“Bob said,” versus “said Bob.”

I’m wondering if readers even notice this.  I know that I didn’t until it was pointed out to me in the editing phase of my story “Playing Man” (which was published in QUANTUM ZOO).  I was informed by D.J. Gelner, my editor (who did an outstanding job, by the way) that the convention was to place the dialog tag at the end of the sentence, and it should be “Bob said,” instead of “said Bob.”  For example:

“I really want to try playing that Beatles song,” Rich said.

“Which one?  There are a million of them!” Peter said.

“Let’s do them all,” Carter suggested.

Is that qualitatively better than the alternative:

“I really want to try playing that Beatles song,” said Rich.

“Which one?  There are a million of them!” said Peter.

“Let’s do them all,” suggested Carter.

To me, they both read the same.  I read the tag and it vaguely registers as an identification of the speaker.  After being informed of the accepted (or proper?) way to write it, I started noticing, and while most fiction, especially indie fiction, does it the “right” way, Orson Scott Card’s book RUINS mixed them up indiscriminately.  And so do I, in most of my fiction.  As I read my short stories and longer works, I find both forms used, with no rhyme or reason to the usage except for the rhythm of the words in my head.

In other words, if it sounded right one way, I wrote it that way.  And vice versa.

I don’t know if it is “wrong” to do it that way, so I’ve been trying to make everything conform to D.J.’s rules.  But if I miss one, forgive me.


4 thoughts on ““Bob said,” versus “said Bob.”

  1. Steven M. Moore

    Hi Scott,
    Here’s my opinion: Gelner’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. If you only use said and asked in any order, speed readers will just breeze by them. I’d tend to use “Bla-bla-bla,” Rich said and “Bla-bla-bla?” asked Rich. More and more I don’t use anything but said, by the way. The question mark shows it’s a question, even if it’s in standard, not inverted, order: “My name is Natalie?” said the amnesiac.
    Many avid readers are speed readers. Besides the above, there are two other major things to avoid: questionable tags and -ly adverbs. “I’m your boss,” Graves groaned. (Can you groan at the same time you make a statement?) “Whoopee! I won the lottery!” Karen said excitedly. (That -ly adverb is superfluous here because of the exclamation marks.)
    One other thing: If the dialogue flow is obvious (bouncing back and forth between Rich and Karen, for example), you don’t need any tags at all. Moreover, you don’t have to start the paragraph with the quote. Graves groaned, glared at Peter, and shook his head. “I’m your boss.” (Here you’re throwing in some good old body language too.)
    The only rule you really have to follow is: don’t confuse your readers.

  2. Scott Dyson Post author

    FWIW, I agree about the “skipping over” part. I never noticed whether it was “he said” or “said he” until D.J. pointed it out. I sort of like using a variety of tags, and I like reading them that way as well. Mostly I use ‘said’ as well, but I like ‘whispered’ and ‘confirmed’ and ‘suggested.’ A little variety never hurt anything. When there are more than two people holding a conversation, I’ll use more dialogue tags, and when it’s only two, I’ll toss them in just to keep things straight. I had that happen in a book recently — I was reading a long exchange of dialogue, mostly unattributed, and I had to go back to the beginning and actually count to figure out who was speaking at some point down the road. Again, I sort of file it under the “can’t hurt” heading.

    Regarding adverbs, I think that at times they convey things that aren’t conveyed in the dialogue. Sarcasm, disappointment, worry…the more subtle sorts of emotions sometimes don’t come across in dialogue. Yeah, you can spend several words describing body language or facial expressions, but sometimes it works just as well to use an adverb, in my humble opinion. The key is to not overuse them and to not use them when the emotion is obvious (like in your example, or perhaps in a case where someone’s really angry). Of course, some of that can be conveyed via the dialogue tag on occasion. (Can’t think of a good example at the moment.)

    I appreciate your thoughts on the matter, and on my own assertions here…

    1. Steven M. Moore

      Your examples are OK. One can “whisper” something, for example. But I’ve seen some egregious examples. I gave “groan” as one; here’s another: “Julia, I think you’re nuts,” coughed Alan. Alan might be saying that with a knife in his throat (hey, you write the horror stories…wink, wink), but normally no one can say anything very discernible when they’re coughing. Common sense has to prevail.
      I’ve been called to task for writing something like this: Susan studied George for a moment. “Are you going to visit the haunted house tonight?” George nodded. “Then take me with you, please. I want to see ghosts too.” That works for me, but some would not want George mixed up in Susan’s dialogue or want line breaks. But I think what I wrote here is clearer and more interesting.
      My last sentence still stands. It’s your style. As long as you don’t confuse readers, you’re golden, methinks.

  3. Scott Dyson Post author

    After I read your post, I noticed a paragraph like the one you gave an example of in FAMILY AFFAIRS. Would have never noticed it if you didn’t mention it specifically.

    I think variety in dialogue tags is okay, but most of them should be “said” and one should only vary from it when it helps to give a mental picture of what’s going on. When I think of someone “cough”ing something, I think of someone trying to disguise what they’re saying with a cough, so maybe there’s a place for it as a tag, but I’ve never used it.

    Interestingly, D.J. did like some tags that were not really tags at all. He called them “stage business” or something along those lines.

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