2

Example:

"Exactly." John scratched the nape of his neck. It had a faint, purple blotch I hadn't noticed before. Probably sunburn. "Our lives began in the sea, and will probably end on land."

"Exactly." John scratched the nape of his neck. It had a faint, purple blotch I hadn't noticed before. Probably sunburn. "Our lives began in the sea, and will probably end on land."

"Exactly. Our lives began in the sea, and will probably end on land." John scratched the nape of his neck. It had a faint, purple blotch I hadn't noticed before. Probably sunburn.

John scratched the nape of his neck. It had a faint, purple blotch I hadn't noticed before. Probably sunburn. "Exactly. Our lives began in the sea, and will probably end on land."

Do the three examples give a different message to the reader?

These are my conclusions so far:

  • Shorter action tags gives more focus to the dialogue.

  • Longer action tags distract attention from the dialogue.

  • Action tags that are placed before the dialogue affect the dialogue in a stronger way.

  • Action tags that are placed after the dialogue affect the dialogue in a lesser way.

But I'm probably wrong, that's why I decided to write this question.

3

That's very difficult to answer, as everyone reads things differently. For me, from your three examples, I got:

  1. This seems like the most natural to me, which doesn't overly bring more attention to the dialogue or the description.

  2. Brings more attention to the dialogue, as that is the first focus, then with description on the end, tailing off toward the end of the sentence.

  3. Brings more attention to the description, for the same reason as above.

Though more import than the order you write things in, is the content of the sentence. Your content naturally draws more attention to the description as it is 3 short sentences, pointing out something strange to the reader.

My suggestion though would be to just write whichever way feels most natural to you and not worry too much about that sort of thing, unless its really relevant to the story and you really want something to be taken on board by the reader.

3

Aside from issues of attention that Conn Warwicker brought up, you should also consider the aspects of time when composing these sentences.

Given that you are separating dialogue specifically, readers are likely to infer a different passage of time with each composition.

  1. The first two examples, which correct me if I'm wrong, are the same. Imply a pause in between what the character is saying, slowing the dialogue and allowing for more time to pass between his comments. This can build tension adding weight/drama to his words.
  2. The second example speeds things up for readers. The dialogue is not slowed by an observation, but rather, the observation is an after effect of the dialogue. In cases like this, readers tend to attach less weight to the line of dialogue, as the character seems to be simply saying it, rather than drawing it out, as is the case in example 1.
  3. Without further context, this one could be misleading. But, in the third example, we assume some amount of time is passing before the comment is directly made, which might give more weight to the observation, and less to the dialogue.

What's important to keep in mind is that, while it's possible in real life to simultaneously observe and listen to something, stories rely heavily on a narrative progression of events. So, you can make your characters observe something and listen to something at the same time, but readers are still likely to assume one came before the other--even if this ordering is slight.

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