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Thread: On the abuse of action tags

  1. #1
    independent claws blackcat777's Avatar
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    On the abuse of action tags

    How do you determine the sweet spot for action tags?

    When do you personally like to use them and think they are most effective? When is nodding etc. appropriate, when does it truly serve that narrative?

    What are the instances in which you feel action tags could be replaced?

    "I just love them." Blackcat picked her nose. "I love what they do for rhythm and how they break up the dialogue." She glanced at her finger, lip curling with disgust. "But sometimes I suspect I abuse them." She wiped her finger against the wall. "Like I abuse entire bars of chocolate and my fiancee's ears with Billy Talent." She swiped fingers through her hair. "I want to stop, but I don't know how." She chewed her nail. "How can I determine what is pertinent and what's gratuitous?"

    Only one thing was certain: Blackcat knew she didn't used to have this problem.
    I don't like WALLS OF DIALOGUE. Said is necessary sometimes, but I'm not overly fond of it.

    I DO like to see what my characters are doing. Sometimes tags are useful to identify the speaker.

    I'm pondering swapping out some of my tags with more internal dialogue?

    Another thing I find myself doing sometimes is telling two stories at once: body language, actions, and unspoken things running at the physical level, with dialogue being a completely separate and different layer. I also tend to add more internal thoughts on subsequent editing passes.

    If I have ten minutes to write, I'm going to scratch down a conversation without tags, thoughts, or description, and come back to all those other layers later. I tend to think about these things in layers, when maybe I didn't used to...

    Sometimes I feel like I have to go tag happy to slog through and figure out what I want when I'm in the early stages of draft. Same thing with infodumping--I will never KEEP an infodump, but sometimes I just have to spew it out to think about how to shape it. I think I also action dump.

    I would love to hear everyone else's thoughts about achieving the perfect balance of dialogue, thoughts, and tags! Thanks.

  2. #2
    Moderator AW Moderator Maryn's Avatar
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    I try to limit actions in lieu of tags to those that contribute to the story or establish character. Nodding, smiling, and such don't do that very often. That's something I often end up deleting a lot of when I revise.

    My favorite actions are more telling. A character cleaning his fingernails with a knife, a woman layering on a ridiculous amount of eye makeup, or a teenager cutting up green beans but rejecting nearly half of them tells the reader a good bit about that character.

    I learned this from screenwriters, actually. Give everybody in the scene something to do besides deliver dialogue.

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  3. #3
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    Hi,

    I really dislike long sequences of short dialogue, and often reach for some action tags to add length and depth. I read elsewhere on the web an interesting idea: The action between utterances gives the reader time to process the dialogue. Sort of: Your eyes can scan a dialogue more quickly than your brain understands it, so the narration between is important and action tags can do this (as well as set scene). I think that's right.

    I dislike Betty said, and Henry said, ... especially before I know the characters. Later on, they are less jarring, but early, I don't know who these people are yet.

    I like the dialogues with only one woman or man, so that I can use (s)he said.

    Since you asked: I just picked a random page to see what balance I've been using. I see 2 unattributed utterances, 5 attributed through action, and 6 attributed by name. There is narration scattered throughout. No internal thoughts on this page.

    I do use internal thoughts periodically, more when characters are alone or with someone they need to hide something from. I have been overusing internal thoughts, but not too much. I'm pruning some out now.

    I would add too that as I am working through my hard copy, I noticed that sometimes my brain needs to go back and forth between two concepts within one paragraph and it is tiring. Collapsing the actions and utterances together (not completely, but somewhat and appropriately) helps make the flow easier as I am reading what I wrote. Your interesting paragraph above could be written to have several pieces of dialogue within them that could be collapsed. Also, I start with an action tag if the dialog is just getting underway, and then depending if I want the response to be immediate or not determines how the other person is tagged.

    I know you didn't ask for a critique, and that it was silly to begin with, but e.g.:

    Blackcat picked her nose. "I just love them. I love what they do for rhythm and how they break up the dialogue." She glanced at her finger, lip curling with disgust. She wiped her finger against the wall. "But sometimes I suspect I abuse them. Like I abuse entire bars of chocolate and my fiancee's ears with Billy Talent." She swiped fingers through her hair, then chewed her nail. "I want to stop, but I don't know how. How can I determine what is pertinent and what's gratuitous?"
    The next person would start with a tag if that person needed time to think about all that nose-picking, or else would dive right in if they didn't, e.g.:

    The AW admin reread the post a second time, and then a third. "Blackcat, please review the rules before posting personal grooming habits on our fora."
    vs:

    "Thank God we've met, Blackcat." Patty was scratching her armpit. "I have the same questions. I mean, I know it's about rhythm, but what if what makes sense to me sounds juvenile to someone else?" She smelled her fingers, and made a face. "There's lots to figure out with the writing thing."
    (Last thing, I also dislike nodding and smiling and looking.)
    Last edited by Patty; 01-08-2018 at 02:05 AM.
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  4. #4
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    So I use action tags to distinguish speakers in a long dialog exchange or when there are multiple speakers. Or when I need to insert a very specific action into the middle of a longer passage of one person's dialog/monologue.

    If the speakers are different genders I'm more likely to use s/he said than Cat said. But I have a few projects where the pronouns are all the same so something has to be done to keep that straight.

    In general I prefer action tags to said tags, but sometimes it depends on the POV character or the general tone of the story/narration. I don't like breaking up actions into as many parts as you did in your example unless they are things that need to feel like they are being separated by a stretch of time (even if it's only a second or two). Something like loading and cocking a gun, however, would need to feel like it wasn't instantaneous (unless it magically was) so I might break it across lines of dialog. Or internal monologue/narrative.

    Sometimes it takes some trial and error to get it right, but that's why we have multiple revisions.
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  5. #5
    practical experience, FTW indianroads's Avatar
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    I'm more likely to use an action tag when I want to communicate the emotion of the speaker.

    "I really hate this," he said.

    "I really hate this." He shook his head.

  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW MaeZe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maryn View Post
    I try to limit actions in lieu of tags to those that contribute to the story or establish character. Nodding, smiling, and such don't do that very often. That's something I often end up deleting a lot of when I revise.

    My favorite actions are more telling. A character cleaning his fingernails with a knife, a woman layering on a ridiculous amount of eye makeup, or a teenager cutting up green beans but rejecting nearly half of them tells the reader a good bit about that character.

    I learned this from screenwriters, actually. Give everybody in the scene something to do besides deliver dialogue.

    Maryn, cleaning her nails with a machete and whistling
    Thanks for this timely suggestion. I'm currently editing, trying to find something better than my characters rolling their eyes a dozen times.

    I've also read adding a nervous tic for a character is useful. For example, a character can turn the wedding ring on his finger subconsciously.

    MaeZe who wishes her creativity came more easily

  7. #7
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    I was gonna say they can't be overused, but yeah, that was abuse. The action tag should show something about the mental state of the speaker. Not "leaned against a wall".

    Quote Originally Posted by blackcat777 View Post
    I'm pondering swapping out some of my tags with more internal dialogue?
    Yes, this is the next level of evolution.

  8. #8
    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maryn View Post
    I try to limit actions in lieu of tags to those that contribute to the story or establish character. Nodding, smiling, and such don't do that very often. That's something I often end up deleting a lot of when I revise.

    My favorite actions are more telling. A character cleaning his fingernails with a knife, a woman layering on a ridiculous amount of eye makeup, or a teenager cutting up green beans but rejecting nearly half of them tells the reader a good bit about that character.
    This is a great way to put it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Here (slightly edited) is something I said recently on a different thread:

    Quote Originally Posted by me
    I can replace them with a more meaningful beat, such as a relevant thought, or some kind of interaction with the outside world that helps set the scene. That lets me save the lighting of cigarettes and downing of drinks for where they can actually perform a function. I mean, they are marginally useful for reminding the reader that the story is not set in the present, but even then, they still must be used judiciously. For example, when a pregnant character sets down her bourbon to light a cigarette - perhaps that has some impact.

    I recommend picking up some of your favorite scenes from your favorite books and examining how the authors handle dialogue. How often to they use dialog tags? How often do they use action beats to indicate who is speaking or to break up a block of dialogue? And when they do use beats, what do the beats consist of? What are their characters doing besides furrowing their brows and lighting cigarettes?

    I just did this yesterday, with one particular scene in the book that started me off on this whole attempt at writing one of my own, and I found that the POV character has few action tags - her tags are almost always thoughts. Not exclusively - there’s one interesting beat where she rubs her finger against the serrated blade of her dinner knife. The man she’s talking to “wriggles in his seat” and leans forward, and later “squirms” again - he’s both uncomfortable and aggressive in the conversation. He lights a cigarette “distastefully, throwing the match on the floor.” You learn a lot about his attitude from his tags. But over all, most of the scene is just the conversation. It’s nearly all dialogue. The scene carries so much about the two characters’ attitudes, but with an economy of stuff apart from their words to get in the way.

    And there is also this: “Richard frowned and drew on his cigarette.”
    Last edited by Lakey; 01-08-2018 at 05:27 AM.

  9. #9
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    I think action beats or attribution become annoying when they become repetitive and don't really add anything meaningful to the passage. If they're being used repetitively, as a substitute for simply using "said" to attribute dialog when needed, it can make characters start to feel twitchy. That's not to say that an occasional "nodded" or "shrugged" or "grinned" is a bad thing.

    One place inserting actions and reactions into dialog is when it's needed to reinforce viewpoint or to show things about a character's personality. If someone is fidgety, for instance, that's something a pov character might notice about them, so showing the person tugging at their hair, picking at their cuticles etc. makes sense. I also think it makes sense to insert something about the observing viewpoint character's reaction to the other person's fidgeting. It feels odd to show all those actions without having anyone react to them.

    "I don't know," Tom said, exploring one nostril with his forefinger. "Maybe we should wait." He withdrew his finger and wiped it on his shirt.

    Susan swallowed against the bile that bubbled in the back of her throat. "Okay then."

    or maybe

    "What if I fail the test?" Fred squirmed in his chair. "There's no way I'll get an A if I fail this one." He tugged at his ear. "And if I don't get an A in chemistry, I won't get into Springfield College." He huffed out a sigh and kicked the table leg.

    "Will you please stop catastropizing?" said Mary. "You've aced every chemistry test so far. And while you're at it, will you please sit still for five seconds?"

    The sweet spot can be a moving target, imo, because it can vary a great deal with narrative style.
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 01-08-2018 at 05:57 AM.
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  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by blackcat777 View Post
    How do you determine the sweet spot for action tags?

    When do you personally like to use them and think they are most effective? When is nodding etc. appropriate, when does it truly serve that narrative?

    What are the instances in which you feel action tags could be replaced?



    I don't like WALLS OF DIALOGUE. Said is necessary sometimes, but I'm not overly fond of it.

    I DO like to see what my characters are doing. Sometimes tags are useful to identify the speaker.

    I'm pondering swapping out some of my tags with more internal dialogue?

    Another thing I find myself doing sometimes is telling two stories at once: body language, actions, and unspoken things running at the physical level, with dialogue being a completely separate and different layer. I also tend to add more internal thoughts on subsequent editing passes.

    If I have ten minutes to write, I'm going to scratch down a conversation without tags, thoughts, or description, and come back to all those other layers later. I tend to think about these things in layers, when maybe I didn't used to...

    Sometimes I feel like I have to go tag happy to slog through and figure out what I want when I'm in the early stages of draft. Same thing with infodumping--I will never KEEP an infodump, but sometimes I just have to spew it out to think about how to shape it. I think I also action dump.

    I would love to hear everyone else's thoughts about achieving the perfect balance of dialogue, thoughts, and tags! Thanks.
    You're talking less, I think, about action tags and more about stage direction, which in that excerpt reads wildly overdone to me.

    I tend to prefer simple tags, like said, or no tag when identifiable. Action beats are ok sometimes, especially when, as Maryn notes, they deliver information ABOUT a character, but I really can't stand that kind of stage direction, personally.

  11. #11
    independent claws blackcat777's Avatar
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    My favorite actions are more telling. A character cleaning his fingernails with a knife, a woman layering on a ridiculous amount of eye makeup, or a teenager cutting up green beans but rejecting nearly half of them tells the reader a good bit about that character.
    This is an insightful way to break it down.

    about action tags and more about stage direction
    I have to frame the question to myself this way every single time I see a tag in my writing!

    I think action beats or attribution become annoying when they become repetitive and don't really add anything meaningful to the passage. If they're being used repetitively, as a substitute for simply using "said" to attribute dialog when needed, it can make characters start to feel twitchy. That's not to say that an occasional "nodded" or "shrugged" or "grinned" is a bad thing.

    One place inserting actions and reactions into dialog is when it's needed to reinforce viewpoint or to show things about a character's personality. If someone is fidgety, for instance, that's something a pov character might notice about them, so showing the person tugging at their hair, picking at their cuticles etc. makes sense. I also think it makes sense to insert something about the observing viewpoint character's reaction to the other person's fidgeting. It feels odd to show all those actions without having anyone react to them.
    I have a compulsive grass puller, but never thought to explore anyone's reaction to him tearing up the ground.

    I'm more likely to use an action tag when I want to communicate the emotion of the speaker.
    I'm questioning if I'm addicted to this. I have The Emotion Thesaurus on my Kindle and it's great...

    Since you asked: I just picked a random page to see what balance I've been using. I see 2 unattributed utterances, 5 attributed through action, and 6 attributed by name. There is narration scattered throughout. No internal thoughts on this page.
    I never thought of doing a literal breakdown like this--I need to do this with some books I like, in addition to my own, to help become more conscious of how frequently and when tags are effective.

    I also think myself into a black hole about when to use stares/looks/glances and when it's gratuitous. For example, if someone is nervous, they might glance at the exit. If someone is lying, they might avoid eye contact. What about a brief moment of indecision, when a person glances between Option A or Option B? When are these things helping or hurting the prose? (The answer is probably examine on a case by case basis.)

    Re: the example I typed, I initially made it up just to facetiously illustrate the use of way too many tags. But then I realized after the fact, the subtext was an escalation of, "I am disgusting." And while I'd never structure something like that in my writing, I play with subtext of actions a lot. I need to seriously investigate how much is effective and enough.

    I think I'm hyper-aware of this now is because I'm experimenting with a semi-silent protagonist.

    Thanks to everyone for your thoughts

  12. #12
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    I think you're focusing perhaps too much on the whole mechanics/theory of writing and forgetting the point.

    You're telling a story.

    If you were telling your friend a story -- like 'omg you will not believe what happened today, wait, so before work, it was funny, I walked into this Starbucks...' would you use that much stage direction/action description? Would you say 'and the woman was ordering a triple half-caf, extra hot, quad shot, skinny, extra dry cap with whip. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and leaned forward. She said, 'oh, I meant a small tea.' The barista hesitated, then raised her hand over the register slowly. She tapped the screen with a finger. "Will that be all?" The customer tilted her head and licked her lips. She sighed once. "Can you make it a venti?' The barista raised her arm again; her finger hovered over the screen on her register....

    You wouldn't be able to finish the story, as your friend would have choked you to death if you didn't just get to the f'ing point. Readers are your friends, listening to the story. Use only what you need to tell it, no more, no less. That may not be intuitive, but it may help figure it out to think of it that way.

  13. #13
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    Nervous tics sound like a useful thing to consider. I like those that are subtle and/or have a subtext inherent in them (MaeZe's wedding ring tic example is good!) . I need to start thinking of possibilities on this front. If it is a tic that has a sound (like fingers drumming, but I'm not a fan of that particular one), then that brings an auditory component to the other characters - Also very cool. Some nervous people hum when they are nervous. That might be an interesting one to play with.


    (I also like the unusual green-bean trimming example high in the thread. That's a neat trick to use, a common enough action turned on its head with an unusual sub-action.)

    Cool thread.
    Last edited by Patty; 01-08-2018 at 10:21 AM.
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  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW MaeZe's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patty View Post
    This thread also prompted me to imagine the specific details of riding all day on a wagon trail, the depth of which had been an unintended blind spot before (I was focused on the conversation in that section, duh, it's a rich setting.). I can now exchange a few 'She looked overs" (which I don't like) for "She shifted on the seat," or some such.
    Sorry, looks like you edited this out but I had some ideas to share here.

    There are so many things that would be happening on a wagon train ride from the dust to the temperature to birds or animals to the sounds to one's aching hip or annoyance at the babies crying in the next wagon. It's such rich material.

    Sorry, carry on.

  15. #15
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patty View Post
    Nervous tics sound like a useful thing to consider. I like those that are subtle and/or have a subtext inherent in them (MaeZe's wedding ring tic example is good!) . I need to start thinking of possibilities on this front. If it is a tic that has a sound (like fingers drumming, but I'm not a fan of that particular one), then that brings an auditory component to the other characters - Also very cool. Some nervous people hum when they are nervous. That might be an interesting one to play with.
    But be careful not to overdue the tics, or to give them to all the characters. You don't want to end up with scenes where everybody is twitching or stimming or playing with their accessories...

  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by blackcat777 View Post
    I'm questioning if I'm addicted to this. I have The Emotion Thesaurus on my Kindle and it's great...
    Like any thesaurus, it's great when you're stuck, but don't let it write your book for you. Half the time when you can't think of a mannerism to represent the emotion, just go with internal monologue (not naming the emotion, but what that person would be thinking about, like where are the exits?).

  17. #17
    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    Another thought on this:

    I love scenes that have a setting or an activity that is itself a metaphor for wherever the characters are in their emotional arc. I was inspired to write my novel by such a scene, which I'm happy to describe for anyone who's interested but I won't belabor here. As an example from my own novel, I have a scene in which a character who is having trouble controlling certain things in her life, and very much likes controlling things in her life, is being probed by a friend about the things she is having trouble controlling, and doesn't want to talk about it. The conversation occurs as they are walking through a bonsai garden.

    This gives me the opportunity for action tags, oblique dialogue, and internal dialogue that are all about growth in a carefully controlled environment, about shaping independent living things to one's will. The scene still needs some work to do everything I want it to do, but it's something to strive for.

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