Dialogue tags are indicators of who is talking. The most common dialogue tags are “he said,” and “she said.” Dialogue tags can get as purple as “he whispered desperately in her tender ear.” Actually, they can get even worse, but who wants to read it?
Stage direction is when the author tells the reader what the characters are doing as they talk. “He placed a hand on her shoulder.” or “She winced.” Are stage direction. They can also be used as dialogue tags.
Here’s a better example:
from Portrait in Death by J.D.Robb aka La Nora
I’ve put stage direction in bold and underlined dialogue tags.
“Lieutenant, I found something I think — ” Peabody stopped her forward march into the office and stared at the small chunk of candy still in Eve’s hand. “What’s that? Is that chocolate? Real chocolate?”
“What?” Panicked, Eve shoved the hand behind her back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m working here.”
“I can smell it.” To prove it, Peabody sniffed the air like a wolf. “That’s not chocolate substitute, that’s not soy. That’s real goods.”
“Maybe. And it’s mine.”
“Just let me have a little — ” Peabody’s gasp was shocked and heartfelt as Eve stuffed the remaining chunk in her mouth. “Oh, Dallas.” She swallowed hard. “That was very childish.”
“Uh-uh. And delicious,” Eve added with her mouth full. “What’ve you got?”
“I don’t have chocolate breath, that’s for damn sure.” At Eve’s arch look, she pokered up. “While others, who will remain nameless, were stuffing their face with candy, I diligently pursued an angle in the investigation that I believe might be of some interest to the incredibly selfish candy-hog primary.”
“It was dark chocolate.”
“You’re a mean person and will probably go to hell.”
“I can live with that. What angle did you diligently pursue, Officer Peabody?”
Notice that Nora did not once use the words “she said,” yet you can tell who was speaking at all times. Even at the end when there were neither dialogue tags nor stage direction, you knew who was saying what. Also notice that Nora used stage direction for both characterization and as dialogue tags. One last point, notice how she has the characters name one another in their dialogue. When there are only two people in a scene, this is one way of indicating who is talking. Very few characters will call themselves “Officer Peabody.”
There are those who will tell you never to use “said” as a dialogue tag. Considering how well a scene can be written without it, I can see the point. However, there are times when coming up with some stage direction is less effective than simply saying “he said.”
Others will tell you to substitute a speaking verb like “she yelled” and yet others will tell you NEVER to use a speaking verbs.
I say it’s all a matter of balance. Try to make each character as distinct as you can with attitudes and goals that will make it clear who is talking simply through what is being said. Sometimes “she whispered” is part of making a character distinct and moving the plot forward. If so, then use it. After that, try to use stage direction to indicate who is talking. But do it with an eye to revealing character and/or moving the plot forward. Simply having the hero drive his fingers through his hair as a bad habit doesn’t cut it. Finally, there will be times when “he said” is the best choice. Don’t be afraid to use it.