Said He, or He Said?

American writing, like American music, is becoming flatter and flatter. It’s to do with rules, and relying on them for things that ought to be accomplished by other things instead.

In many older books, dialogue tags run with the word ‘said’ first, but this practice is now being discouraged. Unfortunately, it’s become a cutesy habit, sprinkled liberally about the pages of children’s book manuscripts, rather than a tool of style and syntax. And of course unimaginative people always deal with such situations by blanketing the ground in new layers of rules.

Is there a tasteful way to vary the placement of ‘said’ in dialogue tags?

Well, I think so. Generally, if the dialogue tag needs to be followed by certain kinds of subordinate clauses, it’s smoother and better style to put ‘said’ first. These kinds of decisions involve a sense of rhythm, I think, and some people have more of that than others do.

“Wrong number,” said Teena, who, in the group’s uninhibited rush down the stairs, had arrived at a telephone before anyone else.

They all said, “Oh” and “Well, then,” and “All right,” and tromped back up the basement stairs.

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