What is an action beat?
Action beats are succinct phrases that can be used with dialogue to show which character is speaking and what they are doing or feeling at the time. Action beats can appear before, in the middle or after dialogue.
Being able to imagine a character clenching their fists in anger gives the reader a much more immersive experience than just telling them that the character says something angrily. Reading lengthy passages of dialogue can become boring, so adding in action beats will help to keep the reader’s interest.
Action beats can also be used to replace dialogue tags that don’t actually relate to speaking. Examples include smiled, laughed, frowned and sneered. As these are all verbs (doing words), they can easily be converted into action beats.
How are action beats used?
Action beats are used to:
- show moods and feelings
- demonstrate physical actions and motion
- show setting and environment
- aid characterisation
- reveal true intention
- break up dialogue
- eliminate unnecessary dialogue tags.
Show moods and feelings
Body language gives a lot away about a person’s mood or how they are feeling, and action beats can be used as a way to show this, rather than using rambling passages of dialogue to tell the reader that a character is angry, happy, anxious or exasperated.
We can see below that once an action beat has been added, we are in no doubt about the characters’ moods and feelings, and we can imagine the various scenes clearly.
‘You’ve gone back on your word,’ challenged Josie.
Josie drummed her fingers on the table. ‘You’ve gone back on your word.’
‘Oh no, not again,’ she said anxiously.
Her eyes widened. ‘Oh no, not again.’ Her breathing quickened.
‘It’s only your word against mine,’ Asif said defensively.
Asif scowled and folded his arms. ‘It’s only your word against mine
Control felt he was being goaded. He took a breath and replied with a taut, ‘Indeed.’
Milton folded his arms. ‘I’m sorry, sir. I’m done with you. I’m finished.’
Control walked up to Milton, circled him close, noticed tension in his shoulders and the clenched fist. ‘No one is ever really finished with me. You can’t resign. You can’t retire. You’re a murderer, as you say. It’s all you know. After all, what can you chaps do after you leave? Your talents are so specialised. What else could you do? Work with children? In an office? No. You’re unskilled labour, man. This is what you are.’
The Cleaner by Mark Dawson (Chapter 1, Kindle)
Demonstrate physical actions and motion
Adding in an action beat where a character performs a physical act is a great way of breaking up dialogue by adding interest and progressing a scene. Without an action beat, we wouldn’t be able to picture the urgency of Tez needing to leave.
‘I can’t wait any longer. I’ll see you in a week,’ Tez said.
‘I can’t wait any longer.’ Tez stood up. ‘I’ll see you in a week.’
‘Sounds like he’s keen to get hold of you,’ I say.
‘I’d better answer.’ She nods distractedly, glancing again at the phone’s display. ‘Would you be all right with Mia just while I take this call? It’s… urgent.’
‘Sure. Go ahead, we’ll be fine for a minute.’
‘I’ll just be down there.’ She gestures over her shoulder, down the carriage. ‘I’ll be back.’
I look up again and I swear I see tears glistening in her eyes.
‘Kathryn, are you sure you’re alright?’
‘Yeah,’ she says, getting up out of her seat. ‘Thank you. I won’t be long.’
Trust Me by T. M. Logan (Chapter 1, Kindle)
Show setting and environment
Action beats can be used to show the reader information about the characters’ surroundings. Weaving information about setting and environment into action beats saves dumping a lot of information into lengthy passages of reportage or dialogue, which could be tedious to read.
They sat on their usual bench under the oak tree. ‘I’m worried about you.’ She looked over at the flurry of activity on the freshly mowed bowling green.
She expertly skimmed a pebble over the waves. ‘I love this little town. It really is my favourite place in the world.’
‘I think we’ll have to postpone.’ She looked out at the grey sky and rain-spattered pavement.
Gem peered along the track. ‘How much longer do we have to wait?’ She glanced up again at the clock above the crowded platform.
‘Topped himself,’ Donna said. ‘Course he has.’
‘How’s he done that, then?’ I stared around my room, a replica of the other nineteen on the ward. A single bed and a grimy window behind a rip proof curtain. A chair made deliberately heavy so nobody can throw it. A wardrobe with three shelves and nothing you can hang anything from.
Rabbit Hole by Mark Billingham (Chapter 3, Kindle)
Action beats can help to inform us about a character’s appearance or reveal information about their personality.
Bob ran a hand over his chin, feeling the three-day-old stubble. ‘I won’t rest until this lowlife is caught.’
Helen glanced at the caller display. It was her sister. She rolled her eyes and cursed. ‘Hello! What a lovely surprise, I was just thinking about you.’
Reveal true intention
Action beats can be used to show that a character’s apparent intention may not be their true intention.
‘I said I was going to pay you next week, and I will. Promise.’ I smiled and thought of my one-way flight to the Cayman Islands booked for Friday.
‘‘That dress really suits you.’ I turned away and grimaced.
‘Pam, you are the only one for me, you know that, babe.’ I put my arms around her and discreetly looked at my watch. I would be late meeting Gloria now.
Break up dialogue
Reading lengthy sections of dialogue can lose the reader’s interest. Peppering dialogue with action beats will help keep the reader focused.
‘I take it you’re a student,’ she said.
Torquil inclined his head. ‘Classics.’
Domenica’s eyes widened. ‘I didn’t know anybody still studied classics,’ she said. ‘Well, I suppose some must, but it’s a bit unusual, isn’t it?’
Torquil fixed his warm smile on his neighbour. ‘Maybe. But there are more of us than you might imagine.’
A Promise of Ankles by Alexander McCall Smith (Chapter 3, Kindle)
Eliminate unnecessary dialogue tags
Too many dialogue tags will grate with the reader and become tedious. No one wants to read a list of he said, she said, they said, Sue said, Don said and so on. Action beats can be used alongside, and in place of, dialogue tags to let us know who is speaking.
Seb frowned and bit his lip. ‘I’ve been thinking about how to resolve your money problems.’
Roz stroked the spaniel’s head. ‘Where have you come from? Your owner will be frantic.’
She pouted prettily. ‘I’m serious. I don’t want you booking another girl.’
Shepherd stood up and put his hand over his heart. ‘I swear, if I book anybody, it’ll be you.’
Slow Burn by Stephen Leather (Kindle)
You can read more about using dialogue tags in fiction here.
Where should action beats be placed?
Action beats can appear at the start, in the middle or at the end of the dialogue. Note how capital letters, quotation marks and punctuation appear within the various examples.
At the start
She opened the front door. ‘Oh, it’s you.’
In the middle
‘Please, leave me alone.’ She picked up her coat and bag. ‘Don’t come after me.’
‘Please’ – she picked up her coat and bag – ‘leave me alone. Don’t come after me.’
‘Thanks for coming.’ He shook her hand firmly.
Keeping action beats believable
Most of us will not be conscious of our mannerisms when speaking. Sometimes I fiddle with my earrings when I am speaking, or I wave my hands about. But I probably also do other actions unconsciously. The same applies to action beats in a book. Don’t fall into the trap of using the same actions over and over, especially for the same characters – unless that characteristic is key to the story or their personality. Most people probably don’t narrow their eyes in every conversation, but they might do it from time to time. Teenagers might roll their eyes every time someone speaks to them, but that is likely to become boring for the reader, so remember to add in some variety.
- Action beats can eliminate unnecessary dialogue tags and break up dialogue, making it more interesting. This helps to immerse the reader in the story.
- Action beats can convey mood, feelings, physical actions and true intentions. They can also provide a glimpse of the setting and environment and provide information about characters.
- Use a variety of action beats, rather than repeating the same one over and over. This keeps the actions believable and interesting.
A Promise of Ankles, Alexander McCall Smith, Abacus, 2020
Rabbit Hole, Mark Billingham, Sphere, 2021
Slow Burn, Stephen Leather, Hodder & Stoughton, 2020
The Cleaner, Mark Dawson, Unputdownable, 2014
Trust Me, T. M. Logan, Zaffre, 2021