If you’re wondering what an action beat is, you’re not alone. Not too long ago, I didn’t know what it was either.
I’ve since learned it’s an action your character is doing while they’re talking.
Yeah, it’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation and is something you’ve probably been writing naturally anyway, it’s just now you know there’s an actual name for it.
Not only does this writing trick have a name, it also has four good reasons why you should be working actions beats into your dialogue.
4 Reasons To Use Action Beats When Writing
1. Action Beats Break Up The Boring
When an action beat pairs with your dialogue, it breaks up the usual he said/she said monotony of dialogue tags.
“Hi,” Jenny said.
“Hi.” Jenny lifted her hand, waving her fingers in Carla’s face.
Action beats will also break up long passages of dialogue, puts pauses in the conversation, and gives your pacing a boost. It’s also a neat way to add tension to a character conversation, using action beats to keep the reader on edge. A character running from danger, fumbling with their keys at the door, is always more exciting than them just shouting for help with a boring “said” or “screamed” dialogue tag.
“He’s coming, hurry!” Jenny said.
“I’m trying,” Carla growled.
“You’re too late,” Jenny cried. “We’re dead! We’re dead!”
“I’ve got it!” Carla shouted.
“He’s coming, hurry!” Jenny latched onto Carla’s arm.
“I’m trying.” Carla shook Jenny’s talon-like fingers off, fumbling for her keys.
“You’re too late.” Jenny sank against the doorframe. “We’re dead! We’re dead!”
“I’ve got it!” Carla felt the key click and turn, pushing on the door and shoving Jenny inside.
Does that mean you should replace all dialogue tags with action beats? No. The key is to mix up the action beats, dialogue tags, and leave some dialogue untagged (when it’s clear who’s speaking) to give your dialogue the variety it needs to break up the boring.
2. Action Beats Show And Don’t Tell
If one of your writing goals is to get a handle on showing and not telling, action beats are a good way to ensure you’re ticking that “show” box.
Tell Dialogue Tag:
“I had the worst day,” Carla said sadly. “Everything went wrong.”
Show Action Beat:
“I had the worst day.” Carla’s fingers trembled on the table before she lifted them to her cheek, wiping at the tears. “Everything went wrong.”
Does it add to your word count? Yes, but it paints a stronger picture of your character’s emotional needs, puts some action into the sentence, and is more interesting to read.
Look for any dialogue tags you’ve capped off by outright stating the emotion (sad, angry, happy, etc) and replace with an action beat that shows the reader the emotion instead.
3. Action Beats Can Stop You From Info-Dumping Setting
While there’s nothing wrong with describing your setting in a well-written paragraph, there’s a time and place in a story for such a thing. If stopping to info-dump the room your characters have walked into slows things down, consider using some well-placed action beats.
Carla and Jenny stumbled into the house, throwing the door shut. There was a telephone sitting on the side table next to the couch on the far wall, lit by the yellow glow of the lamp beside the closed curtains.
“Call the police!” Carla shouted at Jenny. “He might still be out there.”
“I hope he’s gone,” Jenny said. “Otherwise we’re in trouble.”
“Why?” Carla asked.
“There’s no dial tone.”
Action Beats Setting:
Carla and Jenny stumbled into the house, throwing the door shut.
“Call the police!” Carla dragged Jenny to the couch and dared to part the closed curtains. “He might still be out there.”
“I hope he’s gone.” Jenny’s shaking fingers struggled with the telephone receiver. “Otherwise we’re in trouble.”
“Why?” Carla bumped against the side table, almost knocking down the lamp.
“There’s no dial tone.”
The reader still learns the setting of the house this way, so if it suits the scene and your dialogue, drop the setting descriptions into your action beats.
4. Action Beats Can Sneak In Character Description
Just as action beats can portray your setting, they can also deliver the description of your characters. This gives you more options, meaning you don’t have to resort to the old look-in-a-mirror cliché.
Action Beats Character Description:
“What do you mean there’s no dial tone?” Carla brushed her dark bangs out of her eyes.
“I don’t know how else to say there’s no dial tone, except there’s no dial tone!” Jenny threw down the receiver.
So there you have four reasons to use action beats in your writing. While they can really add something extra to your sentences, remember that there’s only so much “action” characters can do. Don’t add a beat for the sake of it. Use them with regular dialogue tags, no tags, paragraphs dedicated to setting, character descriptions, and all the other fun writing tricks we learn to bring our stories to life.
— K.M. Allan