Years ago as a new writer, I knew nothing about dialogue or how to construct a conversation between characters. I knew less than nothing about point of view, pacing or plot vs. character driven stories. Most new writers read something...either bad or good...and think to themselves;
"I can do that!
Perhaps you watched a movie or television program where a famous writer, a budding writer or a complete novice started typing in a mad whirlwind of pages. After they finished it they sent out their manuscript to publishers. They were then discovered and made the best seller list followed by appearances on Oprah.
Yeah...there's a reason they call it fiction.
In the real world, there are a thousand rules you probably shouldn't follow for writers, but there are also a few you should. Keep practicing and reading to see what they are. Mostly learn a few, one at a time. Don't try to cram them all in your writers briefcase, bring them home and then line them up to write your first novel. You will be able to write it. Whether or not you publish, sell, or become a best seller is a matter of learning these rules, practicing them and having some talent for storytelling. More than talent is learning. A hard truth to hear but still true.
The good news is...you can learn!
So today, lets learn about tags and beats.
A tag is a label your dialogue wears to explain who is speaking by using the verbs said, asked, whispered, and murmured. Other tags can be used but most publishers don't care for things like: spit,yelled, hissed, muttered, etc. etc. Again, this is particular to your publisher. If you don't have a publisher yet then stick with the basics. Said, asked, whispered, murmured.
"Don't leave me," she whispered.
"Don't leave me she hissed through clenched teeth. Both can be used, but a good writer will let you know the tone of voice through the context of the sentence.
Crouched beneath the blackened staircase, Stella wrapped her whitened knuckles around Ethan's arm. "I'm going to go check out that noise. The house is supposed to be empty so just wait here for me."
"Don't leave me," she whispered, the moment before he stepped out of the stairwell.
Had she been angry with him or trying to give him a message by speaking through clenched teeth, the context of the story would have been a better explanation than the dialogue tag. If this were the case you would have written -she said, through clenched teeth.-
A beat is movement that gives personality, quirks, or movement in the scene.
"Ethan brushed her hand away only to feel her fingers dig into his skin beneath his t-shirt.
Now you could write...Ethan pushed her hand away while saying, "Stay here." It would've worked the same way. However movement in the scene will move your plot along with your setting and the arc of a story.
Here's the issue. If you overburden your dialogue with tags it becomes boring and redundant.
"I don't want to be here," she said.
"Me neither," he replied, glaring at her.
"Let's leave," she whispered, tugging on his sleeve.
"Not until I find out what's going on," he said through clenched teeth.
Not only is that bad writing and boring reading, what do you know about her personality, her idiosyncrasies, her phobias and her background. You can fill your reader in on these things through beats.
"I don't want to be here." Stella's blue eyes darted from the candelabra on the ceiling to the statue on the pedestal beside them.
"Me neither." Ethan peeled her sharp nails out of his bicep. The only thing worse than being stuck here with some chic his brother had set him up with to mend his broken heart, was being here with Stella the freak from biology class. Last week Mr. Ogden had passed out the dissection trays only to have Stella start crying when the frog being dissected convulsed.
"let's go." she tugged on his arm, a pain filled grimace covering her features. Ethan sighed and peeled her hand away. He remembered the story she'd written in English class about the girl watching her mother die in an earthquake. He hadn't been really listening, Missy Caldwell snuggling with Brock Hamstead right in front of him. The jock's arm draped protectively over Missy's shoulders.
"Not until I find out what's going on," he said.
Now you've got interesting backstory and personality and your dialogue hasn't changed, nor the setting in the story.
Notice, however, that both beats and tags are necessary. You need both to accomplish your goal.
As much as you'd like to know exactly what the rule is and how it turns out, some of it is instinct. Some of it is experience through reading authors who do this well. Most of it...is practice.
Hopefully this is helpful in writing your next dialogue scene and in the meantime...Keep writing and Reading!