Action beats can be multi-functional. For instance, they not only tell us who the dialogue line belongs to, they also provide movement for the characters and keep the reader in the scene. However, when they are over-used–when action is tagged onto every single line of dialogue–the conversation between characters becomes cumbersome and encourages your readers to just skim through things you’ve painstakingly written. Action is usually best sprinkled gently, like a strong spice to a delicate dish.
In the following scene, Claire and her sister, Nina, are preparing their products for a county fair while discussing the disappearance of an elderly friend:
“I bet Mason has something to do with Bessie’s disappearance.” Claire tested the seals on her homemade jams and jellies. “There’s just something about the way he acted that just makes my skin crawl.”
At the kitchen table, Nina stopped attaching price tags to her beaded jewelry to stare at her sister. “You don’t really think he would do something to his aunt do you?"
“I don’t know what to think, but I wouldn’t put anything past him.”
“Oh, come on. I just can’t see it.” Nina rested her forearms on the table, her jewelry forgotten for the moment. “Why do you hate him so much anyway?”
“You mean his getting our brother arrested isn't enough?”
“I was too young to know what all that was about.”
“It burns my biscuits every time I think about it.” Claire leaned a hip against the counter. “It was back when Bobby worked for the Stanfields’ timbering business. A lot of money went missing from the company, and Mason pinned the blame on Bobby. Marcus had Bobby arrested and wouldn't let him out for Daddy’s funeral.”
“It always bugged me that he wasn’t there. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Bobby didn’t want you to know.” Claire turned back to her jars.
The scene is fine as is. The action beats tell the reader who's speaking and provide a sense of movement. But they aren't playing a third role of illustrating the characters’ emotions. If, instead of leaning a hip against the counter, Claire had squeezed her lips into a thin line, the reader could feel her emotions better.
When used to enhance or contradict what the characters are saying, action beats can pump up the tension. In this conference scene, Debra has just presented--as her own work--a brilliant marketing strategy that she had nothing to do with, and her dishonesty has been discovered:
When the meeting broke up, [Debra] slid her pages of notes into the portfolio. Below the dais, Barbara Bastille lumbered toward her, her bracelets jingling as she waved for Debra’s attention. In velvety tones unexpected from such a matronly figure, Barbara said, “Great presentation. Do you have a minute for another question or two?”
“Sure, Barb.” Debra stepped down from the platform and stood eye to eye with the woman who’d waited thirty years for the promotion Debra had gained in five. “What can I do for you?”
“I couldn’t help but notice some of my thoughts being presented this morning.” Barbara picked a stray hair from Debra’s linen suit coat and dropped it as though it were a rat she held by the tail. “I didn’t realize Pete had discussed my idea with you.”
“Your idea? No, actually, he never mentioned you at all.” Debra flicked her fingers across the shoulder Barbara had touched. “What exactly was your contribution to the plan? I’ll be sure to have Mr. Whitfield give you credit for it in the next sales meeting. Maybe this time you could get the Sales Rep of the Year Award.”
Barbara’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps it would be easier to tell him what your contribution was. No, wait–” she sneered–“we already know what it was.”
With that, the woman turned and rumbled out of the conference hall like a satisfied hippo.
Written this way, Debra's activities enhanced what she felt. The same scene can show a contradiction between what Debra says and how she feels about it:
"Sure, Barb." Debra stepped down from the platform. Her eyes flickered towards Barbara’s, but Debra couldn’t hold her gaze. She’d gained in five years the promotion Barbara had wanted for thirty, and Barbara had never forgiven her. If not for the situation Debra was ensnared in, she couldn’t have forgiven herself. “What can I do for you?”
“I couldn’t help but notice some of my thoughts being presented this morning.” Barbara picked a stray hair from Debra’s linen suit coat and dropped it as though it were a rat she held by the tail. “I didn’t realize Pete had discussed my idea with you.”“Your idea? No, actually, he never mentioned you at all.” Debra rubbed her shoulder, soothing away the burn of Barbara's touch. “What exactly was your contribution to the plan? I’ll be sure to have Mr. Whitfield give you credit for it in the next sales meeting. Maybe this time you could get the Sales Rep of the Year Award."
As a quick final note, remember that action beats can also set/keep the pace of a scene. The fewer the beats, the faster the dialogue reads. When high stress levels are necessary, the speakers should occasionally be tagged simply, using the word “said,” so the beats can be kept short and at a minimum.
Dialogue action beats can multi-task with the best of them. Put ’em to work!