We’ve already looked at why “said” and “asked” are the go-to words for quotes and dialogue. Today let’s look at how to identify the person speaking.
Give us the quote first, and then tell us who said it. That’s because the words are almost always more important that the person. We don’t (at least, we shouldn’t) quote unimportant words even if they come from the mouths of important people. On the other hand, when people say something important to the story, we quote them even if they are nobodies.
Not convinced? Look at these two sentences and decide which is more important, the words or the speaker:
“Your car is very nice,” President Obama said.
“Your car got towed,” the parking lot attendant said.
It’s even more important to put the words first when you have to tell me something about the person who’s talking. Most often that happens when you are introducing a new voice and need to explain how that person fits into the story.
Look what happens when you front-load this quote:
Alf Musherton, who was playing cornet in the Sewage Disposal Workers’ Band next door at a housewarming party for Chuck and Dottie Brainfeeble, said “I tried to grab the pig when he ran past the bandstand, but he was too fast for me.”
Our story is about the rampage of a pig. The only reason we care that Alf exists is because of what he has to say about the pig. In order to learn that, we have to wade through a 21-word description of Alf. It makes much more sense to put his words first, because they tell us that someone tried to grab the pig. Once we know that, you can take a step back and tell us who the guy is.
But what if you have the opposite: a very long quote and a very short attribution? You don’t want your reader to wade through an entire paragraph of information before discovering who said it. So use the attribution to break up the quote, preferably early.
“I tried to grab the pig when he ran past the bandstand, but he was too fast for me,” Musherton said, “I must have scared it when I lunged at it, because then it changed direction and ran into the buffet table and knocked a platter full of beef punkles right onto Charlie Razorscum’s shoes. Then he ran right through the hedges into the Dankwell’s back yard. I mean the pig did, not Charlie.”