Placing a tag before the line of dialogue is not as common as the first method, but in some ways it conforms more to the traditional syntax of American English. Using the style I discussed last time—putting the tag after the dialogue—actually creates an inversion of subject and verb that we don’t use much anymore in normal prose. We see it in older works, such as when Romeo’s father says
Black and portentous must this humor prove
In modern parlance this would be “This humor must prove black and portentous.” In other words, Shakespeare has mixed up the traditional order of English syntax, which usually involves a subject, followed by a verb, followed by a complement.
This humor (subject)
Must prove (verb phrase)
Black and portentous (complement)
Writers of Shakespeare’s time had more leeway with their word order. If you try to deviate from the standard SVO structure today, you’ll come off as a little pompous:
Tedious do I find this Twitter post.
The Royals will in the bottom of the division finish.
But when we place dialogue tags in the standard way, that’s pretty much what we’re doing. Consider this sentence:
“It’s too early,” she complained.
The subject is “she,” the verb is “complained,” and the complement is the phrase that appears within the quotation marks. Grammatically speaking, you can pretty much substitute any line of dialogue for an X placeholder, and try to figure out the grammar that way. So the above sentence turns into
X she complained
Which is to say, when put into standard syntax,
She (subject) complained (verb) X (complement)
So why do we prefer to deviate from the standard syntax when we write dialogue? For a couple reasons, I think. For one thing, in normal prose, the subject and verb of a sentence are the more interesting parts, so we don’t mind having them first. But in a sentence that contains dialogue, the tag is almost always going to be less interesting than the character’s speech, so we want authors to front-load the good stuff. In fact, that may be a good rule of word order inversion generally: only do it when you need to put the interesting bits first. It’s perhaps what Shakespeare was doing in the above line; “black and portentous” gets the blood going more than “humor” and “must prove.” (Although admittedly, he also had to shape the sentence so it would rhyme with “remove”).
The word order inversion also doesn’t bother people because it’s hard to think of an entire line of dialogue as being the complement of a sentence, because they’re often sentences in their own right, with separate subjects and predicates. Here’s a line from “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”:
“You must have stolen something,” she said.
The dialogue is its own grammatical unit, and it’s the one we focus on. If you asked most people to identify the subject/verb/object combination in the above line, they would probably say it’s
You (S) must have stolen (V) something (C)
She (S) said (V) youmusthavestolensomething (C)
In other words, we don’t even notice that a word order inversion has taken place.
But surely there are times when a tag can come first without too much disruption. Here are two particular situations in which the style might work:
1. When the pacing of the scene requires dialogue first.
As I said in the last post, pacing is always going to be a reason to do something grammatical, so it’s something of a cop-out. But it’s worth considering anyway. Here’s a passage in which a front-loaded dialogue tag does something specific to the pace:
She said, “Are you sure?”
He said, “You bet I’m sure.”
She said, “How sure?”
She said, “Not 110 percent?”
“Yes, that’s what I meant. 110 percent.”
This passage is meant to move very quickly. The writer might prefer not to use tags at all, but maybe thinks he has to clarify who’s speaking. You’ll notice that this style imitates the way playwrights attribute dialogue—in plays scripts, a character’s name and a colon presents his speech—and that it moves as quickly and unobtrusively as the exchanges that occur in drama.
2. When something in the tag is the more important part, or at least equally important.
It can be hard to find examples of this, because if the act of speaking or the identity of the speaker is more important than the words, a writer doesn’t need to use dialogue at all. She can just write “The queen said no to his request,” or “He answered her solemnly,” or something like that. But occasionally writers decide that the reader must know either which character is speaking, or how that character is speaking, or some other aspect of the speech-behavior, before the reader hears the character’s words.
“Clearly my client has a right to speak,” Miles said.
“But the precedent is clear,” the opposing counsel said.
The judge said, “Overruled.”
In this instance, the standard word order is clear—subject (judge) followed by verb (said) followed by object (overruled)—because the sentence is brief. In fact, it so clearly shakes out as a grammatical unit that the comma between said and “Overruled” may look strange—we never separate a verb from its object when they’re right next to each other. And sure enough, you can get rid of the comma when dialogue lines are this brief: The parrot shrieked “Please!” and Lila said “No way” and so on.
The tag in the third line also comes first because it creates a split-second of suspense: we know that the judge is about to weigh in and resolve the tension that the previous lines introduce. In this case, it’s important for us to know, before we hear the words, that they will be spoken by this particular character.