It’s a debate for the ages: is ‘he/she said’ enough or is there room for alternate speech tags?
There is some heated discussion over this question and most people seem to have a very firm belief about which is correct. As I’ve shown before I believe all rules should be used as a guideline; there is always room for interpretation and it usually comes down to a writer’s individual assessment of the particular situation.
Personally, ‘said’ will usually be enough to get by on. Due to its commonality ‘said’ is almost like a punctuation mark: readers instinctively know how to read it and it doesn’t distract from the story. This is essentially what the debate boils down to. A reader is interested in the story, not how many variants of ‘said’ you know, and they will respect you for your commitment to the story over the showing of your eloquence.
There are variants of ‘said’; however, that are appropriate in the proper context and are actually more appropriate than ‘said’ in these contexts. ‘Asked’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘shouted’, ‘whispered’, ‘laughed’ and ‘interrupted’ are all useful, suitable replacements for ‘said’ that are clearer and less conspicuous where appropriate.
It is easier to read:
‘What’s that?’ she asked. than
‘What’s that?’ she said.
‘There’s something I need to tell you’, he whispered. and
‘Don’t go in there!’ she shouted. easily convey a tone of voice that mightn’t be apparent with ‘said’.
So common variants of ‘said’ are fine to use where the situation calls for them but lesser-known speech tags can create confusion and distract from the story, especially when a reader doesn’t know what the word means. Therefore it’s probably best to stay away from tags such as ‘enunciated’ when you mean ‘said’, ‘tittered’ when you mean ‘laughed’ or ‘elucidated’ when you mean ‘explained’.
But what about adverbs? Is it alright to spice up plain old ‘said’ with a few modifiers like ‘she said: softly, harshly, quickly, quietly or hesitantly’. Some might say it’s unnecessary and that what a character says should make it clear how they said it but I still believe adverbs can be used, as long as they are used properly, effectively and sparingly. A few adverbs can make apparent exactly how somebody spoke when ‘said’ just doesn’t cut it but, like anything else in writing, if they’re covering the page it soon becomes distracting for the reader.
Remember also that sometimes a speech tag isn’t needed at all. In brief conversations or when there is only one or two people speaking, the reader is able to determine who is talking without the use of a speech tag every time somebody speaks.
Like Stephen King once said, ‘I didn’t say that!’