One of my more questionable subscriptions (probably the first to go if I have to cut back) is Dutch “Schrijven Magazine”. I have to be completely honest and admit I probably only read it because it often makes me laugh in disbelief. Put two writers in a room and wait for them to disagree, mm? The April-May edition has Dutch author René Appel commenting on dialogue tags (or identifiers), by means of an example in the form of an extract from a Dutch novel:
“Het woordje ‘zei’ wordt opvallend vaak gebruikt. ... Het is net of de schrijfster in deze functie geen ander woord kent dan ‘zeggen’ en voor de verandering ‘vragen’. ... Een schrijver kan mensen ook iets laten melden, voorstellen, suggereren, veroordelen, reageren ... etc.” (14)
“The word ‘said’ is used remarkably often. ... It is as if in this instance the author can’t come up with anything besides ‘said’ and the occasional ‘asked’. ... An author can also have people report, propose, suggest, denounce, react... etc.”
But wait a minute. I liked Appel (back when I still read Dutch novels), and I rather admired him, which makes it easier for me to take his word on this, but I also remember a discussion on using identifiers in fiction which came to a different conclusion.
The English equivalent of Dutch ‘zei’ is said. Now some people think said is boring (“Writers are supposed to have vocabulary!”): most people don’t even recognise said when it occurs in dialogue, which is why I say: Use It! Said is like the perfect spy: it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Without going as far as becoming said-bookisms, there are identifiers (which some authors use to make things more exciting) that just get in your way when you’re reading.
What are you talking about?" she hissed.
Try hissing that. (You can’t: no sibilants.) Or laughing it. Seriously.
Famously, in a conversation between Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle uses (in his 1887 A Study in Scarlet):
"I would not have missed the investigation for anything. There has been no better case within my recollection. Simple as it was, there were several most instructive points about it."
"Simple!" I ejaculated.
"Well, really, it can hardly be described as otherwise," said Sherlock Holmes, smiling at my surprise.
Yeah. (Agatha Christie is guilty of this as well, so maybe this is a detective fiction thing.) But let’s just say that’s why you want to avoid overly exciting identifiers. Just for fun, let me show you a Tom Swifty:
"Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.
(Or my personal favourite: "I might as well be dead," Tom croaked.)
This is part of a bigger discussion, of course, the one about showing, not telling. While I’m not a complete proponent of that one (I always defer to Orson Scott Card, who says it’s best only to use it for dramatic sequences), I do have a soft spot for said. I have to agree with Appel that you don’t have to use it as a dialogue tag all the time, as with everything the rule is: if you can leave it out, do.
Just don’t leave said out altogether.