Monday 14 September 2015

Atlanta Nights: Action Beats and Dialogue Cues

By Iola Goulton

This post is part of a series illustrating some of the common fiction editing issues I see, using Atlanta Nights by Travis Tea as our example. For those of you who didn’t read my post introducing Travis Tea and his illustrious novel … you might want to go back and read the post. It will explain why I have no fear of upsetting the author with my critique. 

My previous posts have looked at the opening hook, interior monologue, point of view, dialogue and dialogue tags, and today I’m looking at two alternatives to dialogue tags: action beats, and dialogue cues.

Action Beats

Beats are used in fiction to break up the dialogue and provide a sense of progression and movement. In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King define beats as:
The bits of action interspersed throughout a scene, such as a character walking to a window …
Usually they involve physical gestures, although a short passage of interior monologue can also be considered a sort of internal beat.
While Browne & King recommend the inclusion of beats, they also caution against using so many beats that the pace of the scene is lost. I’ve seen manuscripts where there are no speaker attributions, but an action beat before or after every sentence of dialogue (sometimes before AND after). It gives a choppy feel to the dialogue, distracting the reader from what has been said to what is being done.

Yes, action beats are showing rather than telling, but too many and they become as offputting as creative speaker attributions (discussed in my previous post).

Another issue I often see is combining a speaker attribution and an action beat, as Atlanta Nights does:
“As you've probably heard Yvonne,” began Penelope Urbain. Seriously brushing a gleaming scarlet tress out of her tearful eye “Bruce has come home from the hospital after his accident.”
There is usually no need to have both. The purpose of a speaker attribution is simply to remind the reader who is speaking, which is also the purpose of the action beat. The difference is the speaker attribution (she said) is telling, while the action beat is showing.

The exception would be where the beat is expanding on the attribution in some way.

Dialogue Cues

Writing instructor Margie Lawson coined the term “dialogue cues” to refer to physiological reactions which give the reader a subliminal psychological cue as to what is going on underneath the scene. Dialogue cues create subtext, giving your reader the feeling she is literally reading between the lines as she’s picking up subliminal cues as to the thoughts and reactions of the characters … not from what is being said, but from what isn’t being said.

As a reader, the skillful use of subtext is what separates the good writers from the outstanding. To learn more about writing strong dialogue and dialogue cues, I recommend reading Margie Lawson’s lecture packets, Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues and Empowering Characters’ Emotions, both available from (If you want more reasons why you should learn from Margie Lawson, read the recent posts from Dorothy Adamek and Andrea Grigg).

Here’s my improved version of the opening to Chapter Three of Atlanta Nights, incorporating improved dialogue tags, action beats, dialogue cues, and the dialogue changes discussed in my earlier post:

“Bruce has come home from the hospital after his accident.” Penelope Urbain brushed a scarlet tress across her face.

“You must be pleased. He was badly hurt.” Yvonne’s tone was the perfect blend of sympathy and encouragement. Anyone who didn’t know her would think she cared.

“Yes, and I’m thankful he’s home,” Penelope said. Deep breath. Don’t cry.

“We need to have a serious discussion about this.” Now Yvonne sounded earnest, even genuine, but what was there to discuss?

As you can see, I’ve also used the speaker attributions to provide some characterisation (well, I’ve attempted to. I’m a fiction editor, not a fiction writer!). The scene is from Penelope’s point of view, and these attributions show something of Yvonne’s character—or how I imagine Penelope sees Yvonne—and provide some insight into the relationship between the two women. Of course, this is open to interpretation: it could be that Yvonne is a genuine person, and Penelope has some emotional issues in her past that mean she misinterprets the actions of other women, which makes her an unreliable narrator.

I've attempted to follow the rules for dialogue tags, incorporating action beats, and attempting dialogue cues. What do you think? Can you suggest any improvements?

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on FacebookTwitterPinterest  or Tsu.

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog. I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2500.


  1. Ooh, I love the sound of that term 'subliminal psychological cue'. I have used that on occasion without quite understanding what I was doing. Now I need to go over my latest manuscript to see if I can add a few more here and there.

    Maybe a reader doesn't even register what she's reading but it sure does give an insight into what the other character's POV is.

    Thanks, Iola, for that great hint. Not bad for an editor who not only knows and understands the 'rules' but needs to get into her own novel ASAP!

    1. Thanks, Rita!

      Margie Lawson's lecture packets provide loads of excellent examples, and are well worth the investment if you want to go into more detail.

  2. Iola, great post! Your example is definitely an improvement on the original version :)

    1. Thank you! I'm sure it could be polished more, but it's a start.

  3. Thanks Iola. I've been using these instinctively but now I know the names for them - and why they're effective. Things they didn't tell me at Uni!!

    1. Funny!

      There is a bit of chicken-and-egg with some of these terms. Margie Lawson came up with the idea of dialogue cues (and several of her other ideas) after analysing best-selling books to see what made them sing. So it doesn't surprise me that uni lecturers wouldn't know about them. But readers know if a book is good, even if they don't know why.


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