The forgotten elegance of forward dialogue tags

Looking up articles on dialogue tags (the “x said” and attached actions following a piece of dialogue) I have noticed two things. First, most focus on the relatively unimportant issue of he said/she said, and whether to use synomyms or not. The second is that very few even mention that tags can be used before the dialogue, and pretty much nobody mentions how the placement affects the meaning and effect of the sentence. In fact, as far as I know, I may be the only one who has noticed that (probably not, of course.)

They may have a technical term I’m not aware of, but I call them forward dialogue tags because, well, they go before the piece of dialogue. In fact, in ancient times, and by ancient I mean epic-of-gilgamesh kind of ancient, that was the standard way to introduce and describe speech. And I assume that before the use of speech quotes, that was the rule too. So it was, paraphrasing just a bit, something like this:

Gilgamesh opened his mouth and talked, “Kiss my ass and begone, oh, Ishtar, you crazy bitch from hell.”

That’s actually quite close to the original text.

Anyway, the point is that the act of speaking, as well as other auxilliary descriptions (like the speech tone) are placed before the things being said. It makes sense, really, because first you describe the action (he spoke and how) then the result. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this style has fallen out of fashion and now forward dialogue tags are literary unicorns. They have been replaced by dialogue tags written after or, with increasing frequency, in the middle of the speech.

Now you may be asking, oh, wise reader, Who gives a shit? Well, I do, and, besides, sometimes it actually matters, like when emotions are involved. The usual way this is done in modern literature is like this:

“Give me that book,” he said, with anger in his voice.

What’s the problem? Not a big one, sure, but the thing is, we process emotions and non-verbal behavior faster than speech. You will, in fact, always know when someone is angry before they start talking. Trailing dialogue tags, however, invert the usual way we process information by stating first the speech, without context, and then giving you the context. In other words, once the line of dialogue has been read, your brain has to go back to reclassify what it has read as something said in certain way, in certain place, or motivated by a certain emotion.

I would assume this is a mental computation that won’t tax anybody’s brain too much, but still, as a writer you should remove all stumbling blocks and make the reading experience as smooth as possible. And I’m more and more convinced that interrupting a piece of dialogue to state how that speech act was made, or mentioning it after the fact, is not the best course of action. At least nota ll the time.

The fact that medial dialogue tags have become increasingly more common proves my point since I guess that, at some level, writers know that placing the tag at the end, especially for long sentences, is absurd, but they can’t even imagine placing it before, so they place it forwardish, but still not at the front.

Keep in mind that dialogue tags are also used to describe the actions done while speaking (even if that feels forced,) so that ends up fattening the tags to prodigious proportions. But what do you think looks better?

“Where’s that document?” She asked to nobody in particular, frustrated, as she rummaged through the pile of papers on the table.

She began rummaging through the pile of papers on the table and, frustrated [for her lack of success,] she asked to nobody in particular, “Where’s that document!”

Not a big difference, true, but the order of the actions is now presented logically, as it would most likely happen in real life: first you start searching for something, then you comment on it. And you also avoid the all-to-common “as he did X” or excessive -ing phrases that plague contemporary texts.

Since it’s also standard practice to state what someone’s eyeballs are doing while that person speaks, the forward tags can also put things in a more logical order. Instead of this:

“Eat my shorts,” he said, staring at the thug.

You can trasnform the -ing participial phrase into a simple description (I could have done that with the previous example, too)

He stared at the thug and told him, “Eat my shorts.”

I also replaced said with the intransitive told because I believe it works better here and it’s a criminally-underused verb anyway. It has a much better punch. After all, do you just say “fuck off” to someone, or do you tell him to fuck off?

I’m convinced that (sometimes) placing the tag or even the description at the front gives your dialogues a more natural feeling, not to mention that it will decrease your reliance on -ing participal phrases. You can describe dynamic speech easier and more reallistically. Instead of:

“You are all sinners,” he said, lifting his finger and pointing at the audience.

Which implies he only lifted his finger as he spoke, this:

He lifted his finger and pointed at the audience. “You are all sinners.”

I have even removed the “he said” because it’s kinda superfluous and that way I end up the line with the stronger part. How many times have you read something like this:

“She is already here?” He shouted in alarm, raising from the chair.

Why not placing the action before? Or place the action before and the dialogue tag afterwards? There are three possible positions; not everything needs to be stashed forcefully at one end. You can move things around.

Again, remember that if someone is afraid, angry, surprised, and so on, you will most likely realize that before that person even opens its mouth, so why would you, as a writer, explain that emotional state, which may be the most important fact of the scene, almost as an appendage at the end, after everything has been said and done? If someone glares at you AND tells you something, that’s the logical order, glaring and speaking, not speaking and, then, as an aside, remebering to glare.

It also works for humor. In fact, I’d argue that a certain type of humor can only be done with forward tags. I assume you recognize this image/meme:

Now imagine a dialogue scene: Someone says something really stupid and your character does that squinting thing, and says, “I’m not sure what you just said is even English.” In traditional writing that would be:

“I’m not sure what you just said is even English,” he said, squinting hard at him.

Eh… sure, but it’s not there yet. On the other hand:

He squinted hard at him. “I’m not sure what you just said is even English.”

That’s more like it. And also notice that transforming the -ing participial into a past tense action removes the need for the “he said” since you already state the subject in “he squinted” and it’s superfluous to repeat oneself unless you want to add another tag perhaps.

And remember that you can also use colons. It’s not common nowadays, but who cares:

He rose from his chair and spoke with a thunderous, mocking voice: “Your face, your ass—what’s the difference?”

Uncommon, but at least better than:

“Your face, your ass—what’s the difference?” he said with a thunderous, mocking voice as he rose from his chair.

The former explains things in the proper order, not only as they happen but as your human brain would understand them. The second almost seems to deflate the effectiveness of the thing being said. Or, if you like, split it in two:

He rose from the chair. “Your face, your ass—what’s the difference,” he said with a thunderous, mocking voice.


Anyway, what I’m saying here should be obvious if you try to picture the scene. The former tells me that someone rose from a chair, that he spoke, how, and what he said. The order is logical and I can imagine it in my mind. The second tells me that something is been said, then by who, and then I have to backtrack to picture the thing being said as something done while doing something else although in fact it’s more logical to assume he said it after doing it.

Which is more logical, more human?

The corrupt sheriff pointed at the wanderer. “Bring me that man!” [he ordered.]

“Bring me that man!” the corrupt sheriff ordered as he pointed at the wanderer.

Notice also that transforming the dialogue tag into a forward tag or just a normal description means that it can be allowed to grow. You can keep adding stuff and detail, but not with the usual trailing tag, because the more qualifications you add, the more “as he did x” you have to force in there, and eventually the whole thing becomes unreadable.

There’s no strong or final conclusion here in this post, just some thoughts I had today but maybe they will help you and will also free your writing a bit from current fads and habits.

One thought on “The forgotten elegance of forward dialogue tags

  1. Mary

    I often put action tags and sometimes even the “said Character” tag first. And I’ve never had anyone complain in writers’ groups.

    Some advice is not really absorbed.

    Liked by 1 person

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