First point of business is that ‘said’ should be used to convey clarity, not as confetti. There’s a school of thought that suggests said can become invisible to the reader but once again it is the rule of repetition: a repeated word creates emphasis. If said is becoming invisible to the reader then in all likelihood they’re skipping lines. This doesn’t mean we can’t use it regularly but using it for every line of dialogue can be an easy trap to fall into and, personally, I find it quite annoying. You may disagree and you’re welcome to but we need to be aware of the risk when we write.
So what do we use instead of said? There are a variety of words we could use: exclaimed, observed, muttered and so on. Once again we can risk overusing these words too and, as always, we’re looking for the right word for that moment and sometimes said is the right word.
Simply because we don’t want to overuse said doesn’t mean we need to cut out the attribution which can have the disastrous effect of creating confusion because the reader loses track of who is speaking. This can lead to them having to count lines to work out who is speaking which would lead to an unsatisfying reading experience. People might say the characters’ voices should be so different they don’t need prose to tell the reader who’s speaking. But having no attribution causes the reader to read the lines faster and the faster they read the easier it is to lose track of who is speaking.
Slowing the reader down is the other purpose of attribution. We may want to cut it down or out to make them read faster, perhaps during an argument or banter, but people don’t tend to speak in rapid succession in all their conversations. They said or other attribution creates a pause in dialogue and we can manipulate that pause with how much description we have.
Description can also create attribution. For instance, we may describe a character’s body language in the place of said thus indicating who’s speaking and offering the reader a chance to interpret subtext. The character may be saying one thing but their behaviour implies something else, it might even imply that they are lying. Too much of this can also become confusing so we have to find our balance which once again depends on our style. We have to experiment to find what works best for us.
Unfortunately I can’t tell you what works best for you I can only suggest techniques for you to experiment with.
For examples of using description of body language as attribution try reading an episode of my Weekly Serial.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.