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:

  • If they’re in the kitchen, are they cleaning, baking, rubbing a spot on the counter?
  • If they’re outside, are they running their hands over the grass, playing with a leaf, scratching the dirt from their jeans?
  • Tapping a pencil?
  • Twisting a loose string on a shirt?
  • 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


9 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Keep Their Hands Busy

  1. That’s kind of brilliant. I never really thought about it before, but you’re absolutely right. I tend to fall victim to the “running the hands through the hair” cliche, but I’m going to need to be more conscious of what they’re doing with their hands while I’m editing.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha ha. I read Tobi’s comment and do the same thing with running hands through hair. This was a great writing tip. I’m going to have to pin it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Again, you reach beyond the ordinary to share gems of wisdom with us. You and your dad are a great inspiration to my writing.


  4. From my current WIP. A woman (her POV) and a detective are in a car. She’s just helped him crack a case:

    “Please don’t ask me to do that again.”
    “Not even if a life was at stake?” Harris raised an eyebrow. “A child’s life?”
    “I knew you’d do this to me!” I slammed my hand against the door. “I help you once, and you’re already planning the next one! Let me out here, please.”
    Harris sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. “I’m grateful for your help today, and I don’t want us to fall out over this.”
    I threw up my hand in exasperation. “If there was another way to do it, I’d be happy to help.” I pressed the hand to my forehead and watched the traffic speed past.
    He smiled tightly. “We’ll find a way, trust me.”


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