There’s a certain amount of disagreement about the use of dialogue tags. Here’s what I think about ’em. What I think about ’em today, that is.
To begin with, people speak through gestures, facial expression, body language. The non-verbal element supplies movement, injects variety into the look of the words on the page, enforces the meaning of what is being said, or contradicts the meaning of what is being said. Like verbal dialogue, these non-verbal communications should be appropriate to the character and situation.
You can also describe a character’s actions to show who’s talking: One woman is chopping onions, one is pounding steak, one is peeling apples. “I hate this!” Whack! Whack! went the mallet. “It just makes me furious!” – You don’t have to tell the reader that it’s the woman pounding steak who said that.
As for dialogue tags: Use them only when you need them. Try other ways of indicating who’s speaking: with movement, as I just said; by giving characters distinctive speech patterns; by having them call one another by name now and then; by indirect discourse (“She told him what I had done.” “He asked a lot of questions about that morning, and we answered as fully as we could.” “We continued to argue about what to do.”); by the content of what they’re saying. “I’ll be old enough to drive next year” is the teenaged girl, not her father.
When you do need taglines, use plain old “said” and, occasionally, “asked.” The way a character says something should be implied in what was said, or in the speaker’s character or in the situation, or with movement, another sentence, or a subordinate clause: Don’t write, “Send the flowers to this address,” he said, happily. Do write, “Send the flowers to this address,” he said, and smiled. Use –ly words carefully. You can start to sound like Tom Swifties, if you don’t watch out. You know: “I hurt my leg,” said Tom, lamely. “I’ll cut your heart out!” Tom exclaimed sharply.
So Mom and I have been reading Ross MacDonald’s first Lew Archer PI novel, THE MOVING TARGET, the target in question apparently being the back of Archer’s head. There are big chunks of dialogue with no attribution (anything to tell us who is speaking), but it’s seldom confusing. For one thing, the sentences in these chunks are usually short and always packed with information. Since we know what Archer knows and doesn’t know, it’s clear who asking a question and who’s answering it.
I once wrote a story with no dialogue tags at all, using movement, description, anything I could except he said/she said. I’m no Ross MacDonald. I had to go back and plug in some tags to keep things clear.
Conclusion: Do whatever works for you. Now isn’t that useful? Aren’t you glad you came?
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Try writing a page of story with every piece of dialogue using he said or she said. Write it again with NO dialogue tags but showing who said what through movement, description, and any other means but he said or she said. Think about which works best where.