I’m often a fickle reader. To engage me, something has to happen and I don’t mean dialogue. Dialogue may be important, after all it gives the reader insight into the character and lets us hear her voice, but it is still talking, not doing.
I know, I know, you need dialogue in your stories. People talk about what matters to them and dialogue helps us work in a wide variety of information. But if it goes on for too long you’re going to lose me. One of the best ways to keep a fickle reader like me engaged is to break the dialogue up with beats of action. A beat of action is any small thing the character does. Let me show you what I mean.
“Did you pick up your prom dress?” Jenna inserted the detonator.
“Mom’s getting it on the way home from the embassy.” Kira scratched her eyebrow.
We have two beats of action: 1) inserting the detonator and 2) eyebrow scratching. And doesn’t the action make the dialogue more interesting? Yeah, I thought so too.
In addition to adding some action, these beats help us eliminate dialogue tags (he said, she said). Sometimes you’re still going to need a tag to keep your reader from being confused about whose peaking but these beats can often take the place of a tag. Above, you know exactly which girl is asking about the dress. No confusion.
The other problem with dialogue tags is that when we writers use too many we are tempted to spece them up. She whispered. He hollered. She hissed. The problem is that we see said so often that we skim right over it, mentally grabbing that tiny bit of information (speaker is…) and moving on. Anything other than said runs the risk of pulling the reader out of the story, especially if you have your character hissing something that can’t actually be hissed.
Beats of action. They keep your dialogue moving and fickle readers reading. Nuf said.