Dialogue tags. In my book I call them “a game writers shouldn’t play.” I was talking about the use of verbs other than “said” to explain dialogue. You know:
”Please don’t do that,” he articulated.
“What?” she interrogated.
I’m sure you immediately saw the silliness of tags like this that try to explain dialogue by telling the reader instead of showing.
But there’s another problem with that example
I’ll wager that you didn’t even notice that the dialogue tag came after the speech. No doubt you’ve read hundreds and hundreds of lines of dialogue with this structure, a structure that I think is essentially bassackwards in what needs to happen to deliver dialogue to a reader.
I believe that where the dialogue tag goes is an important aspect of the stimulus-response sequence necessary for a reader to get what’s happening in the smoothest, most clear way.
So, in my novels, when a character utters a bit of dialogue and a tag is needed to show who is speaking, I put it at the front of the sentence.
Farnsworth said, “Where do you think the monster is hiding?”
My reasoning is simple; the sooner you know who is saying those words, the better. Why make the reader backtrack to know who said what?
That my approach differs from that of many writers was brought home to me by a beta reader of the next novel I’m publishing, The Summer Boy, when she wrote in her notes that “The frequent use of dialog tags before dialog was very distracting, even irritating before I eventually got used to them.”
I want to add that other readers did not mention this, mostly because the narrative is apparently pretty darned gripping. One wrote to me, “The story is alive. I kept reading even when my eyes were closing at night.” Love readers like that.
I agree that if there is speech after speech after speech that begins with “said” always coming first, it would be an irritating pattern. That’s why I try to avoid dialogue tags as much as possible by using action beats and to get rid of them altogether.
Farnsworth’s voice came from under the couch in a whispery hiss that ended with a sob. “Where do you think the monster is hiding?”
Nonetheless, I think the reader is better served when they know who is talking before the words come.
Delivering the sound of dialogue
I also think that the placement of how a character says a line simply has to come before the speech. Otherwise, when you read the words, you’re not “hearing” how it is said and, if you were so inclined, you would have to backtrack to re-hear the line, which no one is going to do. For instance, here’s a line from a manuscript that was submitted to me:
”Hellooooo.” The voice sounded ancient, an old lady maybe.
Besides the “telling” aspect of this, I believe that it takes a step back from what I think is the goal of strong narrative—to deliver the character’s experience into the reader’s mind.
So, in this example, it should at the minimum read in the following way so you can begin to get the sound the character heard:
The woman’s voice sounded ancient, maybe an old lady. “Hellooooo.”
But this fails to deliver, doesn’t it? What does “sounded ancient” really mean? Do you hear anything when you read those words? You have to interpret. You have to call up what an old voice might sound like and then fill in the blanks.
I don’t think we should make readers work that hard. The narrative, including description, should flow seamlessly into the reader’s mind with the experience of the sound, not a report of what it was like. For example, in this case:
The woman’s voice rasped and quivered like an old lady’s. “Hellooooo.”
I frequently see “he said with . . .” construction that creates the same backwards arrangement of the stimuli the reader needs to get the scene, the emotion, the reality, the experience. For example, another bit of dialogue from a manuscript:
”Ants,” he said with fear in his voice.
When you read “Ants,” you had no idea that there was fear in this character, did you? You learned that later. If the writer wants the reader to get that sense of fear, then go with something like this:
His eyes widened at the line of black specks marching under the door, and his voice broke when he said, “Ants.”
As far as I’m concerned, that comes a lot closer to delivering the emotion, and does it without using the word “fear” to tell the reader what the character is experiencing.
Am I wrong in thinking that it’s not nearly as effective to make a reader play mental catch-up to get the speaker, sound, and feeling of dialogue by putting tags and action beats after the words rather than before?
For what it’s worth.