,” John growled.

In this example, John didn’t say anything; he growled it.

So, why is it so wrong to tag speech in this way?

The simplest answer is that it looks amateurish. It’s the kind of dialogue you see in a schoolkid’s textbook or from a two-bit creative writing class. If you use this type of tagging, you will be flagging yourself as a newbie author with little confidence in your ability to SHOW emotion.

There is a more complex reason too …

When you write ‘John growled’, you are TELLING the reader the way in which John is speaking. As we know, TELLING is bad. It pushes the reader onto the back foot and forces them into a passive frame of mind. The alternative is to SHOW them how the speaker is speaking. Rather than relying on tagging to TELL the reader, the author must use the context and texture of the scene to SHOW the reader. The words and actions that have come before the dialogue will SHOW the reader about John’s frame of mind and will allow the reader to adjust the dialogue within his or her mind’s eye.

So … what’s the best practice when tagging dialogue?

The answer is use SAID.

Said is a magic word. Readers are so used to seeing it that they start to ignore the word. It becomes a punctuation mark. When self-editing, never hesitate to change a tag back to said. In fact, when self-editing, you should constantly be looking for an excuse to switch back to said.

There is a side effect of this approach. When tagging dialogue with said, you can get a lot of said ping-pong action. Take this example:

“Hi,” John said.

“Hi,” Peter said.

“How are you doing?” John said.

“Good,” Peter said. “You?”

“Good. Thanks for asking,” John said.

As you see, we have lots of ‘John said’ and ‘Peter said’ occurrences. There’s actually a very simple solution to fix this. Don’t tag!

Readers aren’t stupid. If there are just two people speaking in a scene, the readers don’t need to be told time and again who is speaking. This means you can just ignore the attribution after you first identify each speaker involved.

Here’s the example from above, written with a bit of common sense:

“Hi,” John said.

“Hi,” Peter said.

“How you doing?”

“Good. You?”

“Good. Thanks for asking.”

This is the basics of writing dialogue and is the foundation from which you should build. There are also a couple additional writing habits that will bring sparkle to your writing.

The first is to consider where to add the tag. The best place is at the end of the dialogue. For example:

“Good. Thanks for asking,” John said.

Occasionally you might want to spice it up or simply produce a different tempo in a long section of dialogue. In this case, put the tag where it fits naturally. For example:

“Good,” John said. “Thanks for asking.”

However, here’s one word of warning. When moving tags from the end of the dialogue, don’t put it before the dialogue. It looks messy and marks you as an amateur. This example is just plain WRONG:

John said, “Good. Thanks for asking.”

Clarity in your writing should always be your goal, and, with this in mind, you should always stick with the attribution you set up first in your scene. If you start the scene saying, ‘the boy said’, don’t switch halfway through the scene. The ‘boy’ should not suddenly become ‘Peter’. The thinking here is that, in a real-life conversation, you would not change the way you refer to a person mid-conversation, so why do it in your novel? However, once you are out of a scene, you can change, just not within a scene. This is one of the things that you should be looking for when self-editing.

Another sign of amateur writing is the old ‘said John’ approach. This is considered by many in the know to be old-fashioned and outdated. Therefore, ‘John said’ is the way forward. After all, you would write ‘he said’, but would you write ‘said he’?

Beats in Dialogue

When applying the Show, Don’t Tell methodology, which demands that authors stop using narrative summary to pass along backstory and plot, they will find themselves naturally gravitating to dialogue. They will write more dialogue than ever before, and they will try to use this dialogue to divulge key plot elements and backstory.

This is natural.

Dialogue is the most powerful tool in the author’s tool kit. A well-written section of dialogue will push the plot forward and develop characters while dragging the reader deeper into the novel.

However, this can create problems. The renewed reliance on dialogue means that authors will find themselves writing scenes that contain much more dialogue than they would have included in the past.

Long sections of dialogue, especially between two people, can quickly become daunting for a reader. The back-and-forth creates an almost hypnotic rhythm, and the reader can miss the nuances of your writing. This can be further exaggerated when applying the only-use-said technique.

He said; she said; he said; she said. … It can soon become tiresome.

That’s where beats come into play. We’ve already touched on beats but here’s a section of dialogue which contains a beat (we’ve already seen this when talking about three-dimensional characters):

“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you?” John looked around in an exaggerated motion, before leaning in and kissing his sister on the cheek.

“You’d better open it quick. It’s not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”

Now here’s the same example without the beat:

“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you? You’d better open it quick. It’s not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”

See?

A beat is a section of action within dialogue. In the example above, John looks about and kisses his sister.

A beat dissects a section of dialogue, momentarily lifting the reader from the sequence. If used correctly, the beats will force the readers to renew their attention to the conversation, as the dialogue is stopped and started.

Beats can be used for three distinct purposes:

  1. To control pace.
  2. As a vehicle to add descriptions of people and places.
  3. As a place for characterization.
Let’s look at these in order.

Controlling pace is pretty straightforward. Sections of dialogue can skip along at a good old pace. If two characters are exchanging short sentences, pages can whip by, as the reader absorbs what is being said. The problem here is that you don’t always want the pace to be fast. Perhaps you just want the reader to pay more attention, or you are trying to balance the overall pace of a scene. It might even be that you are separating two sections of action with a section of dialogue. For the action to have true impact, it needs to be sandwiched with slower sections, the light and dark, so to speak. In these situations, beats are your friend.

When self-editing, you are always looking to control the pace. If you feel the pace of the story is too fast, then you can suggest the addition for more descritpion. If the pace is too slow, look to removing more descirption. This is an essential part to editing.

The second reason for using beats is to add descriptions. Whenever a reader comes across a new location or character, you should be adding descriptions. The problem is that you don’t want to dump long paragraphs of flowery prose. Instead, you want just enough for the reader to paint a picture in his or her mind’s eye. However, if you are dealing with a complex location or a major character, you will want to layer in additional description, a line or two at a time. This is where beats can be extremely useful. We will look at using beats for description in more detail in the next section.

The final reason is characterization. If you have developed a complex character profile, you will be well aware of a character’s internal influences. You will know in any given situation how the internal voice will influence the external words and actions. Beats are a great way to show this.

Look at the example below. We have seen this before, but let’s look at it with new eyes:

John stood in the parking lot of the pub. It was dark outside, and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the lot and made a circuit, before coming to a stop in front of John.

The driver let down the window, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights. “You order a taxi?” His voice was tinged with an Oriental accent.

“No,” John said, shuffling back slightly from the car.

The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio, speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to hear. The driver leaned over again.

“You sure, mate?”

“Yeah,” John said. “I am sure.”

“Ah …” the driver said. “Do you want a lift anyway?”

“Aren’t you supposed to only pick up planned fares?” There was a pause. “It doesn’t matter. I am waiting for my sister. She’ll be here any moment.”

“OK,” the driver said and pulled out of the parking lot.

John watched the car leave, making a mental note of the license plate number.

Here’s the same example, with the beats highlighted and explained:

John stood in the parking lot of the pub. It was dark outside, and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the lot and made a circuit, before coming to a stop in front of John. [BEAT: This is description delivered via narrative summary.]

The driver let down the window, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights. [BEAT: This is a description prior to dialogue. The dark skin SHOWING the reader that the driver is not white.] “You order a taxi?” His voice was tinged with an Oriental accent.

“No,” John said, shuffling back slightly from the car. [BEAT: Internal voice says he mistrusts Chinese people; this is reflected in his actions.]

The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio, speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to hear. The driver leaned over again. [BEAT: This is really a section of narrative summary, but, since it dissects dialogue, it is, technically, a beat.] “You sure, mate?”

“Yeah,” John said. “I am sure.”

“Ah …” the driver said. “Do you want a lift anyway?”

“Aren’t you supposed to only pick up planned fares?” There was a pause. [BEAT: Slows the pace. Also suggests John is considering his next action. It is up to the reader to decide what John is thinking.] “It doesn’t matter. I am waiting for my sister. She’ll be here any moment.”

“OK,” the driver said and pulled out of the parking lot.

John watched the car leave, making a mental note of the license plate number. [BEAT: John watches the car and makes a note. This is his backstory at work, forcing John to think the worst of the driver, who may be Chinese.]

The final thing to say about beats is for them not to be overused. Long sections of dialogue are good. You do want to create a rhythm and allow the reader to become comfortable with your writing style. Yet there should be a balance. Too many beats and the dialogue drags; not enough and it whips by. Ultimately it is your choice.