Who Said That 🗨 Neil McGowan
Forty-three stories later (it was all short stories, 3000 words maximum - I am the first to admit I know almost nothing about poetry) there was a clear theme that stood out.
Or rather, an over-enthusiastic approach to them.
I've read more ways to attribute speech recently than I care to think about: (S)he enthused, bemoaned cried, whispered, intoned, breathed, muttered, screamed, laughed, gasped…
I could go on. The point is, none of these options are wrong, when used in moderation. But if every sentence of dialogue has a different tag, it becomes hard to read, and may lead to the reader losing the connection with the story, or, worse, abandoning it.
The best form of dialogue attribution is none at all. The words (and the situation) should give the reader enough context to infer how they were spoken. Tone and volume can be indicated in other, more subtle ways that better serve the story. If I'm writing a tense scene where two characters are hiding from a third, rather than just use '(s)he whispered', I'd much rather show this through actions - perhaps by having one of the characters raising a finger to their lips and shaking their head. The words should need no other labels.
The same holds true in scenes with extended dialogue. Tone, and context should be inferred by the situation. Keeping track of who is speaking should primarily be driven through the character voices. Occasionally, it may be necessary to add a tag for conciseness, but this is where the second-best option comes in: Said.
dialogue itself should provide enough context for the reader. Adding '…said' is
adding clarity without colouring the reader's perception.
Like all things writing-related, there are exceptions to this (I'd choose 'whispered' over 'said softly' every time) but it's something I (try) to apply to my own writing. The first rewrite is where I try to catch all those little slips and tidy them up. Do I change every single one of them? No. But does it lead to a better story when I do? Yes. Concentrating on dialogue often reveals weak or sloppy writing that can be improved, or poor characterisation.