So you've written some sparkling dialogue, and even made sure your characters don't all have the same "voice." But there's still a problem with your dialogue — you feel weird writing "he said" and "she said" over and over again. Is there any way around this? What can you do to avoid this repetition?
Few words in the English language that are bigger workhorses than the verb "to say." Especially when you're writing stories or novels, it's easy to feel as though you're writing "said" around every line of dialogue. And it's easy to get self-conscious about this apparent overuse of "said." So here's some advice to help you through it.
Stop worrying too much about it
First of all, here's the advice that everyone always gives on this topic: don't sweat it too much. The word "said" is pretty much an invisible word, that people won't trip on no matter how many times you use it. Unlike the verb "to be," which actually weakens your sentences and makes your prose seem listless, "to say" is pretty much inexhaustible and reusable.
That said (ha), you can still change things up here and there, and avoid having monotonous sentence structures in general. But you have to be careful about avoiding some bad habits.
Don't use synonyms or other verbs
You can't ever get in trouble for overusing "said" — but meanwhile, you can run into a lot of trouble for using other verbs to indicate speech. Like "shouted," "exclaimed," "laughed," "snorted," "expostulated," "insisted," "screeched," "screamed," "maintained," "retorted," etc. etc.
A few of these actually describe the way that someone is talking (like "screamed," for example) — but even those should be used sparingly because otherwise they start to seem too much.
We've all read old-timey books and seen characters "exclaiming" and "ejaculating" non-stop. But these days, using other words instead of "said" is one of the key signifiers of "purple prose," alongside overuse of adjectives and adverbs. Which brings us to...
Avoid spicing it up with adverbs
You might think that "said" is a little bland on its own, so why not add an adverb, like "grimly" or "hotly" or "tartly"? In general, adverbs clutter your prose and hinder, rather than help, description of actions. But in particular, when you use an adverb after "said," it looks kind of clunky and reminiscent of old-school pulp fiction.
And the truth is, if you need to tell us that someone said something "grimly," then maybe the dialogue should be more obviously grim. Or you can convey that the person speaking is feeling grim, by describing something about his or her body language, or the way that their voice drops a register as they speak these words. The truth is, telling us that someone spoke "grimly" smacks of the author explaining to the reader what we're supposed to be seeing — and it feels like you don't trust the reader to pick up on what's going on.
There's no absolute rule against "telling" rather than "showing", as some people believe — sometimes "telling" is elegant and "showing" is clumsy — but using an adverb to describe how someone talks is the bad kind of telling.
You can summarize conversations
But on the flipside, sometimes people assume that the "show don't tell" mantra means that you can't summarize a long conversation, or boil down a page of dialogue into a single paragraph of narrative.
But depending on what kind of narrative voice you've got going on, this is often the most entertaining and clever way of conveying a conversation. Jane Austen does this all the time. Here's a passage I randomly grabbed from Emma:
The brothers talked of their own concerns and pursuits, but principally of those of the elder, whose temper was by much the most communicative, and who was always the greater talker. As a magistrate, he had generally some point of law to consult John about, or, at least, some curious anecdote to give; and as a farmer, as keeping in hand the home-farm at Donwell, he had to tell what every field was to bear next year, and to give all such local information as could not fail of being interesting to a brother whose home it had equally been the longest part of his life, and whose attachments were strong. The plan of a drain, the change of a fence, the felling of a tree, and the destination of every acre for wheat, turnips, or spring corn, was entered into with as much equality of interest by John, as his cooler manners rendered possible; and if his willing brother ever left him any thing to inquire about, his inquiries even approached a tone of eagerness.
But you can find plenty of more recent writers who summarize conversations, or convey a whole debate that lasts days or weeks, in a paragraph or two.
Avoid specifying who's speaking... up to a point
If you're writing a conversation between two people, the reader can assume that they're going to alternate "lines" of dialogue. So if one person has just spoken, you can kind of guess that the next quote is from the other person.
Some writers take this to a crazy extreme — especially in books written 50 years ago. When I used to read a lot of older novels, I would sometimes get tripped up on trying to figure out who was saying what, after a while. You run into the "wall of quotes," where a page or two of quotes going back and forth leaves you bewildered about just who's doing all this talking, after a time.
A quote followed by an action will always indicate who's talking
This is the trick that I use constantly. If you have a line of dialogue, and then follow it up immediately with someone doing something, then it's clear that the person speaking is also the person doing whatever. For example, from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?:
'That's a departmental matter.' He began restoring his testing gear to his briefcase.
No need to use a verb to indicate speech, if the speech is associated with an action, or a description of someone's body language.
Good dialogue can include action
You can actually avoid telling your readers what is going on, if it's clear from the dialogue. A character can say, "For god's sake, put that gun down," and then it's clear that the person being addressed is raising a gun. It's also probably clear who's speaking and how they're feeling, from the context.
Which brings us finally to...
The best dialogue really speaks for itself
If you're feeling like the verb you're using to indicate speech, or the way you describe the person speaking, aren't grabby enough, that probably means that the dialogue itself isn't doing enough work.
In fact, the best dialogue usually stands on its own, to some extent. Really snappy dialogue can often convey action, character, context, and (of course) who's talking. Maybe try reading the dialogue in your story aloud by itself, and see what you get out of it. If your readers can "eavesdrop" on a character in the middle of a scene and learn something from it, then you don't need to worry about how you're framing it, at all.
Pulp science fiction images via MonsterBrains and elsewhere.