Use speakers attributes (SAs) as little as possible.
As with learning to limit my use of adverbs, I became aware of SAs around my fifth novel, when my editor of nix-the-adverb fame started cleaning up all the finer points of my writing. She started nixing the SAs right along with the adverbs.
Now we all know SAs are needed from time to time to tell us who's talking. Said is Old Reliable when it comes to SAs. Many authors advocate using said and eschewing the other, descriptive words such as screamed, whispered, etc. There's a reason for that opinion, and we'll cover that. (By the way, this is totally off topic, but don't you think the word should be exchew? Just seems a more apropos first syllable.)
I wholeheartedly support the SA rule. I now only use them as a last resort.
Mind you, following this rule will make writing harder. It's way easier to stick in a "he said" than to create an effective action beat. But it comes down to this: would you rather have a phrase whose only raison d'etre is to inform, or would you rather have one that heightens the emotion of the scene?
Some folks argue that readers skip right over "he said," so why worry about using it too much? It tells them who's speaking, and other than that, they don't notice it. My response is--that just proves my point. The phrase is doing nothing more than informing. It in no way enhances the scene. I'd rather write a phrase that both informs and enhances the scene.
Here are my choices, in order, for informing the reader of who's talking.
1. Add nothing. Just let the dialogue speak for itself.
2. Add an action, descriptive, or thought beat.
3. Add an SA when neither #1 nor #2 work best.
Let's look at these in more detail.
1. Add nothing. Many times when an SA is used, it's not needed at all.
"Stop it right now!" he cried. Why tell the reader he cried the sentence when the exclamation point makes that clear? (This is why many writers advocate sticking with he said.) You've just explained what the dialogue indicates by its own merit. All the phrase he cried does is add extra words. And if you hear me on nothing else, hear me on this: extra words ruin sentence rhythm and weight the action. Get rid of extra words whenever you can.
Okay, you might argue, so don't add he cried. But why not add he said? Well, that's a problem. Because he didn't just say it. He cried it. Said denotes no emotion. When you write dialogue that emits emotion, only to follow it with an emotionless SA--you've just diminished the effectiveness of the line.
So--how many dialogue lines should you write with no reminder of any kind as to who's talking? Depends on the conversation. If it consists of short, punchy sentences, you can have more lines of pure dialogue then if people are speaking in multiple sentences. You certainly don't want the reader to have to stop and count lines, so don't err on the side of confusion. Which brings us to ...
2. Add an action, descriptive, or thought beat.
An action beat can be a movement or facial expression.
A descriptive beat describes such things as the speaker's attitude, the way some part of his body looks (other than the face), or his vocal inflection.
A thought beat is something the speaker is thinking or perhaps perceiving about the other person. (Be careful that you're in this person's POV for the scene.)
This #2 is a great choice for heightening the emotion of the scene. Problem is, you can't use an action beat for every line of dialogue, because it'll sound repetitive. This becomes a problem of rhythm. When I write, rhythm is never far from my mind. So--how to break the repetition of too many beats? Go back to #1--add nothing. Then return to adding a beat. Or two. One way to make them less repetitive is to vary where they're placed in the line of dialogue. Put a beat before the dialogue. Put the next beat after the first line of dialogue. You'll also want to vary what kind of beats you use.
Even so, on occasion bouncing between #1 to #2 isn't going to work for the sake of rhythm. This is going to happen more often when you have a group of three or more people speaking. Whenever I face this point, I add an SA. But it really is my last resort. And even as I type it, I know I'll revisit the line in editing. Overall, I'd guess my novels have somewhere below twenty SAs. Brink of Death only had about five.
Sometimes when I add an SA, I do use a descriptive one--he whispered, etc--if it's really called for. If it's the most effective. But by saving these as the last resort, I am forcing myself not to be lazy in writing. I'm forcing myself to find the most emotive way to write the scene.
The best way to learn these techniques is by studying examples. I'll post some tomorrow. If you want to leave your own dialogue bits to be edited in the comments, feel free.
Read Part 5