Don’t use dialogue tags. Instead, use beats of action.
This was the common wisdom when I entered the world of writing. Dialogue tags were unnecessary and cluttered up the narrative. Instead, include beats of action, movement, and expressions.
I’d love to say that I nailed this but it is probably a really good thing that I ran into Nathan Bransford’s blog post, “Avoid Aimless Stage Direction.” I write tight so there are some things that I’m really good at avoiding.
My characters don’t stand up. They stand.
Sitting down? Nope. They sit.
I also try to avoid speaking up or speaking out. Shouting loudly and whispering quietly are both no-nos. So are extended one’s arm to point. Really? When was the last time someone retracted their arm to point? Can you even do that? Retract your arm? Just point.
Instead, as Bransford points out, gestures, expressions and movements need to be meaningful. Don’t take us step-by-step through your character’s wake-up routine or meal preparation unless it is meaningful in some way. Think for a moment about the TV series Monk. Watching Monk count the individual peas for his pot pie and pour boiling water over his toothbrush revealed more than a little about this character.
Other potentially pointless actions include stepping forward and stepping back, sweeping one’s arms, and nodding. Detailed depictions of starting a car, gathering up a backpack and jacket, and more are just ho hum and every day. Only detail things that are revealing. Does your character hot wire his own car because he is too cheap to replace lost car keys? That’s important. So is a character that reassures someone over the phone that all is well while measuring out a vial of poison.
I have to admit that I appreciated Bransford’s take on expressions and gestures. Does your character sigh? Then she can do it two times in the course of an entire novel. I suspect this also goes for biting her lip, rolling her eyes, and shrugging. Unless something like this is a vital tell, do not overuse it.
Use tags when needed. When you use expressions and gestures or create beats of action, make them count.