I love the word “said“. I advocate the use of this word, which some writers rail against. They say find something better, more descriptive to say. I agree with this but perhaps not in the same way. I don’t think you should replace “said” with other verbs too often. Spicing your dialogue up with unnecessary “said” synonyms is like putting too much salt on your food. It becomes distracting and spoils the flavor.
What to do then?
First, Develop your character’s voice through other methods. Their actions, their cadence, and even their silences should carry the most weight. This will inform the reader how they speak far more than any obscure “said” synonym you pluck from some long list.
Then, use the word “said”. Just do it. I guarantee it will be less distracting to your reader. In fact, it serves a minimalist purpose in your writing. Your reader will hardly notice. If you fear that it’s appearing too many times close together, then read what you have out loud and edit as needed.
Above all, let actions be actions and words be words.
Practice writing dialogue and action together with the word “said”. Think about the sound of your words as well as the pauses they create. Focus on capturing the feel of a moment rather than forcing it upon your reader.
What not to do:
“Here,” Elizabeth commanded distractedly, “Place it here.” Her voice was trite and demanding as she spoke to the porter and poured a glass of wine.
This forces the sound on the reader and lacks a strong visual, stripping this moment of setting. You should avoid intruding on the reader’s experience so blatantly (unless stylistically appropriate).
What to do:
“Here,” Elizabeth said, “Place it here.” She pointed at the spot with one twisted finger, not bothering to look up at the porter as she poured a glass of wine.
The interjection of “Elizabeth said” creates a natural pause in the writing here. The following description gives you a feel for her character. You need little more to create a strong visual and sound in your reader’s head.
Are there times when you shouldn’t use “said”?
Absolutely. Wait for the right moments, though. Weigh your words. Are you using a “said” synonym for emphasis? Sometimes your characters really must shout or quibble or whisper. This is fine. Just don’t strip these moments of power by overusing colorful language to begin with.
Let “said” do its subtle work, and paint your character with strong descriptions.