Monday, April 22, 2013

Invisibility is Good

“The story in this book is fantastic!” Rowlf exploded. “I can’t put it down.”

“Oh really?” Cyndy interrogated. “I found it annoying to read because of all of the oddball speaker attributions.”

“That’s because you have no vision,” Rowlf interjected. “This writer is being experimental.”

“I guess I just miss the old ways,” the older woman sighed. “When writers used their descriptive powers to set the scene, including the character’s emotions. The days when they took time to show the scene and the emotion rather than just rushing to tell it.”

“You never ‘get’ the books I read,” Rowlf spat.

Does the above dialogue annoy you? Are you thinking people don’t write like that anymore because everyone knows better?

Sorry, you’d be wrong.

I’m proofediting a book right now for a publisher that is full of attributions just like these. It also has no discernible POV (point of view), switching within scenes to whatever character is most convenient at the time (head hopping)—or even to omniscient.

It’s full of huge grey patches of monologue, where one character speaks for a half page of backstory rather than the normal give and take, back and forth, of real dialogue. And there’s precious little character development—it’s all very cardboard.

How did this book get on this publisher’s list? It has a fantastic “what if?” The story is to die for, but the execution is ham-handed.

But, this is not a post about story trumping all. Nor is it about POV, character development, or backstory. This is about speaker attributions. For me, these are the major problem of this book.

In Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-editing for Fiction Writers, (Note: You do have this book, right?) they write:
“The only reason you need (speaker attributions) is so your readers know who is saying what. Don’t use (them) as a way of slipping in explanations of your dialogue (“he growled,” “she snapped”). …
“Your best bet is to use the verb said almost without exception.”

Why is this so? Because said disappears in the reader’s mind and allows the characters to speak. Anything else causes the reader to look at the attribution rather than the dialogue and pulls the reader out of your story.

And when you’ve done that, you’ve shown the reader your mechanics, not your creativity.

I can’t fix the book I’ve referenced—I’m just proofediting it. But I can’t help thinking how much better it would be, other faults aside, if the attributions were fixed.

Don’t do this to your editors. When it comes to attributions, invisibility is good.

Your turn: It can be fun to play with attributions, however. So, let’s get it out of our systems! In the comments, provide an example of horrendous dialogue, complete with very bad (but creative!) attributions. The winner will receive his or her choice of: Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel or A Novel Idea, a compendium of advice from the biggest names in the inspirational fiction market.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /


Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor at, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.