He said/she said = tagline
Action with dialogue = beat
Both can serve the purpose of identifying who is speaking. Both are needed. But like a heartbeat it’s the beats that will really bring your story alive.
Beats show action, emotions, can set mood, share setting details, slow pacing, and show time passage. This is the place to work in sensory details. Thoughts of the main character can be included as well.
Let’s start with a couple arguing, because conflict is interesting. At first, I’ll only use taglines.
“Ray, I’m not going to do it,” Sally said.
“But it’s the logical thing—” he said.
“Your logic. Not mine.”
“Anyone’s logic. Putting the money in a CD will—“
“Will mean I still have to drive that junker of a car.”
There’s some tension in their dialogue, but we don’t know where they are or who they are. We know Sally is an interrupter. Ray sounds calmer, perhaps. Depends how you read it. But as an author we want our readers to be sure, not guessing how to read it. Beats will do that.
Sally leaned forward across her untouched dinner. The spaghetti had gone cold and was a congealed mass. “Ray, I’m not going to do it.”
Frowning, he set down his dessert fork. “But it’s the logical thing—”
“Your logic.” She took his well-manicured hand in her own. “Not mine.”
“Anyone’s logic.” Ray shoved himself back from the table and out of reach of his wife. “Putting the money in a CD will—“
“Will mean I still have to drive that junker of a car.” She kept her voice low so the other diners wouldn’t overhear.
Now you know they are in a restaurant, probably Italian. He’s starting in on dessert, but she hasn’t eaten her main dish. That implies husband and wife have probably each been in their own mental worlds, not paying much attention to the other. By taking his hand, she’s trying to be conciliatory. He reacts by pushing himself away. We know she doesn’t want to make a scene. It has more than doubled the word count, but oh so much more interesting.
For contrast, let’s try something else with this dialogue.
Sally shut off the classical music playing on the satellite radio. “Ray, I’m not going to do it.”
He glanced at her then focused back on his driving. “But it’s the logical thing—”
“Your logic,” she interrupted. She rested her forehead against the cool glass of the passenger window. “Not mine.”
He steered the vehicle to the side of the road and stopped it with a jerk. The only sounds were the swish swish of the windshield wipers and his fingers lightly drumming the steering wheel. Ray took a deep breath. “Anyone’s logic. Putting the money in a CD will—“
“Will mean I still have to drive that junker of a car.” She stroked the leather seat of her lawyer’s BMW. Not something like this. Her face glowed in the dim light of the dashboard.
It has a different feel, doesn’t it? To me Sally feels greedier. Ray’s annoyed, but trying to keep himself in control.
So questions to ask yourself about your dialogue.
Is there a sense of place where the dialogue is taking place?
Are there any sensory details? (Taste, touch, sight, hearing, smell, or temperature?)
What are the characters doing besides talking? We don’t live in a vacuum—your characters shouldn’t either.
Can you tell anything about the relationship of the characters? Their emotions?
Hear anyone’s thoughts?
Sense any time passing?
Not every piece of dialogue will include all of these, of course, but when starting a new scene, our readers will appreciate some details to ground them.
Like a steady heartbeat in the background, beats will help your story live in the readers’ hearts and minds.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.