My upcoming book, The Language of Fiction, deals with a variety of grammatical and stylistic issues that fiction writers of all levels of experience have to confront. The problem is, grammar and style are such enormous subjects that it’s impossible to cover most—or even very many—aspects of them in the short span of a book. So every once in a while I’ll discuss an issue that I would have liked to have put in the book, but which for space reasons didn’t make it in. That’s what I’ll mostly do on the blog posts—I’m not sure I have much else to say that would be of interest to anyone, unless you’d like to hear some conspiracy theories about why the Kansas City Royals have lost so many pitchers to Tommy John surgery this season.
The first such issue has to do with dialogue. To be sure, many chapters in the book touch on the grammar and style of how we present speech, including lots of points about dialogue tag usage—whether you should favor “he/she said” over “he intoned/stated/asserted/replied/etc.”; whether you should use tags instead of phonetics to show accents and speech impediments; that kind of thing. But one of the topics I didn’t get to, at least not in the detail I would have liked, has to do with placement.
There are only three places you can put a dialogue tag: before, after, or in the middle of speech. That may seem obvious, but each one has a slightly different effect on the reader, so it could be worth looking at them in some detail. Today I’ll discuss the first one, then in the next two posts I’ll deal with the remaining two.
METHOD ONE: PUTTING THE TAG AFTER THE SPEECH
Examples: “You’re boring me to tears,” she drawled.
“Get that cat out of here,” Bertie pleaded.
“I would like a bourbon on the rocks,” he said.
This is the most common placement, the one that probably comes most naturally to us when we write. It’s all pretty simple: indentation, beginning quotation marks, line of dialogue, comma, end quotation marks, then a tag.
In terms of the effect on a reader, the key thing about this one is that the tag is back-ended, almost an afterthought. The quotation marks have already told us that someone is speaking, and the content of the speech (or the context of the scene) usually gives some clue as to how the words have been spoken. Thus the tag can seem, if not superfluous, at least not absolutely crucial. Sure, in some cases the tag may give necessary clues about how the words should sound in the mind’s ear. For instance, the “pleaded” in the second example lets us retroactively hear a whine in Bertie’s voice; “Get that cat out of here,” Bertie demanded would make us hear the line very differently. But I would suggest limiting such moments in your own fiction. The reader usually wants to hear the words in their correct intonation as soon as they appear.
So why use a back-ended dialogue tag at all? Usually it performs one of two minor but significant functions.
1. A back-ended tag can provide reassurance that we’re hearing the right voice. When a line of dialogue appears, we often already know who is speaking, but a tag at the end can give us an unobtrusive reminder that we’re on the right track, that we’re supposed to hear Stan’s voice instead of Charlotte’s or vice-versa. The key word there may be “unobtrusive.” These tags hide in the back, and thus allow the dialogue itself to have top billing, as it should. Here’s a passage from Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” in which three characters speak:
“It’s plastic, or something artificial like that,” he said.
“And you can see me out of this eye?” she asked, meaning the wounded one.
“I can see. But I can’t make a fist out of my left hand because this knife is doing something to my brain.”
“My God,” Nurse said.
“I guess I’d better get the doctor,” I said.
“There you go,” Nurse agreed.
Without the tags, the reader can still probably figure out who is saying what based on the speech and situation, but it might require a bit more effort to do so, which would distract the reader from the important stuff. So Johnson gives us dialogue tags as a way of assuring us that we are indeed hearing the voices we’re supposed to hear. And he puts them at the end of each line, where they won’t draw attention from the spoken words, which are of course much more interesting.
2. A tag can be used for pacing purposes. This is true of any tag, no matter where it’s placed. Often a tag is simply a way to slow things down when the dialogue would move too quickly if it consisted only of speech. Even when it’s perfectly clear who’s saying what, some writers will throw in a tag just so the exchange doesn’t come off as one of those rapid-fire back-and-forths we see in screwball comedies from the ‘30s. Consider, for example, the effect of the following exchange:
“I always wondered what a gold mine would look like when I saw it.”
“Me too. I was always curious about it.”
“We’re a couple of fools, ain’t we, Earl? We’re two of a kind.”
“It might be a good sign, though.”
“How could it be? It’s not our gold mine. There aren’t any drive-up windows.”
“We’ve seen it. That’s it right there. It may mean we’re getting closer. Some people never see it at all.”
“In a pig’s eye, Earl. You and me see it in a pig’s eye.”
This is an exchange between two characters in Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs.” It’s meant to be a significant, subtextual moment, full of thematic resonance. The reader is supposed to linger over it to some degree. But because I’ve removed all the dialogue tags, we speed through it as if we were reading the screenplay to His Girl Friday. In the version Ford actually wrote, each line gets a dialogue tag, often ones that have modifying phrases attached (“she said, unable to quit laughing completely,” and “I said, pointing,” and so on). The tags may not be technically necessary—it’s pretty clear who’s speaking in the above version, and we get a good sense of how they would speak these lines. But without the tags, the pace of the exchange, and thus the tone of the entire passage, would be altered for the worse.