Chances are that by now you’ve heard that the quickest way to lose a reader’s respect is to overuse unconventional and flowery dialogue tags such as: spouted, sneered, bellowed, erupted, declared, intoned, etc. And while I think this is for the most part good advice, the opposite extreme of writing “said” exclusively for tags can be similarly off-putting. The trick, like most things, lies in finding the sweet spot. And the tried-and-true principle of If a character does a thing only once, it’s probably important also still applies — if normally soft-spoken Jake suddenly roars something, I’m going to pay attention.
Generally speaking, it’s best to let a character’s emotion come through their words, rather than the tags. Say, for example, Jake gets a new haircut and Carol wants to make a snarky comment. Here are two (of the many) ways she could go about that:
“I really like your haircut,” Carol said sarcastically.
“Nice haircut,” Carol quipped.
“I hope they didn’t charge you for that,” said Carol.
While the first two are fine, only the dialogue in the third doesn’t rely on the tag for its meaning. Just keep in mind that readers won’t always hear a character’s tone of voice the same way you do, so the more you can narrow things through the actual words, the clearer things will be, and the less readers will have to reread.
Consider how the subtext of this line changes:
“You don’t love me, do you?” asked Carol.
“You don’t love me, do you?” said Carol.
The difference between “asked” and “said” is in whether we get the sense that Carol wants an answer or simply to be heard. In the first example, a reader might put emphasis on the second half of Carol’s question, the “do you?” i.e. she doesn’t know whether Jake loves her, or perhaps she just wants to hear it again–either way, she wants an answer. In the second, the reader might hear an emphasis on the first half, the “You don’t love me,” i.e. Carol has long-thought that Jake has been falling out of love with her, or never did love her, and is finally ready to say it, to him, aloud.
Dialogue tags, whether you intend them to or not, slow down the pace of conversation. Listen:
“I don’t know,” said Jake. “I guess I always sort of felt this way.”
“I don’t know. I guess I always sort of felt this way,” said Jake.
In the first example, the tag creates a pause, in which Jake stops to think about what to say next. What he says about his feelings feels genuine, in-the-moment, heartfelt.
In the second, however, the two sentences flow without interruption, from the same thought. And since the two sentences technically contradict, the result is that he sounds somewhat more distant, decided—manipulative, even. In other words, he didn’t have time to change his mind.
Readers sometimes get confused. If you have a long, quick conversation, even though you might not want to slow it down with tags—the characters aren’t slowing down, after all—it sometimes can be good to remind us every now and again who’s speaking. A simple tag here and there can do the trick. After all, getting lost and having to backtrack to the last tag will slow a scene down (un-)dramatically.
A new paragraph almost always means a new speaker. Sometimes, though, a character just keeps on talking, and at some point it comes down to either accepting the wall of text or breaking the monologue into paragraphs. If you go with the latter, the question becomes, How to do this elegantly. Leaving off end-quotes and picking them up again in the next paragraph works fine, but quotation marks are small and a missing one can go unnoticed. A simple dialogue tag can reinforce this:
“You never defend yourself,” said Carol. “You didn’t on our honeymoon and you’re not doing it now. You never fight for what you want. You never fight for me. I understand, though. I know–about your mother, and growing up, and everything. Believe me, I know.
“But I have to think about what I want, too,” she continued. “I’m sorry, Jake. I wish I knew how to help you, but I don’t. I’m sorry.”
There’s really no hard-and-fast rule regarding how to order the words in a tag, e.g. “Carol said” vs. “said Carol.” What you go with is going to depend a lot on pace, characterization, genre, and so on. Ultimately it’s not a bad idea, as is true with most things in writing, to read it aloud and see what sounds better. Personally, I like to put “said” as close to the actual dialogue as I can, which also usually has the benefit of putting a character’s name as the first or last word in a sentence, where it is more prominent. For example:
Jake said, “I guess there’s nothing I can do about that.”
“I guess there’s nothing I can do about that,” said Jake.
However, when it comes to other tags, ones that are important to the meaning of the dialogue, it can be better to put them on the ends, where, again, they are more prominent. Again, for example:
“I don’t believe this,” Carol whispered.