Getting Dialogue Right: How to Use Dialogue Tags and Action Beats

Getting Dialogue Right: How to Use Dialogue Tags and Action Beats

Whatever type of fiction you write, you’ll almost certainly need to include some dialogue.

Even non-fiction writers may want to use dialogue occasionally (perhaps in an anecdote, or as part of an imagined conversation with a reader).

Some writers, including me, love writing dialogue and hearing their characters come alive on the page. But if letting your characters speak in your stories is a struggle for you, check out these tips on writing dialogue.

Setting out dialogue correctly, though, can be tricky — and even some experienced writers make mistakes.

While the exact layout of your words, and the difference between using a comma and a period, may seem fairly academic…correctly set-out dialogue makes your reader’s life easy.

Getting it wrong will make you look less competent, and may put readers off altogether.

The basics of using dialogue tags correctly

You’re probably getting most or all of this right already; you’ll have read plenty of dialogue, after all!

In case you need a quick refresher, though, here are the basics for using dialogue tags:

  • When a character speaks, their dialogue should be on the same line as their dialogue tag or action beat.  
  • When a different character speaks, start a new line. (It’s also often helpful to start a new line if they act or react — e.g. if they shake their head, even if they don’t actually speak.)
  • Punctuation at the end of dialogue should go before the closing quotation mark.
  • You can use single or double quotation marks (double are standard in the US, single are standard in the UK) — just be consistent!

Here’s an example of how to format dialogue, laid out on the page:

John closed the curtains. “It’s so gloomy out.”

“It’s been like that all day,” Sarah said, “and the sky’s such a weird color, too.”

What are dialogue tags and action beats?

You’re almost certainly familiar with these, and using them, even if you’ve not heard these terms before.

  • A dialogue tag looks like “Sarah said” or “he whispered”. It “tags” the dialogue to a particular character.
  • An action beat can be almost any sentence! It might be an action (“John closed the curtains”) or a thought or description.

Guidelines for using dialogue tags

When you use dialogue tags, try to:

1. Keep them unobtrusive

The dialogue itself is what’s important: The tag is just functional. In most cases, the word “said” will do just fine — don’t try to come up with lots of fancy synonyms. This is one case where repetition really doesn’t matter. Sometimes, “whispered” or “shouted” might be appropriate. For obvious reasons, avoid having character “ejaculate” a line of dialogue.

2. Use a tag whenever it’s unclear who’s speaking

While you don’t have to attribute every single line of dialogue, do err on the side of caution. Avoid dialogue that goes back and forth without any tags — it can be confusing and tiring for the reader to follow.

3. Avoid using adverbs too frequently in dialogue tags

Sometimes, an adverb might suit your meaning better than changing the verb (e.g. “he said darkly” rather than “he muttered”)… but don’t overdo it.

4. Vary where you position your dialogue tags

They can go before, during or after dialogue: Changing them around can create a more varied and interesting rhythm for your writing.

How to punctuate dialogue tags

Here’s a quick guide on punctuating dialogue.

If the tag comes before the dialogue, use a comma straight after the tag. Start the dialogue with a capital letter:

John said, “It’s so gloomy out.”

If the tag comes after the dialogue, end the dialogue with a comma, even if it’s a full sentence. The first letter of the tag should be lowercase (unless it’s a name).

“It’s so gloomy out,” he said.

If the tag comes during the dialogue, end the first part of the dialogue with a comma then have the tag as normal.

Then, if you’ve broken the dialogue during a sentence, rather than at the end of a sentence, use a comma after the tag and start the next piece of dialogue with a lowercase letter:

“It’s been like that all day,” Sarah said, “and the sky’s such a weird color, too.”

However if the first part of the dialogue was a full sentence, you should use a full stop after the tag and start the next piece of dialogue with a capital:

“It’s been like that all day,” Sarah said. “Did you hear what they were saying on the news?”

Guidelines for using action beats

Dialogue tags are handy and quick, but action beats can add much more detail and meaning to a conversation. When you’re using them, keep in mind:

  • They don’t necessarily have to involve actions! An “action beat” might be a thought or description instead.
  • An action beat can often convey the way in which a line of dialogue is spoken: For instance, if a character slams his fists on a desk before saying, “Get out of my office,” you won’t need to tell the reader he’s angry!
  • Even if the action beat doesn’t add a great deal of meaning, it may be a useful way to create a pause in dialogue — changing the rhythm of it subtly. It can also “ground” the reader in the scene (without any action beats at all, the characters can feel like disembodied talking heads).

How to punctuate action tags

Action beats are punctuated as normal, full sentences (unlike dialogue tags), so they always start with a capital letter and end with a full stop. This also affects the dialogue preceding them — in the following example, notice how that the first part of Sarah’s dialogue ends with a period, not a comma.

John walked over to the window. “It’s gloomy out.”

“It’s been like that all day.” Sarah had tried not to dwell on it, but she couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that something was terribly wrong. “Did you hear what they were saying on the news?”

Next time you write dialogue, or edit a piece you’ve already written, pay special attention to your use of dialogue tags and action beats. Are your tags unobtrusively making clear who’s speaking? Are your action beats adding variety and meaning to the scene?

If you get stuck, you might want to look at a few of your favorite books: Find a passage of dialogue and see how the author uses dialogue tags and action beats.

Hopefully this guide gets you off to a good start!

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Filed Under: Craft


  • Val Mathews says:

    Responding to KATHRYN SCHIEBER MARCH 21, 2020 AT 10:57 PM, which stated An action tag interrupting a quote mid-sentence – “I’m not sure,” John scratched his head. “whether to go tonight.” Is this correct? Normally I would use em dashes instead: “I’m not sure”–John scratched his head–“whether to go tonight.”

    Hello, Kathryn. I’m Val, an acquisition editor with The Wild Rose Press in NY and a developmental editor with The Exit 271 Studio. Your second example is correct. It shows that the action is happening at the same time as the dialogue. If you put the em-dash inside the quotation marks, then that would show the action interrupting the dialogue. This is the correct way according to The Chicago Manual of Style used by fiction publishers. However, the first example is incorrect because John scratched is head is an action beat and not a dialogue tag. Hope that helps.

  • Nathan says:

    The problem with writing is that you hear so many pieces of conflicting information. People who say, “only use ‘said'” in dialogue tags, people who say, “said is dead” and recommend using other tags. People who say all adverbs are bad, people who believe in limiting the use of them, people who argue that using adverbs enhance the story.

    Limit your words, express yourself through words, don’t use unnecessary words, all words are good, use commas sparingly, use commas with every breath — these are ALL OVER the place and NO ONE gives an accurate measure of “good writing.” I am an amateur wanting to be more professional, but finding it difficult when every website contradicts the other websites. It’s very frustrating

  • An action tag interrupting a quote mid-sentence – “I’m not sure,” John scratched his head. “whether to go tonight.”

    Is this correct? Normally I would use em dashes instead: “I’m not sure”–John scratched his head–“whether to go tonight.”

    but suppose I couldn’t?

  • D. Ann Nadeau says:

    This was helpful. Thank you.

  • This was helpful. I do reread passages in favorite books to get a sense of how the author handles dialogue.
    Great article, Ali.

  • JOHN T. SHEA says:

    Ali Luke is correct about single quotes being standard in the UK. Unless nearly all the many UK-published books in my sizeable library are exceptions.

  • Namraida Kalon says:

    How about this?

    “Leave your jacket,” I said.

    Is that wrong? I mean how about I? It should be a small letter or big letter?

  • Connie Sparrow says:

    Double quotes are standard in the UK for dialogue. Single quotes are only used in for quotes within dialogue. I’m not sure where this idea came from.

    That apart, an interesting article.

  • Helena says:

    I really enjoyed reading this piece!
    As a blogger, I rather often face up with situations when it needs to format the stuff. Especially I had troubles when wanted to embed a piece of cite into a dialog. There are different rules which describe how to do it. But I consider your way is the rightest.
    Thanks to your article I certainly now know the answers.
    Thanks a lot, Luke.

  • Tess Young says:

    If grammar was taught properly at schools, this kind of playing around with the English structure of language would not be necessary.

  • Tanya says:

    This is so important! The amount of times I’ve been thrown off by a student story in workshops due to incorrectly formatted dialogue is through the roof.
    My favorite bit of advice for people who struggle to write dialogue correctly is to remember that the dialogue tag and the actual dialogue are part of the same sentence (which is why ‘”I love this book.” He said.’ is not correct).

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