This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Method of Using Tags & Beats in Writing Fiction

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor 

When writing dialogue, you must be careful to make it appear realistic. It shouldn’t be too stilted and grammatically correct, or too accurate that it includes all the “um’s” we use when speaking.

Dialogue should be used to:
Move the plot forward or increase pacing
Reveal characterization
Reveal motivation
Break up monotonous narrative

A tag is used in a line of dialogue to clarify who is speaking or who is taking action while speaking. There are generally two types of tags:

1. Speaker Attribution Tag – Used to clarify who is speaking. This is most useful when you have more than two people in a scene. Pronouns do not help much when the reader doesn’t know which he or she is speaking.

Examples of Speaker Attribution Tags:
“I’m heading over to Martha’s for a picnic. Wanna come?” she asked.
“Take your hands off me,” she said.

Years ago it was a good thing to use substitute words for said so it wouldn’t be overused. Now it is frowned upon to use too many substitute words for said. Most editors and established authors now caution writers not to overuse tags and to rewrite their dialogue to include more beats.

Substitutes for said include: replied, cried, howled, bellowed, whispered, stated, replied, voiced, expressed, vented, responded, uttered, shouted, vocalized, asserted, declared.

Sometimes how a character says something is more important than what is said, and you can’t tell the difference from anything else other than a tag. For instance, you know someone might have yelled or demanded something if you use an exclamation point. But how would you know if a character said something or whispered it? There are times when it is important to use a substitute word for said, but use them sparingly.

2. Action Tags or Beats – Used to clarify who is speaking when someone is taking action while speaking. This is a great method to use whenever you want to keep a scene moving, or breakup long paragraphs of dialogue. You may have a scene where everyone is sitting around talking and the most important thing taking place is the conversation, but you don’t want people just sitting there. Have them pour tea, or walk over to the window, or swat at a fly. Don’t bore the read with “small talk”. Have your characters do something.

Examples of Action Tags or Beats:
She glared at him, saying, “let me go.”
“Don’t do it.” Brad raised his gun. “I’ll fill you with more holes than you can count.”
“Hey, where’s that smile?” Michael touched the tip of her nose and winked.


Jenn, Great post. Tags and beats are always important when writing a story. I'm always using tags. I really have to remember about using action with the dialogue to know who's speaking.