Anyone who's worked with me will know my love for author, agent and editor Allan Guthrie's superb essay, HUNTING DOWN THE PLEONASM, which is all about cutting the unnecessary from your work to make your voice and your story truly shine. It used to be hosted on the Hi Arts website, which has recently gone AWOL. However, since Al is actually my agent, I approached him and asked if I could possibly host the essay here on my website. Luckily, he agreed, and you can link to/download the essay (in pdf form) right here
The essay changed my writing for the better, and I know its worked for a number of authors who swear by it. And if you like that, you should check out Al's books - HARD MAN in particular remains a favourite of mine, but each and every one of them is a little slice of hardboiled wonder.
I may have covered or mentioned this in several places, but I think it bears repeating. Dialogue tags are important in writing prose - but not in the way you might think.
Over and over again, I come across characters who "extemporise" or "exclaim" or "pronounce", which just makes me cringe (and none more so than characters who "quip") as it draws attention to the dialogue that precedes the tag in an unwanted manner.
For example, when you have something like,
"I want to kiss you," he pronounced
You have a tag that adds a weird imagery to the dialogue. A pronouncement that seems like he's got on a soapbox to say it. Take it away, the dialogue feels more natural. Unless, the idea was that he was saying something in an unusual fashion (in which case, I would always say that surrounding detail should do the work - show us that he's pronouncing something by talking about his actions and tone).
Then you have,
"You're a damn moron," she quipped.
Where a) its clear that this is a joke or a witty aside from the words and the context and b) if we have to be told something's a quip, you might want to rewrite it so that it is a quip.
The thing with dialogue is that the words and the tone should immediately be able to conjure up the sound of the words and their meaning in the reader's head. Its an art, and a damn hard one at that, but writers should be able to convey tone and layers without getting lazy about it and drawing attention to themselves. And that's the thing - "said" is the invisible dialogue tag. It helps us identify who's speaking (which can help with knowing the way in which we should read a line of dialogue)
Here's a little bit from a work in progress where you'll see that for whole lines of dialogue I don't use tags except for said, and imply tone through both construction and details:
Silence for a moment. Parks takes a drink.
Stark says, “You knew Caulder?”
“The detective who killed himself? Only by reputation. You weren’t a fan.”
“Only to anyone who was in the morning briefing.”
Stark nods. Tight smile. Blood rushes from his lips. “I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
“A good quality.”
“For some people. That morning? I’m not so sure.”
“Its the reason we’re here, now.”
Parks nods. “I’m not some wide-eyed little boy coming into the polis, thinking its all about being Dixon of Dock Green or whatever. I’m not a fucking idiot.”
“With your father, that would be a disappointment.”
“He wasn’t a man who liked to be disappointed.”
“I can imagine.” Stark takes another drink. He keeps looking around, like he’s expecting to find someone watching them. But the evening drinkers are involved in their own conversations, or else their own pints. They don’t give a toss about the two men at the corner table. “So, Caulder’s where it starts. He was in bed with Kennedy. Professionally, I mean.”
That tight smile, for example, shows that Stark's trying for a joke but might be realising he's avoiding the truth. The fact that Stark looks around before starting his story about Caulder tells us that he's speaking confidentially, maybe even whispering. But the dialogue itself is what does the heavy lifting, and with no attention-calling tags to do the work, I think it works okay, especially for a first draft (one of those character names will be changing, given they're way too similar)
I recently re-read George Pelecanos's debut, A FIRING OFFENCE, where the dialogue is so good, Pelecanos rarely needs tags beyond said. Action and tone do all the heavy lifting, and the result is that the reader feels closer to the action because there are no words directing them how to feel - they're being shown it all the time. Its the same with the late, great Elmore Leonard - look at how many of his characters pronounce, proclaim,
Now, sometimes you will need a tag or two when something's unclear or you need to be specific, but using them all the time simply because you want to show that your vocabulary is larger than said has the opposite effect than the one you want: it gets in the way of your writing and trips you up. Its puts the artifice of your dialogue on display where, if you're good enough, the words that fall out of your character's mouths and their actions should be more than enough.
Which brings me to a final point - never ever have your characters "action" their dialogue.
By which I mean,
"That's great," he shrugged.
"God, I love you," she smiled.
These are actions, and not dialogue tags. Its impossible to shrug dialogue, although you can shrug while speaking.
The other thing about using "said" as a dialogue tag is that it will make you work harder at your dialogue so it reads natural, smooth and clean - if the tone and the intent are in the words, your dialogue will, believe me, sing off the page.