Action tags are a way around repetitive and boring “saids.”
I heard it said a number of times that the word “said” is nearly invisible in our writing. Readers notice it barely and quickly pass over it once they know w ho’s doing the talking. And that is true.
For sure, it’s important when writing dialogue to give enough signals on the page so that the reader knows who spoke which lines of dialogue. I have found myself confused at times, when an author has provided too few clues. On those occasions I have to backtrack in my reading to figure out who the speaker is. And, yes, that’s annoying.
But on the other hand, can “he said…she said,” if used too much, get annoying. Yes, they can.
And here’s a piece of insider information. I have it from a good source, that a good number of editors who judge submitted short stories and novels, consider a too frequent use of those “saids” as an indication of amateur writing. Not a conclusion you want an editor to come to when considering whether to publish your story or not.
A better way
So what’s the solution? Action tags. Action tags are descriptions of the speaker, her action or facial expression or body language. Action tags are an efficient way of writing dialogue because they not only indicate who it is who’s speak but they also paint a more vivid picture of the speaker.
Here are a few examples:
Instead of: “Why did you say that?” Jack asked.
This: Jack frowned at me. “Why did you say that?”
Instead of: “Surely that can’t be true,” she said.
This: She blinked several times and bit her lower lip. “Surely that can’t be true.”
You can change this: “Now that’s something I find really interesting,” Hal said.
To this: Hal shifted his weight from foot to foot in a little dance. “Now that’s something I find really interesting/”
This does not mean that the word “said” is taboo, never to be written in your stories, of course. That’s too rigid. But it is wise to keep their number down to as few as feasible.
The word “said” is a weak one. And by using action tags your dialogue writing can have the added advantage of providing more vivid descriptions of your characters in the scene. Such descriptions can help you writing come to life.
By the way, psychologist Margie Lawson has developed courses you can download for a modest fee and that he students and professional writers rave about. Her first set of lessons is titled “Empowering Characters’ Emotions.” I have studied this course and a second one of hers and highly recommend her materials. You can find her here: http://www.margielawson.com/