Action Tags for Setting and Characterization
What do you learn about the two characters and the setting from the following exchange?
“Brian, is that you?” Lisa asked. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“I’ve been busy,” Brian replied.
“Yes, your new job. A new job can be overwhelming.”
“It’s so far from home, too. Well, it was nice seeing you.”
From the exchange you learn the characters’ names, that they know each other, haven’t seen each other in a while, and Brian has a new but distant job. Does the exchange make you care about the characters? Do you want to continue reading the story? More to the point, would your readers want to continue reading? The answer is probably “no”. The exchange between Lisa and Brian is nothing but small talk.
In writing there is no small talk.
In writing there are no conversations.
In writing there is only dialogue. This is not dialogue.
But, you say, you need to include this exchange between the two characters? You can. You just need to make it over into dialogue. You can either rewrite the whole conversation or simply add action tags to the existing exchange. Action tags are sentences that can go before or after dialogue to not only identify the characters who are speaking but describe where they are and what they are doing. Action tags report the actions, body language, facial expressions, or mannerisms of characters, which reveal or hint at their personality and emotional states. They also create settings and roll them out gradually as the dialogue unfolds. And they do this with very little words.
I’ve taken the exact wording between Brian and Lisa and added action tags.
“Brian?” Lisa almost dropped the boxes of shoes she had spent the whole morning fighting for with other bargain hunters. “Is that you?” She moved closer to the order counter. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
Brian stopped pouring honey into his coffee. “I’ve been busy.” He stumbled around a woman with a baby stroller to grab a lid.
“Yes, your new job.” She began to reshuffle her boxes to get to her purse. “A new job can be overwhelming.”
“It’s so far from home, too.” He pulled his car keys out of his coat. “Well, it was nice seeing you.”
The action tags showed the setting and continued to add pieces to it as the dialogue progressed. You can see the mall, Lisa’s purchases, the coffee counter, and sense that it may be winter from the mention of Brian’s coat. The action tags also suggested personalities. Lisa sounds like a bargain hunter and Brian attempts at healthy eating habits. How about the nature of their relationship? Lisa advances while Brian retreats. Lisa is interested but Brian is not. We may not have hooked the reader from this short dialogue, but we did create conflict and questions. Were Lisa and Brian ex-lovers? Why is Brian avoiding her? How good was that shoe sale? We also turned insignificant small talk into dialogue worthy of a scene.
Action tags are versatile. They can be revamped or as we authors say, rewritten or edited, to create new settings, new personalities, and new relationships. Here’s the same exchange between Brian and Lisa but with different actions tags.
“Brian?” Lisa dropped the towel on the lounge chair. “Is that you?” She weaved around the sun-tanning bodies, her feet sinking in sand, toward the hut turned bar. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
Brian poured vodka into a glass of fruit. “I’ve been busy.”
“Yes, your new job.” She grabbed a pitcher, leaned over the counter, and flung the ice water in his face. “A new job can be overwhelming.”
Brian added a pink umbrella to the drink and gave it to a buxom blonde. “It’s so far from home, too.” He picked up a napkin and began to pat his face dry. “Well, it was nice seeing you again.”
In both examples the point of view is Lisa’s. You can have a different scene by presenting it from another character’s point of view. Here’s Brian’s POV. I’ve added a little narrative around the actions tags.
“Brian? Is that you?”
Brian dropped the bottle of honey into his cup, spilling the coffee over the counter. It was the “I love you woman”, “where are we going woman?”, “I want you to meet my parents’ woman”.
She threw her flamed-colored hair back. “I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“I’ve been busy.” He bumped into a woman with a stroller as he grabbed napkins.
“Yes, your new job.” The full lips that had damned him with words of commitment and some heavy but great kissing were addressing him. “A new job can be overwhelming.”
“It’s so far from home, too.” He threw the napkins on the coffee and dropped the cup in the trash. “Well, it was nice seeing you again.”
Since we’re not supposed to use creative dialogue tags such as cried, exclaimed, screamed, hollered, bellowed, whispered, and so on, a good action tag can tell the reader how a character says something. Lisa has finally had enough of Brian. She’s going to tell him how she feels. Her words are the same in each example, but her actions are different. What does each action tag tell the reader about her?
Lisa opened her boxes of shoes and whipped them at him. “I hate you, Brian.” (Angry drama queen.)
Lisa leaned in and swept her lips over his to his ears. “I hate you, Brian.” (Frightening! Nobody messes with her.)
Lisa took Brian’s coffee out of his hand, took a sip, and wrinkled her nose. “I hate you, Brian.” (Brian better watch his back.)
Some words of caution about action tags. If you use them, don’t include dialogue tags.
Lisa grabbed Brian’s arm. “What do you mean it was nice seeing me again?” she said.
“She said” is redundant. We know Lisa is talking because she grabbed Brian’s arm. Also, don’t overload dialogue with too many action tags. Use only what you need to establish the setting or the look or feel of it, to reveal characteristics, or to show emotion.