Before you start sending me hate emails, let me present my argument. The first rule of writing dialog is to make sure it sounds natural. In other words, it should be written the way it would actually HAPPEN using words we would actually USE. It should be written as if you’re speaking the words to someone else.
With that in mind, let me give you an example. I recently took my two-year-old son to a pediatric dentist. When I got home, my husband didn’t asked me what the dentist stated, remarked, informed, whispered, or growled. He asked me what the dentist SAID. And my answer was, “He said…” It wouldn’t have been natural for me to say, “He snapped…”
Think about conversations you have during the day. When repeating something someone has told you, how many times a day do you say, “She barked, he hissed, he inquired, she droned, he grunted”? Sure, when I picked up a metal pipe and it caused the trailer to catapult forward smashing my finger, I guarantee I made a noise that sounded like a hiss (I’m sure I said a few choice words as well). And I’ve been known to moan when—well, you get the picture.
The point is, the natural thing for us to do is SAY something or to ASK a question. I’m not implying that you shouldn’t use other dialog tags, but use them sparingly and get in the habit of SHOWING your emotions/feelings rather than using telling tags to get the point across. There’s a reason for the saying ‘actions speak louder than words’.
More importantly, use variety. People “read over” or “skip” the words said and asked in a book, but when you fill a page with tags like stuttered, yelled, bellowed, screamed, etc. it jars the reader out of the moment and can get annoying. So try to stick with said and asked the majority of the time. But more importantly, make sure to use variety. For example, use a tag to help emphasize a point, forgo a tag (if the reader knows whose speaking without one), show the speaker doing something (Kim shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.”) or describe the character’s emotions/feelings (“No, I don’t think so.” Tears streamed down Kim’s face and her heart hit the pit of her stomach.) rather than having a tag. Use a mixture of things to keep your reader interested and the scene moving.
Kim works as an editor when she’s not corralling her two-year-old son Cage and writes when she can. Her paranormal novella Wayward Soul was published with Astraea Press in February 2011, and is currently on sale for $.99.
She also contributed the true story of her parents’ wedding to the anthology Matrimonial Mayhem, and all the proceeds from its sale go to benefit the victims of the April 2011 tornadoes.