Confusing dialogue tags with action beats is one of the most common errors marking a manuscript as coming from an inexperienced writer or one who has primarily self-published to date. Knowing the difference makes you look really good as a writer, and will make any copy editor you ever work with a much happier person.
Let’s start with definitions, since most people have never even heard of a dialogue tag or an action beat.
A dialogue tag tells you how a person said something and is separated from the dialogue with a comma most of the time. It is never separated from the sentence with a period or other end punctuation, and if it follows the dialogue, it does not need to begin with a capital letter. For example:
- “This is a fine time for you to think of it,” she said.
- He said, “I haven’t been back here in five years.”
- “You couldn’t have thought of that earlier?” he asked.
An action beat tells you what a person did in close proximity to that person’s dialogue. It is always separated from the dialogue with a period or other end punctuation. It must begin with a capital letter, and if it’s surrounded with dialogue on both sides, the dialogue that follows it will also begin with a capital letter. For example:
- “I really wish you hadn’t done that.” She looked nervous.
- She glared at him. “It’ll be a cold day in hell.”
- “I don’t suppose . . . ” He shook his head, as if answering his own question. “Never mind.”
Telling the difference between the two is where a lot of writers get confused. My rule of thumb (which I heard from someone at a writing conference probably twenty years ago, and would credit if I had any idea who first said it) is the rule of “squatted.” The the word out loud: squatted. It’s a nice, simple word that is very definitely an action. You would never squat your words. So any time you’re in doubt as to whether something should be a dialogue tag or an action beat, substitute the word “squatted.”
“This is harder than it looks,” he squatted.
so this is also wrong:
“This is harder than it looks,” he sighed.
“This is harder than it looks.” He squatted.
so this is also right:
“This is harder than it looks.” He sighed.
You can only ever make a dialogue tag out of a way someone actually speaks. A person can say, ask, murmur, whisper, purr, shout, plead, growl, bark, etc. his or her words.
Watch out for words like laugh, chuckle, wheeze, sigh, gasp, choke, etc. These are all sounds we make with our throats, but they aren’t actually ways of speaking (except perhaps in the very unusual circumstances). They need to be separated out into action beats.
If you can follow this rule and correctly punctuate your sentences so that your dialogue tags don’t turn into action beats and vice versa, you will automatically look far more professional when you go to submit a manuscript.