Fiction writers need at times to indicate which character says what, and to do this they use speaker attributions. Good writers understand that speaker attributions serve the one and only purpose of clarifying who said what—anything more leads to redundancies or lazy writing (the popular telling over showing principle). In almost all situations, said is the only attribution a writer needs. This scares amateur writers, who think they need to spice up dialogue with variation in attributions:
“Give me your money,” she demanded.
“Okay, okay,” he submitted.
“Hurry up,” she pressured.
“Give me your money,” she glared.
“Okay, okay,” he panicked.
“Hurry up,” she grimaced.
Both cases indicate nothing more than an unconfident writer. The first conjures redundancies: from the dialogue alone we know the woman demands and pressures and the man submits. Overstating does not clarify, it annoys. The second example, and by far the strongest indication of a beginning writer, relies on physical impossibilities to convey mood. You cannot glare, panic, or grimace whole sentences. Most commonly, I see poor characters trying to choke, cough, laugh, spit, or gurgle their dialouge. Never inflict such misfortune on your characters and such ineptitude on your readers. Many writers, though, are still uncomfortable with only said, thinking falsely that it functions only for declarations, not questions. They may write:
“Can I have your money?” she asked.
“I guess so,” he replied.
This time the writer relies on redundancies that may be more clearly demonstrated in this rewrite:
“I’m asking?” she asked.
“I’m replying,” he replied.
Amateur and professional writers want to mark action accurately, but using anything other than said, which readers gloss over as if it were not on the page, draws attention away from the dialogue—the heart of the action—and to the technique, which in this case is clunky and redundant. Most of the time when a writer insists on using something other than said, that writer does either not have strong dialogue or a comfortable grasp on how people read. Consider the following:
He waved toward the bartender. “Hey, over here!”
“Vodka and orange juice. On the rocks.”
“We’re all out.”
“Of vodka?” he said.
“Of the rocks.”
The dialogue conveys the action and the sole speaker attribution only reminds us that the man, not the bartender, is speaking (and to demonstrate how comfortably said works with a question). There’s no better attribution than said, which hides away in plain sight and offends no reader.
Modern writing prefers the noun or pronoun be placed before the verb in a speaker attribution: he said rather than said he. The latter, a preference of older writing and children’s books, tends to sound outdated or childish. Prefer he said to said he in most situations. Rhythm occasionally tempts me to place the verb before the noun or pronoun, but I have never done so and have never been the lesser for it.