At my critique group, we often talk about dialogue tags. Why are these tags so often a topic of conversation? Because they cause so many of us fiction writers huge problems. I also have seen this topic mentioned again and again in writers' handbooks, so it must be a problem for more than just the six of us at my critique group.
Here are some of the points we touch on.
1. You can just use "said." One of the writers in our group doesn't believe this, but it really is true. Your characters don't need to exclaim or shout or cry or any of those things that characters did in classic novels. Today, it is okay to just use said. I don't know if this next fact has been scientifically proven, but supposedly, the reader's eyes just glance over the word said and don't notice the repetition. So, Bill said, "Your house is on fire!" I hear him shouting in my head, do you? Wait, I didn't even see that said. . .
2. You don't always need a dialogue tag. Now, the younger the reader, the more dialogue tags you probably need. This isn't saying anything about the intelligence of the reader. We all know that there are some genius fourth-grade readers out there. But as a general rule, if you are writing an early chapter book, you probably want to provide a dialogue tag almost every time. If you are writing for adults, you only need them to set a scene or occasionally for the reader to keep track of who is talking, so he or she can stay in the story and not have to figure out who is talking.
3. Dialogue tags should be used to set the scene, provide sensory details, and character description. Here is your chance to slyly let readers know what is going on while they are involved with your characters in a conversation. For example, look at this conversation and these dialogue tags:
Martha took a drink of her coffee before she answered his question. She hated these new eco-friendly cups because they always were too hot to pick up. What happened to the good old days before they had to recycle every damn thing? "I know, Bill, that you think you know better than me what I should do with my own money when I die, but that's where you are wrong."
"But Mother, I'm just trying to help." After Bill rubbed his head for the hundredth time that afternoon, he excused himself and walked over to the coffee bar to add some more sugar to his coffee.
So, hopefully with that small example above, you have learned a couple of things about Martha and Bill and the setting through their dialogue tags. If I was to continue to write this conversation, I would not put long dialogue tags each time they said something. I might not put any tag on a couple of the lines or just use said and so on.
Dialogue tags are a gift to writers--we can use them to our advantage in so many ways. Be creative, but watch out for words other than said. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?