Someone who reviewed my novel said that he "wanted to see more facial features/expressions and body language". So I figured I wasn't using enough action/dialogue tags.

This is the passage before adding the action/dialogue tags (the original piece):

"Are you okay, Mom?" I asked.

Mom blew into her handkerchief. "Yes, darling. Just a little sad for Chico. But I think he must be happy now---receiving more attention than when he was alive."

"Everyone becomes a celebrity once they die."

This is after adding them:

"Are you okay, Mom?" I asked. Her eyes were red and her mascara had turned into dripping ink. I never knew why she applied it; her eyelashes were already long, thick, and curly.

I also had tears in my eyes. Not because of sadness, but because of the smell.

Mom blew into her handkerchief and slipped it in her coat pocket. "Yes, darling. Just a little sad for Chico. But I think he must be happy now---receiving more attention than when he was alive."

I nodded. "Everyone becomes a celebrity once they die."

How many action/dialogue tags should I add in a scene? Or it's just a matter of style?

  • hahaha. It's much funnier with more description, and it tells me more about the characters.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 12:29

4 Answers 4


Like was said above:

  • You are the one who must know when to join more action/dialogue;
  • Not every comment of beta readers must be implemented in your book.

But, the comment was quite interesting. And your change quite better:

  • You are showing, not telling how mom is;
  • You add more voice to the character.

But here it is another but: You can't use this in every piece of dialogue, otherwise makes the reading too heavy.

  • Try use it in moments of tension and climax;
  • Don't write "boring" dialogue like: "How are you doing?" "Well, and you?"

But in this piece of dialogue you show that you don't do that, what is good.


I'm sorry but "wanted to see more facial features/expressions and body language" seems more like an exercise in pedantry than actually constructive criticism intended to help you. Having run the gauntlet of MFA workshops, I can't help reading the comment as "I know about body language and you ... don't." I grew up with modernist minimalism: you know, you've heard the old Hemingway quote from Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

[I'm surprised to find that Wikipedia actually has an entry on this, which it calls the Iceberg Theory, q.v., or the Theory of Omission. Hemingway and, quite independently, T.S. Eliot referred to it as the Objective Corelative.]

As such, I was trained to do everything possible to get the reader into the moment, and sometimes that means providing a great deal of details, but ultimately we want to reach the point where much of the literary experience is provided by the reader's imagination.

So to return to your question, How many action/dialogue tags should I add in a scene? I'd say, As few as possible.


I don't think anyone can tell you what the right amount is -- though they will surely turn around and tell you when you have too much. I think the second sentence about Mom's mascara is extraneous -- it doesn't add anything that furthers our understanding of the situation. Do you mean the scene to be funny? As the commenter points out, it is funny with the new description.


Every line needs to service the plot, set an image in the reader's mind, or reveal something about the characters. If it doesn't, you don't need it, whatever beta readers think.

But actions and descriptions can add weight to a conversation because they can help us visualize what's going on. And they can help set the pace; faster dialogue means less description, because you want the reader moving along as fast as they're talking.

Me, I'd keep the first section you expanded (mom's face) but leave the rest as you had it.

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