The English language has an amazing array of synonyms for “say.” Characters can tease or shout, whisper or boast, promise or argue. “Ask” has nearly as many shades of meaning, from begging to negotiating, demanding to inquiring. I love the way a writer can convey personality by the way their characters communicate.
I know there’s a whole school of writing that believes one should never use anything more than “said” and maybe occasionally “asked.” These writers believe that dialog tags should be invisible. I say, if they’re invisible, they should be left out. I find few things more boring than reading said over and over and over.
Replacing “asked” — or other interrogatory words — with “said” just looks ignorant to me: “What do you mean?” he said. No, I can hear your voice rise on that question mark, instead of falling at a period. That usage is just wrong. Next thing I know, you’ll be banning question marks themselves. No. Just stop.
All that aside, I don’t believe every line of dialog needs a tag. If there are only two characters speaking — and you’re punctuating correctly — it’s pretty easy to figure out who is saying what. A good line of description before or after the line of dialog can also clarify things when necessary.
Things get trickier when you have two characters of the same gender conversing. You don’t want to repeat their names every paragraph: that gets awkward quickly. That’s where good dialog tags add the spice that makes the stew.
In As Above, So Below, I did a lot of characterization of my succubus through the dialog tags. She coos and purrs and hisses, because she’s not human. She chooses to speak dramatically, because people expect that sort of behavior from the kind of girl she pretends to be. When she drops the act, whenever she talks straight to someone, things are getting serious.
You’d lose all that if you bring all the dialog tags down to “said.”