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On the abuse of action tags

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blackcat777

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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.
 

Maryn

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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.

Maryn, cleaning her nails with a machete and whistling
 

Woollybear

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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.)
 
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Aggy B.

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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.
 

indianroads

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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.
 

MaeZe

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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.

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 ;)
 

morngnstar

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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".

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

Yes, this is the next level of evolution.
 

Lakey

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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.

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:

me said:
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.”
 
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Roxxsmom

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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.
 
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cornflake

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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.
 

blackcat777

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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 :)
 

cornflake

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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.
 

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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.
 
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MaeZe

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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. :)
 

benbenberi

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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.

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...
 

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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?).
 

Lakey

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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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I was a script writer before a novel writer. Been doing script writing and short story writing since the 1970s, but I didn't write a novel until 2006. And I've been told by many readers that my writing style (when it comes to novels) is EXTREMELY non-standard. And I think, it's because I'm used to writing in stage play format and short story format, and short story format has more in common with script writing then it does novel writing which is why I'm always saying the common advice to write short stories to practice before writing novels is BAD advice. If you are writing short stories in the same format as novel, well there no way around saying it: your stories are gonna be shit. I wish people would stop telling novelist wannabes to practice with short stories first. Not saying novelist can't write short stories, just saying the writing style from short stories to novels, is so different that using one as practice for the other is bad advice.




But back to your question before I have myself a 10 page rant on why I think that is bad advice!


LOL!


:p

Now for me, being someone who wrote scripts first and novels later, I have a tendency to write my novels in a weird sort of "novelized-script" format. Many readers have referred to my novel writing style as "avant garde" or "artsy-fartsy", which depending on how you look at it could be either good or bad.


Personally, when I look at a novel and see that it is block upon blocks of descriptive text and narration, I don't even bother to read it.


I personally find descriptions of scenes and settings, and even descriptions of what a character looks like, to be dry reading.


Dull.


Boring.


I've no interest in it at all.


I look for novels that have a high rate of dialogue. If the novel is 70 to 90% dialogue, I'll pick it up and read it. Otherwise, I'll pass.


Why?


I like a character driven story.


I'm not a fan of plot driven stories and I tend to avoid them.


When I look for books to buy, I often go to The Writer's Market, and read through the listings of publisher submission guidelines, looking specifically for publishing houses that request: "Character driven stories" and then I search for that publisher's website and take a look at the list of books they publish and buy those, because I know if the publisher is asking for character driven story, then they will also state something like: "Must contain at minimum 70% character dialogue."


In the publishing industry, a story is considered plot driven if it has less then 70% dialogue and character driven if it has at least 70% dialogue. If you have less then 75% dialogue in your story, then it is NOT character driven and I want nothing to do with it.


MOSt novels however, are plot driven, and finding a character driven story, is next to impossible. MOSt novels published are 60% description and only 40% dialogue. (According to several studies that have been done.) Which means for me, as a reader, most books are slow moving slogs of dull, dry, bored out of my mind, reading.


I prefer fast paced reading, and to have a fast pace, that means your paragraphs have to be fewer then 20 words long. And the only way to have page after page after page of none stop, heart pumping, fast paced, 20 words or less paragraphs, is with steady, none stop dialogue for page after page.


The more dialogue, the faster the pace. And every time you insert descriptive or narrative text, you kill momentum, dead short, and the pace has to slowly start all over again.


The longer the descriptive text and narration, the slower the pace becomes and the more difficult it becomes to pick up pace again later.


So in the end, for me, I think the answer to your question is, to use lots of dialogue, almost no descriptions, and tags at the barest minimum. But this is because this is the style I personally prefer to read. That doesn't mean this style of writing is better then another style. There are lots of styles of writing and different genres use different styles.

Me, I like reading the more Literary styles with heavy character driven plots. And these are written in a very soap operas script format, of nearly all dialogue and nothing else.

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

I LOVE these and prefer them, though the way I use them, they are not tags, but rather descriptive lines between dialogue. I'll show you an example in a sec.

You say this...


I don't like WALLS OF DIALOGUE.

Then give this as an example...

"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.

There is a very simple reason why you have a wall of text there, and it's called: you are not using one of the very basic rules of grammar.

Basic 5th grade grammar rule:

Quotation marks ALWAYS start a new paragraph.

By using this grammar rule, you will find that you suddenly no longer have a wall of dialogue.

Also another basic 5th grade grammar rule, that was not used in this example:

Never use a pronoun 5 times in succession. It should always be: Proper Noun, pronoun, pronoun, pronoun, Proper Noun

Thus this is incorrect...


"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.


Also, there are exactly ZERO tags in your example.


The correct is this...

"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."

Blackcat 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."

Blackcat 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.


---------

THIS: is dialogue followed by a description of action:


"I just love them."

Blackcat picked her nose.


THIS: is an action tag:

"I just love them," Blackcat said as she picked her nose.

It's only a tag is the whole thing is all one sentence.

(SOURCE: I have a degree in teaching High School English)





Thus you no longer have a wall of text, by simply applying grammar rules. And you also lose the majority of she/her/she/her/she/her/she/she/her/her/ which many novels suffer from, and your example also had. The parts in bold are the parts I corrected using this rule.

As for the use and possibly abuse of "action tags", I see nothing wrong with the way you have done it, with a line of speech rotating with a line of action. I think that method is perfectly fine.



How do you determine the sweet spot for action tags?


I write Slice of Life Literary Fantasy in the Ernest Hemingway Style. This means my novels are 90% dialogue, and rarely use dialogue tags. Here is a 3 page sample from one of my older novels, so you can see EXACTLY how I do dialogue in my books:


Days passed in a blur, as the trio made the long trek back south in search of The Gremlin. Following the directions given to then by the saloon girl, they were able to find Luke Swanzen’s old sheep farm, which the aged Gremlin had moved into.
The old house was fallen in from disrepair. Around it was many acres off wooden fences, surrounding many hundreds of sheep happily grazing.
My god,” Quaraun exclaimed. “Look at all the sheep!”
Dis definitely where our Ghouly live," Unicorn said.
They soon found themselves knocking at the door.
The old orange robed wizard answered the door.
Quaraun?” The Gremlin was clearly shocked to see the three of them. “What are you doing here?”
We don’t know.”
Well, you might as well come in, now that you’ve found me.”
Someone behind Gremlin ran from the room, scurrying up the stairs. A door slammed somewhere on the 2nd floor.
Is there someone else here?”
That was Sunta. He lives with me.”
Sunta? You don’t live alone?”
I used to. Not any more.”
Who is Sunta?”
He’s, uhm... he’s... a friend.”
You sound uncertain.”
I’m uncertain if I should introduce you to him. He’s... shy? Shy’s a good word.”
You sound like you’re lying.”
So what else is new? I’m still a thief too.”
And you still have sheep.”
Ever so many sheep.”
Is it just you and Sunta here?”
Yes.”
Are you happy together?”
Why the questions, Quaraun? You jealous?”
When we saw you before. You were very sad. And very lonely. It made me sad that you were alone.”
Well,I’m not alone now.”
Are you lovers?”
Gremlin was silent a moment before answering.
We are. But Sunta is shy.”
Obviously, considering he ran away when we came in.”
We don’t get visitors much. It’s been years, and... he was badly injured. His injuries... you understand what it is to be scarred. He doesn’t like people to look at him. His face... He can’t talk.”
He is mute?”
Something like that.”
How do you communicate?”
I’m a Thullid. Remember?”
The hive mind. Do you have that now?”
Yes. And so does he.”
He is a Thullid as well?”
Gremlin nodded.
I think we are the last two left alive. Humans mass massacred the Thullids.”
Gremlin slowly made his way to the stairs.
Sunta,” he called up. “Come down. It’s Unicorn. You’ll like to see Unicorn. I know you would.”
Gremlin waited a moment then returned to the others.
I don’t think he’ll come down. He’s easily frightened. Like a little rabbit.”
Does he know Unicorn?”
Gremlin nodded, then sat down in his red armchair.
You didn’t come here to talk about Sunta. Why are you here? What do you want?”
To go home.”
Home. I remember home. I suppose I should remember being here with you, visiting me. It is my past after all.”
Do you remember coming here?”
Sunta?”Gremlin called upstairs again. “Do we remember visiting us?”
Gremlin waited for an answer but got none.
No. We don’t remember visiting us. But we did have a lobotomy. More than once. We don’t remember much any more. Either of us. Me or Sunta. Poor Sunta. They tortured him.”
Who did?”
White Rock. He was in White Rock as well. We both were. He’s alive. But after what they did to him... I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
Would you like some tea? I will make us some tea.”
Gremlin got up and disappeared through a side door, returning moments later.
Water is on the stove.”
Are you okay?”
I’m fine. It’s good to see you.”
What happened to the moon?”
Ah, you noticed that.”
I’m a Moon Elf, of course I did.”
What do you want?”
We want to go home.”
And?”
Black Tower’s gone.”
I know.”
I don’t know how to get us back home without it.”
Sunta!” Gremlin called out to his companion. “They want to go home. They want us to risk opening another portal.”
Why don’t you bring him down here, you won’t have to yell.”
Haha. Bring him down here. No. Sunta does what Sunta wants. You always did, didn’t you Sunta?”
A high pitched whistling sound came from the other room
Tea’s ready.”
Gremlin left the room again.
Unicorn slid up close to Quaraun and whispered: “I think we should leave. He not sane.”
No, Unicorn,” Gremlin said. “I’m not sane. But everyone knows that. Escape while you can, GhoulSpawn, before you become me. Tea?”
Gremlin handed a tea cup to his younger self.
Don’t worry. I don’t drug it like he does.”
Can you send us home,” GhoulSpawn asked his future self.
Home? Haha! Why not stay here and watch the end of the world. It should happen any day now.”
Quaraun,” Unicorn said. “We need to leave.”
Gremlin handed Unicorn a teacup.
Sunta tell you to leave?” Gremlin asked the Phooka. “He did didn’t he? He can talk to you. He always could talk to you couldn’t he?”
I am so very sorry,” Unicorn said to Gremlin. Then grabbing Quaraun’s arm, forcibly dragged the Elf towards the door. “We have to leave right now.”
Before Quaraun had a chance to protest, Unicorn dragged the Elf from the house. GhoulSpawn looked back and forth from his friends to his future self, uncertain what to do. Gremlin sat back down in his red armchair and stirred his tea, while staring back at GhoulSpawn.
What happened to you?” GhoulSpawn asked.
"You became me and I went insane. This is your future GhoulSpawn.
Gremlin pointed to the stairs.
He’s right at the top of the stairs if you want to see him.”
Who? Sunta?”
Quaraun.”
Quaraun?”
Quaraun. Or what’s left of him.”
Left of him?"

How do you determine the sweet spot for action tags?

So, from that sample text from one of my novels, you see how it is I mixed SOME action into the dialogue, but not much, leaving most of the action to the reader's imagination.

Well, that's how I do it anyways.

Hope that helps.
 
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Harlequin

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I read and write character driven stories. I like dialogue heavy.

But I take issue with the assertion that 90% dialogue = character driven.

In a script, this may be true, but in a script you are relying on actors to bring the characters to life, and convey "internal world" through their acting. You also don't do any scene setting or description because that is all cued visually. The dialogue and actions therefore serve as a a guideline for actors and directors to bring to life.

In the context of a novel, overuse of dialogue almost always means inadequate or underdeveloped internal world. Thoughts, feelings, motivations, and exploration are not there. Since no one is able to bring that to life you risk the narrative falling flat.

I like David Gemmell, but he overuses dialogue (or rather, he underuses narrative) and therefore his novels lack depth because many of them have almost no internal world. He isn't trying to be literary, though, so it doesn't bother me. In fact, he's very much high concept and plot driven. If you're going for literary, my standards as a reader are going to be a little different.

In general I don't like description either, but that's often because description is badly done. Everything in writing must pull double duty.

An example of a scene done well, with description and dialogue both; in Shadow of the Torturer, Thecla invites Severian (her boy jailor) into her cell. She takes his shirt off for the pretext of examining the colour of his skin, and idly talks about how it contrasts to his hair. Severian is of course extremely discomfited. But the scene serves several purposes; it builds character relationships and tension, it describes both characters (Thecla contrasting him to herself); it shows her character and his.

If you are sticking in blocks of description then yes, that is dull, but arguably so are blocks of dialogue unless they're carrying a lot of weight.
 

Lakey

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Pink Unicorn, You are simply wrong to state as a blanket rule that quotation marks always start a new paragraph. Quotation marks start a new paragraph when there is a change in the character who is speaking. But there is nothing wrong with continuing in the same paragraph as blackcat777 did in her example, if the same character is speaking. I can open up any of 100 novels on my shelf and confirm that. There’s no “basic fifth-grade grammar rule” violated there. Indeed your variation on blackcat777’s paragraph would be terribly confusing in the context of a conversation; how are you supposed to know which character is speaking?

At best, you are expressing a stylistic opinion (which is fine) while asserting that it is a fifth-grade grammar rule. It isn’t.

Your other blanket assertions, like the rarity of character-driven novels, or the idea that character-driven novels must have loads of dialogue and only limited description, also strike me as wrong, or at least overgeneralization. Perhaps you are thinking of novels within certain genres only, I’m not sure. They certainly don’t apply to most of the novels that I read. Doesn’t the content of the dialogue and description determine whether the novel is plot-driven or character-driven, rather than the relative percentages?

At any rate, here again it seems that you are expressing your own opinions about what makes for good reading as if they were general truths about all novels and all readers forever and ever, but I really don’t think they are.
 
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Harlequin

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Doesn’t the content of the dialogue and description determine whether the novel is plot-driven or character-driven, rather than the relative percentages?


Much more concise than me! Yes, content and depth. Pulp novels are full of dialogue but very little else. Otoh, "Kiss of the Spiderwoman" is 100% dialogue (literally, no narrative or exposition) and yet is literary.

content and execution is difference, as ever.

I would likewise dismiss the assertion that character driven novels are rare in any capacity. In every genre except, perhaps, nonfiction and erotica, you will find a ready supply of character driven novels.
 
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sideshowdarb

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Really nothing to add to Lakey or Harlequin, but I don't know what this means:

In the publishing industry, a story is considered plot driven if it has less then 70% dialogue and character driven if it has at least 70% dialogue.

There's no cheat sheet in any editor or agent's desk with this bit of info on it. There are novels by James Joyce, Faulkner, Virginia Wolf - I think of The Waves, in particular - that feature little to no dialogue that would be considered anything but plot oriented. There are ostensibly very plotty books from people like Dan Brown or James Patterson that feature tons of dialogue. None of it is any good, so I didn't get very far, but there sure seemed to be a lot. There are books like The Commitments from Roddy Doyle that are virtually all dialogue that would be considered character driven.

As far as the OP's question, I use tags sparingly. I never use anything but 'said.' Moments of action in dialogue scenes should convey something dialogue can't. A POV character cannot know another characters thoughts or feelings, so their behavior is really your only indicator. I tend toward less is more on description.
 
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Layla Nahar

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I dislike "action tags" a lot. I find them *very* distracting. I think a more or less equal distribution of contextual attribution, 'said' and actions makes sense. I think there is consensus that contextual (eg without any kind of tag) is ideal. But it's not always attainable, so you have to use tags. My preference is 'said'. I agree that it's invisible, and I find that using actions in place of 'said' can end up sounding forced or contrived.
 
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BethS

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I think there is consensus that contextual (eg without any kind of tag) is ideal.

Guess I'm not part of that consensus, if there really is one. :)

Tagging dialogue (whether it's with action, description, or internals) should be treated like any other part of writing a story. It has to pull its own weight by illustrating something about the charaters or the situations in the story. Also, like anything else to do with storytelling, there needs to be variety in the way it's done. And finally, it's a great opportunity to add dimension, emotional depth, and color to the spaces around the dialogue.
 
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