by Iola Goulton

My previous post looked at how to correctly punctuate dialogue in fiction. Today I’m going into more detail about alternatives to dialogue tags. There are three main alternatives to dialogue tags: 

  • Action Beats
  • Body Language
  • Interior Monologue

Action Beats

Action beats are small actions performed by the speaker. They are used to identify the speaker and provide the reader with an image to help them visualize the scene. For example:

“I’m sorry.” Anne hung her head.

“Hung her head” is an overused action, a cliché. Wherever possible, avoid overused action beats (e.g. shrug, smile, or nod). Instead, find an original way to show the action or emotion.

For example:

“I’m sorry.” Anne opened a packet of chocolate chip cookies and threw them on the plate in front of Beth.

Action beats follow the dialogue in the same paragraph, which means they are an effective way of showing who is speaking. In the paragraph above, Anne is clearly the speaker. If the action beat was on a different line, it would imply one character spoke, and another performed the action. Like this:

“I’m sorry.” 

Anne opened a packet of chocolate chip cookies and threw them on the plate in front of Beth.

This implies Beth spoke (assuming there are only two people in the room).

Body Language

Body language is a movement or reaction that is observed by the point of view character. It can be used to show emotion and subtext.

“I’m sorry.” Anne ripped open a packet of chocolate chip cookies, threw them on the plate, and shoved the plate in front of Beth with all the grace of a prison warden working on death row. 

Note that body language and dialogue cues are usually observed by the point of view character. In this example, we can assume Beth is the point of view character—it’s unlikely Anne considers herself akin to a prison warden. If Anne is the point of view character, interior monologue might be the better choice.

Interior Monologue 

If the point of view character is speaking, then we can combine an action beat with a line of interior monologue that shows how the character is feeling.

“I’m sorry.” And the earth was flat. Anne emptied a packet of chocolate cookies onto a plate, and shoved them at Beth. Some were little more than crumbs. Good. Beth should count herself lucky she was being offered anything after what she’d done.

Punctuation is the same for action beats, body language, and interior monologue. The dialogue ends with a period, a question mark, or an exclamation mark. It does not end with a comma—as we discussed in my previous post, commas are only used with dialogue tags (e.g. Anne said).

It’s easy to ensure you punctuate dialogue correctly, and makes your manuscript look more polished and professional.

Iola Goulton is a New Zealand-based freelance editor specializingin Christian fiction for adults and young adults. Iola holds a degree in marketing and has a background in human resource consulting. She has been editing since 2012, and is a member of the Christian PEN, American Christian Fiction Writers, Omega Writers, and Romance Writers of New Zealand.

When she’s not working, Iola is usually reading, writing her next book review, or avoiding working on her first novel. Iola lives in the beautiful Bay of Plenty in New Zealand with her husband, two teenagers, and one cat.