2

Example:

I said "Go Away"

versus:

"Go Away", I said.

Which should come first?

I am writing medieval fantasy and stumbled across this problem. Speakers tend to speak a whole paragraph at times, and therefore which should come first?

4

Rather than a definitive case of one always being correct it's more situational based on what you're trying to achieve and also whether the preceding text gives the reader enough information to know who is speaking without a leading tag (or indeed any tag at all)

Let's look at some examples:

Bingley shook his head and slumped back in his chair. "Go Away!", said Bradford, a pained look on his face.

We've got an explicit dialog tag here - it works after the speech in this scenario because we don't have to wait particularly long in the reading to be able to attribute it. And it by waiting until after the dialog you can keep the pacing up, the "Go Away!" feels more immediate after the slumping back in the chair.

Compare that with:

Bingley shook his head and slumped back in his chair. Bradford said, "Go Away!", a pained look on his face.

Here the dialog tag only serves to separate the two actions, it's only slight but you lose come of the connected feel.

The post-dialog indication as to who's speaking works in this exampel because the line of dialog is short and snappy. On the other hand if you're dealing with much longer chunks of uninterrupted speech then you need to let the reader know who is doing the talking before the dialog. It doesn't need to be an explicit "x said" line - just some context to let the reader work it out.

For example:

Bingley shook his head and slumped back in his chair. "It is this fate, I solemnly assure you, that I dread for you, when the time comes that you make your reckoning, and realize that there is no longer anything that can be done.", Bradford said, pained look on his face.

It's not immediately clear that it's someone else doing the talking - we were after all just paying attention to Bingley, and the dialog is quite long so if the reader mistakenly assumes it's Bingley doing the talking then it's more jarring when they get to the end and discover it was actually Bradford.

Compare that with:

Bingley shook his head and slumped back in his chair. Bradford's face took on a pained look, "It is this fate, I solemnly assure you, that I dread for you, when the time comes that you make your reckoning, and realize that there is no longer anything that can be done."

In this version we haven't explicitly stated that Bradford is saying it, but he is the last character we are looking at contextually so it feels natural to assume that they are the one talking.

You can make it more explicit if needed, eg:

Bingley shook his head and slumped back in his chair. Bradford's face took on a pained look, and his voice was strained "It is this fate, I solemnly assure you, that I dread for you, when the time comes that you make your reckoning, and realize that there is no longer anything that can be done."

So while there isn't a straightforward "always do this" rule - hopefully this gives you a a better idea of where to indicate a speaker. A good check with this is to have a beta reader read just the passage in question - if they feedback that it's hard to follow who is saying what then you need to work on more explicit declarations of speech or better contextual focus.

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1

My own preference is to completely avoid dialog tags where possible. Some of my favorite authors (including the one I sleep with) do so as well.

If you can't tell who's speaking without tags, either there's a missing context cue, or the speakers don't have enough individuality (in word choice, for instance).

Yes, there are situations where you simply can't avoid a dialog tag; in that case, whether the tag is before or after the quote can be a matter of preference, or it can carry a connotation -- writing "I said 'Go away.'" is not quite the same tone as "'Go away,' I said." That level of control of character tone is, in my opinion, harder than creating context cues to eliminate the need for dialog tags entirely.

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  • Even without dialog tags, you can use speaker-identifying actions ("She tapped her foot", "He scratched his nose") instead, in which case OP's question still applies: Should they come before or after the speech? – Llewellyn Dec 13 '19 at 20:05
  • Those are context cues. and the great thing about them is they don't change the tone noticeably just by their order in the paragraph. – Zeiss Ikon Dec 13 '19 at 20:11
1

The main use of dialog tags is to avoid reader confusion about who is speaking.

If there is no confusion, as in a simple back-and-forth between two people, then your dialog tags can be nonexistent. Or every 3rd or 4th utterance, just so they don't lose track, and those can be trailing dialog tags, or embedded dialog tags.

If there MIGHT be confusion, it is better to use leading dialog tags, (although they are followed by a comma). For example, if somebody speaks twice in a row:

I held out her bank statement. "Where'd you get five thousand dollars?"
Linda frowned, and looked away.
I said, "You are gambling again. Jesus, Linda, I thought we got over this!"

Leading dialog tags are pretty important in conversations involving 3 or more active participants, because any one of them could speak, so it is better to know WHO is speaking before we read the text of the speech, so as readers we can give it the right "voice" to match the character.

You can also use dialog tags to create a break in the speech, for timing purposes.

And like on my first line, above, you can skip the dialog tags by giving the character some action to perform; after that any dialogue is attributed to that character.

One thing you want to avoid is a "wall of dialog", and the way to avoid it is to fully imagine the scene, what people are doing and not just what they are saying. Very seldom IRL do two people just talk to each other without doing anything else. They are drinking, looking around, walking around, often thinking unspoken thoughts or being reminded of things they do not mention. They make facial expressions.

Explaining what they are doing is an opportunity to avoid the tags altogether. For example, instead of "I said" in the third line above, I could have used an action:

I dropped her bank statement on the counter. "Jesus, Linda, I thought we got over this!"

Visualize your scene taking place. Film-makers do this all the time, they make people have conversations while performing actions, doing some "throwaway" work in the kitchen, or working out, or playing a game or walking through someplace, or in visually interesting places.

You want to do something similar in fiction. The dialog is the auditory component, don't forget the visual component. And possibly other senses, like olfactory, temperature, humidity, other sounds like music or traffic.

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I also prefer to avoid dialogue tags as much as possible. But when I do need them, I first try to consider if the reader will have a good idea who is speaking. If not, put it before the speech to signpost it. Otherwise, I use which ever way sounds more natural to me.

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There's a third option, especially as you say the speech involves whole paragraphs: You can insert the dialog tag (or speaker-identifying action) after the first spoken sentence.

So instead of either

"Go away! How dare you show your face again? [rest of the long speech]", I said.

or

I said, "Go away! How dare you show your face again? [rest of the long speech]"

you could say

"Go away!", I said, "How dare you show your face again? [rest of the long speech]

This works even when replacing the dialogue tag with some kind of action.

"Go away!" I struggled not to cry as I shoved him in direction of the door. "How dare you show your face again? [rest of the long speech]

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There is no correct order, although, placing the tag after the speech is wildly more popular.

Technically, the speaker always speaks in whole paragraphs - think about it.

On a side note: my peers berate me for being a non-reader. However, it occurs to me, this, and of questions posted on this forum are unnecessary. The answers can be found by reading any random page of any random novel.

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  • 1
    If you don't think a question is worth asking, don't answer it. The rule of this site is to be nice; don't answer to berate people for wasting your precious time. This is where they came to ask their question, they've already asked it, and they don't need your advice on what they should have done instead. Further, opening up some random novel shows them how ONE author did it, it doesn't tell them anything about the pros and cons of doing it that way, or any way to reason about why it is done one way sometimes, and another way at other times. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 13 '19 at 21:28
  • @Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica, then maybe open TWO random novels? Regardless, I have answered the question. How much more jam would you like on that? – Surtsey Dec 14 '19 at 8:58

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