Give Me A Beat: Finding A Balance That Works
At this point we all know Stephen King’s golden rule, “while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine,” but how many of us actually use it (King, 128)? Not even “the king” used it in his 1986 novel, IT. The use of adverbs in the text was so overwhelming, I tapped out less than a quarter of the way through. However, I hold no grudges and shan’t dare to point fingers. This is the writing process. We make mistakes, we grow in our craft, and then we tell others they shouldn’t make the same mistakes we have in their work. Hence, why I’m telling you today that sometimes a beat is better than a tag.
The first time another writer said the word “beat” to me was in 2014. I was in a critique group with a hodgepodge of writers. One wrote women’s fiction, two of us were writing historical fiction, one was writing inspirational fiction, and one was writing her second mystery novel. The mystery writer was the most experienced amongst us, having won a St. Martin’s Press prize the year before and having previously been published in both the true crime genre and inspirational. Needless to say, I looked up to this writer bigtime. We all did. These meetings were totally old school. Printed submissions were handed out to each member every month and the next month we returned to discuss the submission, critique notes handwritten in red (GAH!) on our once pristine pages. Okay, not everyone used red. You get my point. Flipping through the critique from my mystery writing pal, two words stood out to me: beat here.
I stared at the words for a few minutes. The implication was clear, but I’d never considered using something before dialogue and nothing after. Is that what the great writers did? Certainly not the ones from the 1990s, and most assuredly not the ones from the 1950s and before. I had a serious thing for mid-century writing at the time. Needless to say, there were a lot of adverbs, my friends. I didn’t know it at that moment, but those two words would change everything for me. Yes, sometimes to write he said or she said is divine, but other times it’s even more powerful to leave them out altogether. In fact, there are some writers that believe you shouldn’t use end tags at all. I’m not completely on board with that. I enjoy Cormac McCarthy but trying to acclimate myself to no quotations and very few dialogue tags in The Road was an exercise in patience. I’m not team “no tags” but I’m absolutely team “use them sparingly”.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of which is better to use, let’s talk a little about what they are. A dialogue tag is that delightful little indicator at the end of dialogue that lets you know who’s speaking. “What did you think of the concert?” Emily asked. Some people believe the end tag for this particular piece of dialogue would be redundant because the question mark indicates that a question has been asked. However, there’s a little problem of identifying the speaker without it. This is where a beat can be super helpful. Often called action beats or story beats, they are descriptions used before, between, and after dialogue that provide movement to a conversation. We don’t sit still when we’re talking to friends, and we’re especially not stoic during an argument or high stress time, so dialogue – in order to remain true to life – shouldn’t be either. To quote Noah Lukeman, “Characters are not to be quoted, but to speak for themselves” (Lukeman 80). Yes, it is divine to write he said or she said, but it is glorious to show their actions instead.
There are plenty of arguments for the use of story beats. Personally, I think they make a story flow better. This isn’t to say that dialogue tags should never be used. I mentioned my trouble with The Road, right? And McCarthy used about a handful of them in the narrative. No tags is a very stylized choice and it isn’t for every reader. I prefer a tag to no tag, but something tells me that the father/son post-apocalyptic story wouldn’t have had the same impact if I’d been reading he said, she said after every bit of dialogue. Let’s look at this passage from Mary Ellen Taylor’s Winter Cottage:
He lowered his head and cleared his throat. “I went to sea right away. I’ve not been back much since.”
“We needed you.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “You were best to live somewhere else. There was no life here without your mother. I wasn’t enough.”
“You were.” (179).
From this passage we know an estranged father is speaking to his child, we know the child must be older now, possibly an adult, and we know this moment is fraught with tension. It’s evident in the way he lowers his head, clears his throat, and shoves his hands in his pockets, and it’s more than evident by the pleading in his child’s short, impactful statements. Would this passage have the same affect if each piece of dialogue was followed by he said or she said? I don’t think so.
Story beats give our characters a chance to move while they’re talking. They can shift, roll their eyes, roll out dough for the pie they’re going to make, whatever, and we – the readers – get to experience those movements with them. This, I think, is why so many of us prefer beats to end tags. Yes, you can still have that movement after a dialogue tag, but as Brian Shawver points out, “[w]e can only handle so much of he said, turning to the senorita and cackling in that distinctive way of his before we see the prose as mannered or repetitive” (Shawver 35). Your characters and their situations are supposed to feel real to the reader. They should see the scene playing out before them and a scene without movement won’t be jumping from any page.
I’m not trying to be down on dialogue tags. Every writer should use them. Seriously. But they should be used sparingly. Especially those nifty little additions new (and seasoned) authors like to use. You know what I’m talking about. Yes, those pesky adverbs! What did “the king” say about them? Oh yes, to write them is only human. In The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. calls the use of adverbs “cluttery and annoying,” and goes on to say “inexperienced writers […] do this, apparently in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing” (Strunk 75). Ouch. He’s not wrong. Take a look at these pieces of dialogue:
“Do you understand me?” Olivia asked questioningly.
The addition of questioningly to the end tag is wrong for so many reasons, the first of which is that it is redundant. To say someone asked something questioningly after using a question mark in dialogue is a lot like saying someone shouted after using an exclamation point in dialogue. We know, we know. Not to mention the fact that in this particular instance we’ve driven home the fact that Olivia asked three different times, once with the question mark, once by using asked, and finally by adding questioningly. If that isn’t repetitive, I don’t know what is.
“How could you do such a thing,” John scolded angrily.
“Because it’s my life and I’ll live it as I please!” Pepper retorted.
The use of scolded and angrily in the same tag is also redundant. People don’t ordinarily scold someone when they’re happy. The use of the word scolded would be more than enough if we were okay using the end tag, but as Allison Amend warns, “It can be dangerous to veer too far from the said paradigm. It’s tempting to […] have your characters utter, express, state, announce [etc.], but overuse will provide a trampoline effect, making it seem as though all of your characters are springing five feet in the air when they speak” (Gotham 134). With that piece of advice in mind, I think using a story beat during an argument is much more compelling than using end tags, and they also keep the scene moving in a more fluid way.
In the first example the repetition of the end tag can be eliminated with the use of a story beat.
Olivia dropped her head to the side, brows knitting together. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
We can see Olivia’s trepidation in the way that she drops her head to the side and knits her brows together. We know she’s silently urging them to get what she’s saying.
How about that second example:
John’s eyes were ablaze, his lips trembling. “How could you do such a thing!”
Equally ablaze, Pepper met his glare, jaw clenched. “Because it’s my life and I’ll live it as I please!”
I’m not a huge fan of using too many exclamation points in a narrative. Too many and it seems like your characters are in a perpetual state of excitement or befuddlement. But here, in this highly emotional moment, it stands to reason that both characters will be shouting. Remember, when it comes to highly dramatic instances in your narrative, less is more. If there’s a tragedy or fight in every scene your readers may become overwhelmed and too exhausted to keep reading. In addition to that, too many highly dramatic outbursts by your main character(s) may signal that they are underdeveloped and need to be fleshed out a bit more. As the queen of shallow, one-dimensional characters, trust me on this. Thank goodness for multiple drafts!
If story beats aren’t your thing there’s no need to despair, no one says you have to use them. I mean, it would be beneficial, but using end tags won’t kill your narrative, just like the occasional tell won’t. The thing to remember is that these elements should be used with a delicate balance. Too many instances of he said/she said in your narrative will become just as distracting as too many unnecessary adverbs. Find your balance, writers, and you’ll find your readers. At least I hope so, for my own sake if nothing else.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2000.
Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages. Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Shawver, Brian. The Language of Fiction: A Writer’s Stylebook. Hanover & London, 2013.
Strunk, William & White, E. B. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. Longman, 2000.
Steele, Alexander. Gotham Writers' Workshop: Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School. Bloomsbury, 2003.
Taylor, Mary Ellen. Winter Cottage. Montlake Romance, 2018
Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Writer’s Digest Books, 2011.
Oliver, Laura. The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers. Alpha, 2011
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage International, 2006.