The divine Miss Moonrat has a post here describing the plight of the Overwriter. You know this person--the one who never uses "red" when he can use "crimson," the one whose never met an adverb that she didn't love, the one whose dialogue doesn't sound like anything you've ever heard anybody say, ever, and that includes in historical romances.
The whole post is well worth reading, but my favorite part, and the one I am most merciless on myself about, is the part about dialogue tags. This is what Moonrat has to say:
It's ok to use the word "said," even if you use it more than once. Really. You can just say "Jackie said" instead of "Jackie sneered jeeringly" or "Jackie continued her bombastic harangue, her outraged grimace flickering as a sympathetic smirk fought its way to the surface." Repeat after me: WORDS SPEAK LOUDER THAN DIALOGUE TAGS.heh. As Omar would say "indeed."* I almost always use "said" as my dialogue tag, if I use a dialogue tag at all. Sometimes, if I'm feeling very adventurous, I will use "asked" or "___ told ___" (as in "she told me" or "I told her"). I almost never use anything else.**
"But Jay," you may be saying, "that sounds sooo boring. Said, said, SAID, all the way home!" To which I respond, no, actually, it's not boring at all. Why?
Because "said" is invisible. Readers don't see it. It's the word equivalent of a comma--they don't even notice it's there. Take a look at this excerpt of dialogue from something I'm working on right now:
Angela shuddered. "They're so creepy," she said. "And they're always around, staring at you."The "saids" in those five lines (and there are three of them) hardly even register. They're essentially places where the character would take a breath or pause. Now look at it with some overwritten dialogue tags:
"Um, okay," I said. "Thanks for the heads up, I guess."
"It's not just them," Angela said. "It's him."
I sat up. Angela had just become a lot more interesting. "What about him?"
Angela shuddered. "They're so creepy," she murmured conspiratorially. "And they're always around, staring at you."Yeah, exactly. "Said" doesn't show up in the reader's mind, but those other words, especially the adverbs, do. And eventually the reader is going to get tired of those words. But you know what word the reader's never going to get tired of?
"Um, okay," I said dismissively. "Thanks for the heads up, I guess."
"It's not just them," Angela exclaimed. "It's him."
I sat up. Angela had just become a lot more interesting. "What about him?" I queried.
Learn it, love it, USE IT.
P.S. I also love the list of "overwriter words" that Moonrat has in this post. I have to admit that I checked for all of those words in the stuff I'm currently revising and was relieved when I didn't find any of them except "suddenly." sigh. "Suddenly" is my weakness. Fortunately, I only use it when things are actually happening suddenly, so I'm going to grant myself a dispensation on that one.
* Omar Little is from The Wire. He's a philosopher-king, that one. He's mythical.
** While I was editing the book, I noticed that one of my more dramatic characters got some very (f0r me) flamboyant dialogue tags--"hummed," "drawled," "purred." I know! I felt it was okay for this character to have a few of these because he was soooo dramatic, but I made sure that I considered each one carefully, and ended up taking out quite a few.