Welcome to your ultimate guide for how to use action tags in dialogue!
Action tags might be your secret weapon for enhancing your story, writing better scenes, and massively boosting your dialogue. You can apply action tags in so many ways.
In case you are in a hurry, I’ve added a quick executive summary right here at the beginning:
There’s a lot to cover here, and I want to go as quickly as possible so that you get all the information that you need to completely master this topic.
If you’d rather watch a video, I made one especially for you:
What Are Action Tags?
An action tag is any gesture or action by a character. Authors use them to identify the speaker, break up story dialogue, manage the pace of a scene, and add depth to the story. You can also call them action beats.
He lifted the gun. “Okay, talk.”
In the example sentence, “he lifted the gun” is the action tag. It’s a simple one, but most action tags are simple. In fact, often the simpler, the better.
Action tags can be any action or gesture. Some authors even lump character thoughts and feelings into the category of “action tags.”
How to Use Action Tags in Dialogue
Now let’s talk about how to use action tags. There are tons of super valuable ways.
First of all, action tags can add variety to spice up dialogue. Too much dialogue without gestures can get boring fast. A simple behavior dropped in here and there can really make a scene more digestible and enjoyable.
Replace Dialogue Tags
You can also use action tags to replace dialogue tags, which are like “he said” or “she said.” You can replace those dialogue tags with action tags, with behaviors and actions. Too many dialogue tags in a row are repetitive. They can distract and irritate the reader, which is probably the last thing you want.
Instead of saying, “he said,” say something like “he fiddled with the top button” or “She tilted the salt shaker.”
Reveal Character Subtext
You can also use action tags to reveal character subtext. You can show the emotion, the tone, and the intention behind the words that the character is speaking. You can also establish character relationships or show changes in the status of relationships over the course of the story.
This is a brilliant way to “show, not tell” in your story.
“Damn you!” She launched the TV remote across the room.
Reveal Story Subtext
You can also use action tags to reveal story subtext. Action tags can layer the narrative with deeper meaning beyond the surface words and behaviors. Added depth often delights readers. In writing, I’ve learned that the more you can accomplish in the fewest words, the better.
Establish a Scene
Action tags can help establish a scene. One of the challenges with character dialogue is that it can easily seem like two disembodied, floating heads chatting with each other.
“She is such a liar. She literally told me to submit that proposal, that it was done.” “She’s despicable. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t…I don’t know.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
Gestures and behaviors help ground the reader in the scene.
Action tags remind readers of the flesh and blood characters saying the words. These subtle reminders can have an outsized impact on how much a scene absorbs readers into the world of the story.
A character can interact with the setting via action tags. You can have characters open doors, lift something off a shelf, turn on lights, kick a ball, gag on a bad smell, blink into changing light, and more.
I love making the characters in my story interact with the setting of the scene. I think it’s more interesting, immersive, and interconnected.
Play with Pacing
You can also alter pacing. The more action tags in dialogue, typically the slower the dialogue will seem to readers. The fewer action tags, the faster the dialogue.
Sometimes you want a rapid, ping-pong chat. Other times, you want a slower, paced conversation.
The key here is to use action beats strategically to create the pace you intend for each fictional conversation in your story. You can play around with action tags in different scenes to feel the impact of simple changes.
Also, you can foreshadow with action tags. You can have a character pick up a weapon, such as a nailgun or a sharp pair of scissors. You can foreshadow all kinds of future story events, threats, and promises.
She flicked the spider into the fire. “Some things were meant to burn.”
You can also leverage action tags for a bit of world-building. If there’s magic or superpowers in your story, you can have a character perform magic in action tags. You can say, “She levitated the table” instead of telling readers that she has powers.
You can also show greetings and other cultural customs through action tags.
Examples of Action Tags
Let’s look at some more action tag examples.
These examples come from my novel Wicker Hollow (goes to Amazon). I wanted to show you real-life examples from a published novel because I always learn best by seeing actual examples.
“I’m leaving you,” she said and stood up.
In the above sentence, the action tag is “stood up.”
Let’s jump over into a whole different scene in the story where the main character is interacting with a demon.
“Over there in that tent.” The demon pointed one lanky finger.
In this sentence, “the demon pointed one lanky finger” is the action tag.
“Katie,” he whispered, moving toward her.
As you probably already guessed, “moving towards her” is the gesture or action tag.
Here are a few more examples:
- She turned back toward him. “Are you going to kiss me or what?”
- “You missed,” Jack said, diving behind another column. “That was a fatal mistake.”
- “Finally,” she sighed, taking off her bra.
- “I have a boyfriend,” she confessed, throwing him a wink.
- “Race ya.” Nadia sprinted down the trail.
How To Format and Punctuate Action Tags
There’s also the question of where to place your action tags. You might be surprised at how much the placement matters.
The three action tag positions are:
- Before the dialogue
- In the middle of the dialogue
- After the dialogue
The position of the action tag changes certain characteristics of the sentence. And it’s going to change the reader’s experience.
When you place the action tag before the dialogue, you start your sentence with your action tag, follow it with some kind of punctuation, and end it with the spoken words.
Here’s an example From Comes the Dragon by C.S. Lakin:
A muscle in Aaron’s face twitched. “They are not free to trust while Azeda is still in power.”
You can also put the action tag in the middle. You can either interrupt dialogue or just insert a short pause for the behavior or gesture in between two lines of dialogue. So you write your dialogue, some form of punctuation, the action tag, and then more dialogue.
“I didn’t want to do it.” Mike dropped his empty syringe on the lawn. “It just kind of happened.”
As you can see, the action tag is sandwiched in between those two lines of dialogue.
Finally, you can also put the action tag after the dialogue. You write your dialogue, some form of punctuation, such as a comma or a period, and then the action.
Here’s an example:
“Go. I don’t want you here anymore.” His eyes return to the dark screen of the TV.
Common Action Tag Mistakes
Let’s look at some action tag mistakes. There are definitely some things that authors do accidentally to create problems with action tags. The main thing I want you to think about with action tags is always to prioritize the reader’s experience. Ultimately, how the reader experiences the scene, the sentence, and the dialogue matters most.
The most common mistakes that I see with action tags include:
- Using too many action tags.
- Never using action tags.
- Using distracting action tags.
- Using cliché action tags.
- Using long action tags.
- Using unclear action tags.
- Using action tags that contradict characterization.
- Using action tags that slow down snappy or fast-paced dialogue.
- Repeating action tags too many times.
Authors sometimes use way too many action tags. It gets overwhelming, it gets repetitive and it just gets in the reader’s way of enjoying the dialogue. Authors also sometimes don’t use any action tags at all. They just never use them for some reason. To me, that is just as much of a problem as using too many.
Another mistake is using distracting action tags that don’t really make sense for the character or don’t really make sense for the scene. Just anything that distracts from the actual reading experience.
Then there’s using cliche action tags, kind of tropey things like describing every character constantly nodding, shrugging, or blinking throughout the story. Try to avoid those tropey cliche action tags. You’re going to probably use some of them because they’re so common, but just try to pay attention to them and limit those kinds of gestures.
Also, some people use really long action tags.
I recommend that you keep your action tags short. By short, I mean no more than a few words. Definitely try to keep your action tag to one line on a page or a screen. Once your action tag goes over one line, it starts to read like a paragraph. It just goes on and on and on, which is way too long
Authors might also use unclear action tags.
They might include behaviors and gestures that don’t really make any sense. The reader doesn’t understand exactly what the character is doing. Clarity is critical because confused readers get frustrated. And frustrated readers stop reading.
Sometimes authors use action tags that contradict characterization.
If a character suddenly does something that contradicts everything known about the character up to that point in the story, the strange behavior can knock a reader out of the experience of the story. Your best bet to avoid this issue is to edit your early drafts for character consistency.
Try to use action tags that match the pace that you want for the dialogue.
Some dialogue is more snappy, it’s more fast-paced. In that instance, you probably want to limit the number of action tags. When you do use actual tags in snappy dialogue, you probably want those action tags to be very short, two to three words at most. Like, “he blinked” or “she shrugged.”
Avoid repeating the same action tags too many times in the same story. Again, it can be distracting and lower the reader’s experience of your story
Finally, you don’t always need a tag in a sentence where a character speaks. Some character talk doesn’t need dialogue or action tags. It’s probably best to alternate between action tags, dialogue tags, and no tags. Mix and match. Don’t always follow the same pattern because that gets predictable and predictable is just another word for “boring.”
The best action tags are the ones the reader barely notices.
Action Tags vs. Dialogue Tags
Some authors wonder if they must choose between the two kinds of tags. The answer is, “No.” You can use them both or use neither of them. It’s not an “either/or” choice.
I suggest that you experiment with using different mixes of dialogue tags and action tags in your novel. You’ll probably discover that less is more, but strategically sprinkling in a few tags helps the reader immerse themselves into the story. That’s been my personal experience.
Since we’re nearing the end of this article, I thought it might be helpful to look at a fuller excerpt that combines dialogue tags and action tags.
The following excerpt is from my first novel, Past Lives (goes to Amazon), about a man who finds out that he is a reincarnated serial killer:
“You know how they say a cop’s most powerful weapon is a pen?” said the man, removing the gun from his hip holster and setting it on the white plastic table with the cutting implements. “Well, I don’t own a pen.”
Eric stared at him, not yet standing but not fully sitting either. “You’re a cop?”
“Name?” Eric asked.
“I got one.”
“Like from the dog family?”
“Like the hunting machine.”
Eric sat all the way down, tried not to look at the gun or the cutting tools or the body on the table. Which was a problem, because the room was filled with racks of bagged bodies. A small, square-shaped machine perched on a shelf in the corner, maybe a computer, let out a steady thump-thump, thump-thump like a mechanical heartbeat.
“Shouldn’t I be at the police station?” Eric asked.
In response, Detective Wolfe laid four photographs on top of the white sheet, on top of the body. The pictures were of a very dead woman. Eric flinched, turned away from the images and fought the urge to puke. He already knew he would never rid his mind of the cruel, bloody phantasmagoria.
“Look at them,” Wolfe said, reaching over the body to grab Eric’s face and twist it back to the snapshots. “You did it. So look at it.”
Eric shoved his chair back–screeeeech–and wrenched his head from Wolfe’s hands. “I didn’t do that.”
Wolfe barked out a laugh. “You were the only one there.”
“Only one where?”
“At the crime scene, Mr. Shooter.”
“I don’t remember any of that.”
Wolfe tugged at the tip of his moustache with one hand, his other hand dropping to the white plastic table with the gun and sharp tools. “Sure that’s who you want to be?”
“Do I need a lawyer?” Eric asked. Or a fake passport to escape the country.
“Lawyers are for people with something to hide. Do you have something to hide?”
“Doesn’t really answer the question, does it?”
Eric shifted in his chair. “I don’t want to be here. I want to leave.”
Wolfe’s finger tapped the white table next to the gun. “And I don’t want to be looking at a dead woman in a wheelchair. Not just any lady either. A dead pregnant nun. That’s right. You have to be a pretty cold son of a devil to do something like that.”
Shortlist of Action Tags
Here is a short list of action beats to inspire your writing:
- She held up her palms
- He shook his head
- He looked away
- She ran her hand through her hair
- He pinched the bridge of his nose
- She hugged herself
- She rocked back on her heels
- He squinted
For a much more extensive list, check out Bryan Donovan’s master list of gestures (Goes to Bryan Donovan’s website).
Shortlist of Dialogue Tags
Here is a list of dialogue tags:
Check out a much bigger list of 250+ alternatives to said (Goes to www.blog.reedsy.com).
Summary & Takeaways
Let’s look at a quick summary of action tags:
- Action tags are gestures and behaviors that any character might perform in a story.
- Action tags can also be character thoughts or feelings.
- It’s helpful to use a variety of action tags.
- Use action tags for subtext, pacing, setting, and even world-building.
Thanks for reading my article. If you enjoyed it, I hope you check out a few more before you go.
Suggested next reads:
- How To Write Morally Grey Characters [Bestseller Secrets Revealed]
- 21 Ways To Write a Complex Villain [Ultimate Badass Guide]
- How To Write Like Danielle Steel
- What Do You Need To Start Writing a Book?
Don’t forget to check out my list of favorite resources for making a full-time income as a writer.