beats, attribs, and dialogue tags
A dialogue tag indicates who is speaking (said, asked, etc.) – and sometimes how as well:
“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” he asked breathlessly. “Let’s go.”
An attribute is a more descriptive way of telling who is speaking (these are sometimes called CSA’s – colorful speaker attributions):
“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” he growled. “Let’s go.”
A beat gives action:
“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” His eyes shone as took her hand and tucked it into his arm. “Let’s go.”
“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” He snatched her by the back of the neck, a sneer on his face. “Let’s go.”
The trend now is to use more beats than dialogue tags or attribs merely because it can do so much to set the scene and help the reader really see what’s going on.
It’s not that dialogue tags or attribs are bad, just that beats are better. Some writers advocate completely eliminating dialogue tags and attribs; however, I merely try to use them sparingly. It’s all a matter of voice and style.
One last problem with attribs is that some of them end up explaining what the reader knows, but that’s a topic for another column.
originally published in The Sword Review 2005-11-01