Something to Lean On
Every author, new or experienced, has a crutch to lean on. For some, it's formulaic plots that are rehashes of prior books. For others, it's repetitive, lifeless dialogue. Others use words and phrases repetitively, so much so, it stands out on the page and interferes with the story. This is the crutch I most want to address.
I've noticed that particularly newer, less experienced authors do this. I found it in my own work when I went back to edit some of my early books for publication. There is, first of all, a compulsion to tell every little action.
For example: Suddenly angry, Wil, whose back was to the door, turned around, ran to the door, flung it open and began to run through the door.
If I did my job right in this scene, I've established the fact he's got an explosive temper. We know by prior discussion & dialogue that Wil is growing angry. All that aside, what's wrong with this sentence?
For starters, it tells too much. We may not know Wil has his back to the door, but is that really necessary? Not unless we are establishing a confrontation. In which case, it should be brought up sooner.
Second, if his back is to the door, we know he's got to turn around to get to it.
Third, he's pretty much got to open the door if he's going to run through the doorway. Unless he's interested in hurting himself, he's not going to run through the door.
Fourth, he's not beginning to run. He began that movement at the start of the sentence. That's a conclusion to the action, not a beginning.
Let's look at a better way to say that. We establish that Wil is in the room, his back to the door, confronted by someone who makes him angry. We see his anger grow and his exit is a culmination to that growing anger.
Wil flung the door open, exiting angrily.
Flinging open the door, Wil rushed out.
Spinning on his heel, Wil flung open the door and dashed out of the room.
Any of these options, and many more, could be incorporated. He's angry and he runs out. I kept the word flung/ flinging, because it is a very specific action verb. He didn't open that door calmly, he whipped it back, possibly putting a hole in the wall. It expresses his anger and desire to leave quickly.
Many inexperienced authors chain themselves to inexpressive verbs. They rely on the old standbys and spice them up with a bunch of adverbs. Not that I dislike adverbs – I'm very fond of them. But don't use them instead of a good verb.
Hearkening back to the sentence above. You'll notice that one thing I said was: began to run through the door
This is something I saw in my own work and I see in others. It's often exchanged with started to
I have no idea why authors do this. I can't even tell you why I did it myself. In fact, I still find myself doing it from time to time. If anyone can explain it, I'd love an answer. In the meantime, I simply need to make a concerted effort not to use it.
Instead of saying – He began to run or He started to run – the sentence should be He ran – pure and simple. No beginnings or starts necessary. He ran for the door.
Another crutch I often see with this is overuse of the word then. It's most often seen in a sentence where a series of actions are strung together.
Example: The woman began to scream, then started to run, then fell down and then started to cry.
My example seems like overkill, but trust me, as an editor, I've seen worse. So much is wrong with this sentence, let's pull it apart before we put it back together.
First of all – why do we need then at all? It's extraneous. These actions are happening in a series, therefore, we know that this happened before that happened. So, we pull out then. We're left with:
The woman began to scream, started to run, fell down and started to cry.
That's a lot of beginning and starting. So, let's pull them out too.
The woman screamed, ran, fell down and cried.
What we're left with is a little sketchy, so let's go back and add to it.
The woman screamed. Running away, she fell down and started to cry.
Here, you notice I put started to cry back in. Why? Because she wasn't crying before. Falling initiated the tears. In this instance, using started to works in the sentence.
Finding our crutches isn't always easy. We need fresh eyes or a more critical viewpoint. Printing the pages helps a lot with this, as does reading something aloud. For some reason, the words look different when they are on a printed page and mistakes are easier to spot. When you read aloud, your brain has to make sense of the words in a different way. You've added a new component – speech – to the process. You listen to the words as well as see them and it's easier to pick up on repetition or left out words, grammatical mistakes and awkward structure.
A writer doesn't have to be an English teacher in order to tell the story, but it's mandatory to have a working grasp of the language. Recognizing an error, and how to correct it, is essential. It's also important to identify the crutches and remove them, as much as possible, from your work.
© Dellani Oakes