When I first started writing it seemed as if the rule of thumb was to be creative with your tags. He said/she said was no longer kosher.
“Jeremy,” she exclaimed as she ran toward him.
“No,” Old Mother Hubbard cried. “I can’t deal with another child. What will I feed them?”
Or what of this?
“Little pig, little pig, let me in,” Wolf demanded.
“No, no, not by the hair on my chinny, chin, chin,” Little Pig quivered.
“Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down,” Wolf growled
Soon we were hearing, STOP! What madness is this? Just use he said. It disappears.
“Little pig, little pig, let me in,” Wolf said.
“No, no, not by the hair on my chinny, chin, chin,” Little Pig said.
“Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down,” Wolf said.
Really… I mean, really! I feel like with the constant repetition all I’m reading is said.
I’ve said it before, we live in a fast food kind of world and as such we do need to accommodate our readers. We also live in a hyper-sense kind of world. Look at our 3-D movies. Filmmakers are doing all they can to bring their viewers into their world. Soon they theaters will have a smell machine, one that will bring tropical islands alive, the scent of rain, the stench of death.
As writers it’s our job to bring our readers into our world, so much so that they have some difficulty separating fact from fiction. Have you ever walked away from a book, wondering what the main characters were doing now? Wondering if they were driving that old pick-up down the dirt road to lay flowers at their mamma’s grave? Wondering if the butcher cut the right piece of meat for Miss Mable, or whether or not little Jimmy finally caught that big, elusive bass?
Those are usually the books that end up on my keeper shelf. The authors of these books have done their job. They’ve created great characters and utilized their words with optimal effectiveness. One way of creating this effect is by utilizing something called action beats.
“Little pig, little pig, let me in.” Wolf tapped his nails, one at a time, against the bright red door.
“No, no.” The door quivered with each of Pig’s words. “Not by the hair on my chinny, chin, chin.”
“Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff,” Wolf licked his lips. “And I’ll blow your house down.”
Now, I’m not saying we need to cut all he said/she saids from the manuscript, but by replacing some dialogue tags with action beats we get to know the character a little better.
Let’s look at one of my works in progress, Rescuing the Fireman.
“Hey there.” The way his voice cracked it seemed like he was the one suffering from smoke inhalation, not her. He held up a lime green gym bag. “Myrtle packed a change of clothes for you. Thought you’d need them.”
Casey blinked, and if his imagination wasn’t running too wild, she may have even smiled a little. It was hard to tell with the oxygen mask over her face. He uncrossed his arms and jammed his hands into his pockets as he stood straight. Drawing in a deep breath, he rocked back on his heels and noticed his boots were several inches into Casey’s room. What would a few more hurt him?
He took a step in and made for the television set. “I Love Lucy. Great episode. Mind if I turn it up? Of course, you could probably recite the lines word for word, but since you’re not supposed to talk just yet—”
Was that him rambling on like a nervous kid? He glanced over his shoulder. Casey’s eyes danced with amusement. At least he was doing something right. He sat down in the chair near the foot of the bed and rested his elbows on his knees. “I uh, took the horses out to my dad’s. There’s plenty of room. He put up a new barn a few years ago.” He hesitated, knowing his next words could send her packing her bags and leaving Groverton for good.
There isn’t one single he said in there and we get to know a little more about Levi, about his fears and mannerisms. These next few lines from the same scene show us a little more about him.
All the sudden the air in the room seemed thick, choking, too much like hand sanitizer. He removed his baseball cap and ran his fingers through his hair. “Look, I’m sorry. I should have gotten there sooner. If I hadn’t been in the old rig when the call came in maybe I would have. I should have—”
The warmth of her fingers startled him to silence. He looked down to where she touched his arm. He hadn’t even realized he’d gotten up from the chair, let alone had neared her hospital bed. He dropped his chin to his chest. “Case—”
“I wondered where you’d gone off to. Half feared I’d have to walk all the way back to Groverton.” Myrtle hobbled into the room, her hand wrapped around a young woman wearing purple scrubs. “He doesn’t like hospitals much. Actually didn’t think he’d step foot past them twirling doors downstairs, but he did. And look at you now, Levi. All cozy with my niece.”
Levi’s face grew warm at Myrtle’s observation, and he pulled away from Casey’s reassuring touch. The instant separation was like waking up from a coma and finding out she’d left without so much as a good-bye.
“Well, I uh, will just step outside.” He folded the bill of his ball cap. “Take your time, Myrtle.” His feet seemed to take on the weight of cement as he headed toward the door. He turned for one last look. Her grey eyes filled with concern, no doubt for the horses. “I’ll take care of them until you get out.”
I might be a little bias, okay a lot, but I just love the way he folds the bill of his hat, and what about Myrtle? What sort of image do we get of her from the accompanying action beat? It paints her much better than a she said.
Here is a scene from my heroine’s point of view. We don’t get a lot about Casey, but we do see Levi’s father through her eyes and how he’s changed since she’d last seen him.
Casey had thought with the distance and the time apart she’d be over him. Obviously, she was wrong. She climbed the steps in front of Turner’s Hardware and opened the door. A cowbell, familiar, yet startling, jangled above her head.
“How can I help you?” A lanky, gray haired man appeared from behind blue drapes. He’d aged some. All right, quite a bit. He looked like a man who was barely surviving. A man going through the motions.
“Hello, Mr. Turner.” Adjusting the purse strap on her shoulder, she walked toward the counter. “I wanted to thank you for letting me use your pasture and barn until I can get ours rebuilt.”
He peered at her from over the rim of his glasses. His brows pulled downward.
Okay, now it’s your turn. Find a section in your manuscript where you have some dialogue tags and change them to an action beat. Feel free to share your before and afters.
Christina Rich celebrates the debut of her Love Inspired Historical, The Guardian's Promise, with a giveaway to one commenter. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.
A Kingdom in Jeopardy
An evil queen and her royal guards will stop at nothing to find—and kill—the rightful heir to the throne of Judah. When their pursuit leads them to Mira’s village, only her father’s bond servant, Ari, a man shrouded in secrets, can keep Mira safe.
Abandoning his life as a temple guard and becoming an indentured servant was the only way Ari could protect young Joash, the true King of Judah, from Queen Athaliah. But his sacred duty prevents him from confessing his feelings for his master’s daughter. With the future of their nation on the line, Ari and Mira will risk everything to save their people.
And if you haven't read the interesting story behind the sale of this story to Harlequin, take a moment to read it here.
When she was younger, Christina Rich tried to dig herself to China, loved Three Billy Goats Gruff, and had an obsession with maps. She gave up her dig to China but still jumps at the chance to travel even if it's just down the road. She loves watching modern takes of fairytales and mythologies on the big screen and still has a huge obsession with maps. The older the better.
Born and raised in Kansas, where she currently lives with her husband and children, Christina loves to read stories with happily ever afters, research, take photos, knit scarves, dig into her ancestry, fish, visit the ocean, write stories with happily ever afters and talk about her family and Jesus.