Dialogue is one of the most fun parts of a story to write. We can really get in our characters heads while writing dialogue. It’s our opportunity to let our characters speak, to share who they are.
We can also use dialogue to develop our characters not only through their words but also through their actions.
With action tags.
What, exactly, is an action tag?
An action tag is when an author uses an action rather than a speech tag like “he/she said” to let the reader know who’s speaking.
For example, when writing dialogue, I could use a speech tag (which is in bold):
“Sarah, why didn’t you text me back?” Jane asked.
Or, I could use an action tag (which is in bold):
“Sarah, why didn’t you text me back?” Jane slumped in her seat and swiped the back of her hand across her eyes which had started to water.
“Sarah, why didn’t you text me back?” Jane shook her head in disgust before slamming her phone onto the desk and glaring at Sarah.
Using a speech tag or action tag is crucial to letting the reader know that Jane is speaking, but just saying “Jane asked” or “Jane said” doesn’t add any of her emotions to what’s happening in the story.
Sure we could write “Jane yelled” or “Jane whined” but adding what she’s doing while she’s asking, yelling, or whining, helps to develop her character and also to move the story forward.
What’s wrong with ‘said’ or ‘asked’?
Nothing is wrong with using “said” or “asked.”
In fact, you should use these tags, especially when you’re writing a conversation between three or four people. They are vital for communicating who’s speaking.
Why use action tags?
Using only dialogue tags can get boring. You can use action tags to show what your characters are doing which also can show what they’re thinking and feeling.
- allow you to develop your characters and their emotions as in the above example with Sarah and Jane.
- add action (shocking, I know). By adding action, readers have a much easier time visualizing the scene which makes it so much more interesting.
- help keep you focused on the plot and what’s happening in your story which is crucial to keeping your story moving forward.
They’re also fun to write cheap wellbutrin online because you can really show your characters’ emotions through what they’re doing as well as through what they’re saying. They make you think about how to show emotions through body language and action.
Put it into Practice
Try playing with action tags in this super basic conversation that we can tweak completely by changing the action tags.
Example #1 – no action or speech tags
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Nothing, here. What about you?”
“I’m good. Thanks.”
Example #2 – action and speech tags
“Hey, what’s up?” I asked as he got close. I leaned on the lockers, trying to look casual and not actually as panicked as I felt. I’d been trying to get the courage to talk to him for weeks outside of our lab. He had to talk to me in Chem ever since we’d been assigned to be lab partners. But we’d never spoken outside of class. Till right now.
He paused slightly, looking surprised that I’d said something to him. “Nothing, here. What about you?”
“I’m good. Thanks,” I managed to choke out as he nodded and continued down the hall with his posse.
Example #3 – action and speech tags
“Hey, what’s up?” I tried not to screech as I wrapped my arms around him in a big bear hug, but I think I failed miserably judging by his wincing.
“Nothing, here,” he said, sarcasm lacing his words. “What about you?” He lifted me off my feet and twirled me around, laughing. When he set me down, I could see the grin on his face as he pointed to the call back list posted on the wall outside the drama room. I’d seen it earlier, and we’d made it. Both of us.
“I’m good. Thanks.” We stopped twirling and re-read the list, his arm draped over my shoulder.
Same dialogue but completely different emotions based on the actions following the words. This is where story happens.
Now you try it. Take the same boring basic three lines above and see how many different emotions or scenarios you can convey based solely on the action tags and internal monologue both of which will convey emotion.