The third place to put a dialogue tag, you may have guessed, is in the middle of a character’s speech. Usually this happens when a tag is inserted between two of the character’s sentences or clauses, like this:
“Sir, I’m afraid you’ll have to step out of the car,” the cop said. “Your tags are expired.”
You can usually chalk up the decision to put the tag in the middle as a pacing choice. The tag interrupts the speech, but there’s not much of a distraction, since the character has been allowed to finish his/her thought before the narrator intrudes.
A related method is to put a tag in the middle of a character’s speech when the full meaning of the speech hasn’t really become clear—that is to say, the narrator interrupts the speaker before the speaker has finished his/her thought. This may sound like an odd thing to do, and certainly it’s not all that common. But I recently came upon an acclaimed book in which the author does it a lot, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Mitchell is widely acknowledged as a master of content and style, so I think we have to assume he’s doing it on purpose. Here is a compilation of dialogue lines he uses in the span of a single page in the novel:
“I’d rather,” Lacy bites a thumbnail, “visit the famous Maruyana District.”
“Mr. Hemmij,” recalls Interpreter Yonekizu, “ordered courtesans for his feasts.”
“Chief Hemmij,” says Vorstenbosch darkly, “partook of many pleasures at the company’s expense…”
“You ask a starved man,” Gerritszoon says, “to drink to a glutton.”
“A diet of abstinence,” replies Vorstenbosch, “never hurt anyone.”
“’South of Gibraltar,’” quotes Captain Lacy, “’all men are bachelors.’”
“Nagasaki’s latitude,” says Fischer, “is, of course, well north of Gibraltar.”
“I never knew,” says Vorstenbosch, “you were a married man, Grote.”
“He’d soon as not,” Ouwehand explains, “hear the subject raised.”
In many cases, the character has barely spit out the subject of the sentence before the narrator cuts him off to include a dialogue tag. Used judiciously, this may introduce a split second of suspense—“He’s soon as not do what?” we wonder while reading the tag “Ouwehand explains,” or “What happens South of Gibraltar?” we ask during the interval of “quotes Captain Lacy.”
But the maneuver can be pretty distracting. Once or twice every chapter or so, and the reader won’t care or notice. But when the reader comes upon this many non-standard dialogue tags in the span of a page or so, I would argue that he/she almost has to think about the writer’s decision, and thus may not be too engaged in the scene. Personally, while I enjoyed this novel, I frequently stopped and wondered why Mitchell kept cutting off his characters in mid-clause just to say something like “says Fischer.”
Another risk, besides the general distraction of it, is that it gives a false sense of the pace of the characters’ speech. Presumably, when Gerritszoon said “You ask a starved man to drink to a glutton,” it took Gerritszoon about as long to say the words as it took you to read them. But because Mitchell puts a tag in the middle of these words, we take a second longer to incorporate the sentence. We may subconsciously get the idea that Gerritszoon paused after the word man—which would be a weird thing for him to do—or that Yonekizu took a second to come up with the verb that should follow “Mr. Hemmij” and so on. In short, it can make the characters sound like they’re often not exactly sure what word they’re going to say next. True, we often pause when we speak, but not generally in the moments implied by the above tags.
In any case, Mitchell at least makes sure to keep his tags short. At times we see interrupting dialogue tags of such length it can be hard to remember what the first part of the character’s sentence says:
“I’d really prefer,” the haughty stranger said, smiling toward the blushing countess, and giving his chin one of his trademark tilts, “to stay in the east wing.”
By the time you get to the phrase that ends the stranger’s sentence, you may have forgotten how that sentence began, and you’ll have to read the whole thing over again, this time skipping over the tag.