Beats vs. Tags, or: “Punctuation in dialogue is very tricky business”


At the risk of sounding punctuationally challenged, I learned a new thing today thanks to @kapybara (also the author of the quote above) and her fine beta-reading of my Crow Toes short story. And that thing is named beats. (Shameless voice-thievery…loves ya, Barbara Park!)

Until now, I just knew I wasn’t punctuating my dialogue correctly – but I didn’t know where I was going wrong or why.

@kapybara suggested a new resource for me: Self-editing For Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. She even helpfully pointed out the pages to look at (148-159). I can’t imagine that there are eleven pages worth of things to say about punctuating dialogue, and frankly I’m looking at that as a very bad sign for my approach to date, but I bravely put in an order to Chapters nevertheless.

I’ll keep ‘yall posted. (Pun intended.)

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3 thoughts on “Beats vs. Tags, or: “Punctuation in dialogue is very tricky business”

  1. I think I actually meant to type 148-150 (even though the chapter on beats is about twenty pages). I’m not sure how “correct” the term “tags” is. I picked it up on AW. I think SEfFW just uses the term “attribution”.

    My understanding (which I’m duty-bound to admit could be flawed):

    Basically, a beat can be an action or a thought. They often accompany dialogue (and can be a great way of letting the reader know who’s speaking without resorting to “said” ) but they’re not directly tied to the dialogue.

    Example:

    “I didn’t know he was going to do it,” I said helplessly. <- this bit of dialogue should end in a comma.
    "I didn't know he was going to do it." I shrugged, helpless and confused. <- this bit shouldn't.

    I'm really looking forward to seeing what you think of the book. The chapter on show vs tell is probably one of the best examples I've seen.

    • Thanks! I’ve definitely seen “tags” and “attribution” used interchangeably…. I love books on writing, so I can’t wait to see it. Have you read the awesome ON WRITING by Stephen King? LOVE LOVE LOVE it.

      • I keep meaning to reread On Writing. I read it when it was first released (I went through a huge Stephen King phase when I was thirteen and was quite curious when OW came out). At the time, though, I wasn’t actually writing.

        Another book I really enjoyed was Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner. It deals more with the publishing end, but was absolutely fascinating.

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