For the uninitiated, dialogue tags (or speaker attributions) are those words that accompany dialogue to identify a speaker–like “Oscar said” and “Lucinda asked.” When handled well, they pleasantly and unobtrusively do their job of telling the reader who said what. And that is all they’re required to do.
If you read about how to craft good fiction, you’ll discover that the prevailing wisdom these days indicates that you use the most invisible verb possible in dialogue tags. And for the people in the know, such as Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of the marvellously useful book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, the verb of choice for dialogue tags is said.
You may scoff. Isn’t said a little boring? Won’t a page full of them lull readers to sleep? With so many delicious verbs in the English language to choose from, why is it not considered appropriate to fling them around with wild abandon while writing your dialogue tags? Why shouldn’t your characters hiss, spit, squeak, roar, growl, shriek, sneer, grunt, laugh, smile, chuckle, grimace, breathe, tease, or scoff their way through their dialogue if you damn well want them to? (Or, in cases where you feel they’ve taken over your book, if they damn well want to?)
There are good reasons for not succumbing to the allure of using colourful dialogue tags. The first is that they’re a distraction from what your characters are actually saying. When you accompany your dialogue with “Gerald spat” and “Valerie squeaked,” it’s as if someone’s standing beside the character as they’re speaking, jumping up and down while waving a big flag. It makes it awfully hard to focus on the dialogue when such flashy verbs are jumping out at you and capturing your attention. In the case of such tags, the reader is distracted from the content by the mechanics of writing, which should never be the case.
Another very good reason for not using these tags is that they often describe actions that are physically impossible for people to carry out. Take, for example, the following: Sybil spat, “But I told you not to use those words!” I think you will agree that it’s not actually possible for Sybil to spit the dialogue. Nor it possible to roar, hiss, squeak, or growl words, and these verbs seem especially inappropriate in connection to human speech since they are best used to describe animal sounds. Using them automatically makes prose more melodramatic and characters more cartoonish, which I’m guessing is something writers would rather avoid. As well, it’s best to avoid all sorts of verbs that are associated with speech such as interrogated, commanded, stated, inquired, divulged, expostulated, affirmed, and objected, just to name a few. When editing, I generally reject these as being much too obtrusive for dialogue tags and go with a plainer choice.
Of course, there are certainly other verbs besides said that have their place in speaker attributions. Characters can easily reply, ask, shout, or whisper when these particular words apply. And I must admit that sometimes I’ve read one of the more exotic verbs in a dialogue tag and realized that it works beautifully and that nothing else really seems right. What I’m saying is that some flexibility is called for when considering dialogue tags. But as a general rule, keep it plain and simple. And repeat after me: said is a perfectly good word.