I've blogged before about editing and how for me it has to be in layers. One of the zillion or so trips through a WIP will be a search and destroy of "-- said," sometimes known as dialogue tags. Several things need to be considered.

First, do you need to say who said it? The best thing is to have the dialogue itself indicate who is speaking. If there are only two people in the room, it can be assumed they take turns speaking (proper punctuation helps the reader keep track, too). It's awful to have a series of comments with "Jake said" attached to every other one and "Alice replied" hanging off the others.

Second, do you have to be specific, or will a pronoun do? You are going to use the name of your protagonist a LOT in your novel, so it pays to look for times when you can leave it out. "She" and "her" make for easy reading as long as it's clear who we're dealing with. If you keep putting three "Millicents" into each paragraph, your reader is going to want to beat you over the head after a while. Actually, you'll never have readers because an agent or editor is only going to tolerate it once, then she'll throw your work out.

Next, do you use the old standby "said" or something zippy, like "gurgled," for variety? We need to be careful of our choices for the verb that conveys the mood of the dialogue. "Said," if overused, becomes irritating and means nothing. However, it is a most useful word precisely because it isn't flashy. It just identifies who spoke. If you try too hard to replace "said," you're likely to end up sounding flowery or downright ridiculous. As in point one above, it's better to have the dialogue itself indicate the speaker's emotion rather than throw in "he exclaimed" or "she panted" or "the child lisped." Those tags will mean more when used sparingly, and you don't have to work so hard to get a different one for every utterance. (And to repeat point one, LEAVE IT OUT if it isn't doing something absolutely necessary.)

A final addition note: those who know language (e.g. editors and agents) get particularly snarky about imprecise tags. Don't say someone "hissed" or "growled" a phrase if it's impossible to hiss it or growl it. For example, you can't hiss a phrase like "Leave me alone." No "s" sounds, no hiss.

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Comment by Peg Herring on July 26, 2008 at 10:37pm
Clair, you're so right! I just finished going through my MS (last trip through before my agent gets it) and looked for places where I can do as you do. It's much more effective to tell what the character did along with what he/she said.

Naomi, I don't think I'm funny enough to do satire, but I appreciate those who excel at it. I'll have to take a look at Spencer. Unfortunately, I see a lot of instances where it's just carelessness, and I wonder where the editors were.
Comment by Clair Dickson on July 26, 2008 at 9:44am
I like to use the space where a dialogue tag would be to show the character moving (or if it's my first person narrator, snarking.)

Quick Example:
"I didn't see it." He folded his hands across together on the table, but wouldn't look at me.
"How could you not?" I stood up and shoved the chair under the table.

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