Today, I welcome back, Kelsey Bryant, an accomplished author and experienced freelance proofreader and editor. Thanks, Kelsey, for sharing your tips on action beats and dialogue tags!
The Self-editing Process
We’re back at the self-editing process today. You’ve done the hard work of writing your first draft, and now it’s time to polish it! (Whether that’s easier or harder depends on your style and perspective.) This time, we’re analyzing action beats… learning what they are, how to recognize when we’ve overused them, and what to put in their place to elevate our storytelling style.
The Importance of Action Beats
Action beats are brief actions that a character does while speaking. They’re used instead of or along with a dialogue tag.
- “Don’t you like it?” She pouted.
- “She pouted” is the action beat.
➨Multi-purpose Action Beats
Action beats do a number of tasks. They:
- Show characters’ personalities and emotions.
- Reveal what a character may be really thinking or feeling—something they aren’t saying.
- Set the scene so readers can picture what’s going on.
- Propel the scene forward.
- Provide an alternative to endless dialogue tags.
- Make the scene more interesting.
➨Action Beats Require Careful Selection
Like most words in our final draft, action beats are important to select carefully. A prevalent problem I come across while editing manuscripts is overused action beats… a certain action or two gets stuck in a writer’s brain like gum on a shoe and shows up over and over in a manuscript, with multiple characters with multiple emotions in multiple situations.
As a writer, I’m no exception, and I have to self-edit them out.
Here are a few I’ve recently encountered in various books and manuscripts that were noticeably overused:
- Rolling the eyes
- Widening the eyes
- Biting the lip
- Raising the eyebrows
Overuse of Action Beats
But writers can overuse any action beat — smiling, grinning, shrugging, blinking, etc. — if we aren’t paying attention. Often, we get so wrapped up in telling the story that we overlook seemingly insignificant details like these, and for the first draft, that’s okay. But if we leave dozens of the same actions there, they become their own clichés, boring phrases that lose meaning. That in turn causes the characters to feel like clichés instead of real, breathing people. Or worse, a reader may notice how often the character blushes or rolls their eyes… and then laugh and forget to take the story seriously.
I admit it: I’ve been that reader when I’ve seen this sort of thing in published books. But that just makes me all the more determined to vary the action beats in my own stories and encourage other writers to do the same.
Recognizing a Tired Action Beat
First, how can you tell you’re overusing an action beat? I don’t know of a hard and fast rule or specific equation, but I keep a couple things in mind when looking at action beats within a single scene or page:
- Reality. Would this character realistically be winking more than once during a conversation? Some of the more frequent actions we do in real life, like smiling, would be fine to use more than once in a scene. But others that are more unusual, like winking, stand out if used more than once. So unless you’re trying to show that they have a habit of winking, I’d suggest not repeating it.
- Balance. So maybe a real person would furrow their eyebrows more than once during a conversation or scene. But pointing that out more than once may look like an odd habit on the character’s part or a lack of imagination on the author’s. If you do want repetition, you can use a word like again to show that you or your characters do, indeed, know an action is being repeated.
➨Check for Realistic Action Beats
What about across the whole of your book? Again, combine reality and balance. Having a character roll their eyes once in every scene, even if they’re an exasperated teenager, is excessive. Be creative and think of other ways to show their frustration. Also, should multiple characters all be prone to rolling their eyes, winking, or blushing? That seems unrealistic.
➨Search for Overused Action Beats
Do a search for the particular action beat you think you may be overusing and jot down the number of times you use it. Then use your best judgment to decide if it’s excessive or just right depending on the length of your book. Also pay attention to where the action beats are located… do your characters widen their eyes on three pages in a row? Remove the middle one, at least. Spreading out the same action beats disguises repetition.
Replacing a Worn-out Action Beat
Once you’ve determined you’re overusing an action, how do you pick a better alternative?
- Look it up! You can find websites with lots of ideas for different action beats with a simple internet search.
- Investigate a book like The Emotion Thesaurus*. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi created extensive lists of actions organized by the emotions that cause them. Also, check out Valerie Howard’s book Character Reactions from Head to Toe*, which organizes actions by body part.
- Plan each character’s tics and quirks. You can get more creative with gestures and habits if you know your characters better.
- Picture what you or someone you know would do. You could even act it out if you’re stuck.
- If your default is to use a particular body part to show emotion, such as eyes or eyebrows, pick a different one.
- Consider not using an action beat at all. Too many action beats clutter the page, and you could simply allow the dialogue to express emotion. A dialogue tag may be all that’s needed, or none at all if there are only two characters talking.
- Utilize the environment. Your characters aren’t standing against a white screen, are they? Give readers a sense of place by having your characters interact with their environment as they speak.
Though small, action beats are powerful tools to enhance your story and strengthen its impact on readers’ memories and imaginations. Have fun with them and give them due respect — they help dialogue bring characters to life!
Kelsey Bryant is the author of half a dozen books and an editor who’s passionate about helping other writers hone their craft and get ready to publish. When she’s not absorbed in the pages of a story, she’s living real life and pondering how to portray it in a book.
Find out more about her at her website, kelseybryantauthor.weebly.com.
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As a writer, how do you handle action beats and dialogue tags? As a reader, what are your reactions when you find overused or unrealistic action beats?
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