Dialogue vs. Action Tags

Meredith Bond
2 min readDec 18, 2023

“Come with me,” she said softly before spinning away, her longhair fanning out as she did so.

“Come with me.” She crooked her finger before spinning on her heel, her long hair fanning out as she did so, and sauntered away.

Which engages you more? Which one paints a picture in your mind and whispers those words in your ear?

My guess is that it’s the second one.

The first quote is a piece of dialogue followed by a dialog tag. It has an adverb to tell the reader how the sentence is said and then describes the action that follows.

The second is a line of dialogue followed by an action tag. There is no telling, there is only action and we allow the reader to hear the line of dialogue however they wish.

Stephen king and almost every traditional editor ever has said to stop using adverbs. They hate them. It is true that when you use an adverb, you are telling rather than showing, but sometimes that’s necessary in order to get the meaning or the feel of the dialogue across to the reader. And, let’s face it, it’s much easier to write.

But by taking the time, the effort, to take out that dialogue tag — or not write it in the first place — and replace it with an action tag, you are bringing your reader closer. You are engaging them deeper into your story.

Just like the “rule” that you should only write active sentences, and never passive ones, this rule does not need to be followed with absolute devotion. Sometimes you need that adverb. Sometimes there isn’t any action that goes along with the dialogue. Sometimes you simply need “she said.” And sometimes when you don’t want to pin something on someone specific, you need to write in the passive voice.

The liquor decanter was empty.

He turned around and looked at her.

Rosemary dropped her gaze and stifled a belch.

If the passive voice is necessary, use it. If you need a dialogue tag with an adverb, put it in. But if you can help it, make that sentence active and put in an action tag instead.

“Why is the decanter empty?” He spun around and focused an accusing eye on Rosemary.

She had the grace to look guilty, but he heard that belch she tried to stifle.

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Meredith Bond

Award winning author, Meredith Bond's books straddle that beautiful line between historical romance and fantasy. Merry is also a writing coach and formatter.