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Writing Tip: Keep Their Hands Busy

As I edit my novels, especially as I near the last few sweeps through, I take a close look at DIALOGUE TAGS (he said, she asked) and BEATS (pauses to break up dialogue: She sifted through her purse, hoping to calm her nerves before she said something she’d regret). 

I’ve noticed that in scenes where dialogue tags and beats flow better–and are easier to write–the character is usually doing something with their hands. Like the example above where the woman sifted through her purse.

It’s a simple tactic.

I love how quickly giving characters’ hands something to do anchors that character to the scene itself.


The next time you’re with a person–or five or twenty–watch their hands. As humans, our hands are rarely sedentary. This is especially true if we’re under any stress or conflict (which your characters should be). Watching this with others is a great study.

Ask your characters:

  1. If they’re in the kitchen, are they cleaning, baking, rubbing a spot on the counter?

  2. If they’re outside, are they running their hands over the grass, playing with a leaf, scratching the dirt from their jeans?

  3. Tapping a pencil?

  4. Twisting a loose string on a shirt?

  5. Clinging to a Kleenex, desperate to keep from crying?

As with all writing tips, this can be overdone, so use with caution. And watch out for the cliché motions, like running a hand over/through the hair.


Using active hands allows you to show emotion without telling.

Often, the character herself isn’t even aware of what she’s feeling, but she might scrub the counter until it’s raw if she’s upset. Or, if she’s deliriously happy, she’ll miss several spots, twirling the rag in large, lazy circles over the dirty spots.

So that’s my two cents.

Busy Hands = Easy Beats

Happy writing!

Keep Their Hands Busy by Rebecca Belliston

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