From Rick and Scott:
Last week Scott talked about four bad habits of writers. The first was the use of habit words and phrases. Nearly every author is guilty of falling into the use of certain repetitive writing habits. The key is to catch them before they get into print.
Some words, like “a,” “an,” and “the,” are impossible not to use repeatedly. They are such a basic part of speech, and going out of your way to avoid them would make your writing even more awkward than the abuse of habit words. Even so, if you begin too many sentences in a row with these (“the” being all too easy to repeat), the reader is going to notice.
A giant, crystal chandelier hung above the center of the lobby. A double-wide staircase led down from the second floor. The Victorian-style, oak balustrade was breathtaking. The sturdy spindles had just enough space between them that the girls had been able to push their small legs through when they were younger.
Or try this passage. We’ve underlined the abused words to emphasize the problem.
Bill forced open the lock that warded the door and slowly crept inside. He knew that he didn’t have much time, but he tried not to hurry. With a deliberately slow motion, he crossed the open space of floor that separated him from his target. The safe that held the information he needed sat only five feet away. Without a sound, he slowly entered the numbers on the dial. The door swung slowly open to reveal the secrets that lay within.
As you can see from the overemphasized text above, when you repeat the same words over and over, it will annoy your readers. You may get away with one or two cases of overused words, but when you make it a habit, your readers will call you out. If you notice yourself falling into this rut, there are a few simple measures you can take to eliminate the problem.
The most obvious method is to use synonyms. In the case of “slow(ly),” you could substitute a number of synonyms: ponderous, plodding, deliberate, and sluggish, for example. By mixing some of these alternatives into the text, the phrasing will come out much more smoothly.
In the case of abused conjunctives, such as “that,” the solution isn’t quite so simple. One solution is to rephrase the problem sentence(s). In some cases “that” can be eliminated without losing sentence clarity, but be care you don’t expunge too many of them. I (Scott) have talked about this particular word before). They key is to vary the solutions to create a more pleasant passage.
A similar problem involving habits is telling the reader what a character is thinking. The author in question not only did too much “telling” instead of “showing,” he told us by using the same phrase for a variety of different supporting characters. The following is a series of examples, all of them showing the first line of a new chapter, and how annoying this particular habit will be for your readers.
Bill was in a melancholy mood.
Steve was in an angry mood.
Laura was in a melancholy mood.
Michelle was in an angry mood.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that a great number of chapters and scenes of this particular author started this way. It creates a variety of problems. First, we have the habit word problem. This particular author usually used the same two or three adjectives to describe the mood of every character whose point of view was being used. The endless repetition of these words became very annoying to me, as a reader.
A second problem is that you’ve done nothing to develop this character. Demonstrative examples of how this character felt would have given this character life. Instead, the author has made this read like a news article. The whole scene becomes dull and lifeless. On top of that, if you do this with secondary characters who don’t get much action, you’ve made it difficult for a reader to keep these characters apart. Since they have no personality of their own, the only difference between them is their name.
The next passage is an example of a lack of scene setting. It gets right to the point of the scene, but it feels empty without an idea of where the characters are.
John raced across the floor. Bullets ripped past his head as he dove for cover. He rolled to his side and fired back at his assailants. Behind him, Kathy shouted a warning. He looked where she was pointing and saw another assailant enter the room. John took aim and fired, sending the man sprawling to the floor.
Where are they? Is this inside their house? An office? A warehouse? How many people are present? What does the room look like? The questions in the reader’s mind will go on and on if you fail this miserably in setting the scene. Granted, it isn’t necessary to spend a page and a half describing the trees and flowers that dot the field where your characters are walking. But if you don’t give the reader an idea of what the picture you are painting looks like, the reader will be pulled out of the story as he tries to discern where the characters are.
One more habit that some writers fall into is opening scenes with time of day or weather. While this may seem like a great way to ground the reader, when done for each scene, it calls attention to itself. (Rick notes that he has been guilty of this and his wife called him out on it.) Sometimes, when the story is progressing at a regular pace, when scenes are flipping back and forth between two different locations (or times), or the story is running on a clock, it’s necessary to let the reader know the time or date. The simplest way it to put a header at the beginning of each chapter or scene. It’s far less intrusive, and the reader is kept in the loop. However, be sure this is necessary and your best course of action.
The third abuse is of vocabulary words. We’re not saying that all of the words in your book should be two syllables or shorter. But if you start dropping in obscure or less familiar words that might cause many readers to go to the dictionary, you risk losing your reader.
He slid down the tree to the forest floor. The taciturnity around him was almost deafening. He knew that somewhere to his right, his assailants still stalked him. Sooner or later, there would be an affray, and men would lose their lives. He could not discern the urge to take a life in cold blood, but his enemies obviously didn’t share his sense of decorousness.
The “ten dollar words” in that passage pull you right out of the story as you try to figure out exactly what they mean. A reader wants to be entertained by your story, not impressed by your vocabulary. Another danger in this abuse of a thesaurus is obvious above. “Taciturnity” is a synonym of silence, but it refers to a person’s lack of speaking, not to a sense of quiet. In this case, it’s an improper word to use.
There is nothing wrong with gorgeous prose and making full use of the English language. Just don’t overdo it.
Finally, we have the sin of head-hopping. As we explained, this involved the writer slipping in and out of characters’ heads or thoughts (or viewpoints) without smooth transition. Below is roughy the same scene done first with head hopping then with an omniscient narrator. It’s not meant to be a great piece of writing in either case, and the differences are sometimes subtle, but it gets the point across.
In the first case, the narrator makes an appearance only at the end, and the whole narrative jerks the reader back and forth between the two characters throughout. Except for the ending, the reader had no sense of a narrator presence, only of jumping into and out of the heads of the two characters. The narrator at the end is yet another head the reader is yanked into unexpectedly.
We’ve also added “thought” tags to demonstrate how intrusive they can be (and how unnecessary they are).
In the second case, the transitions are smoother because the external narrator (who is made clear from the beginning) is controlling the POV and makes the reader privy to the characters’ thoughts.
Further, the first narrative mostly TELLS, while the second one SHOWS.
[WITH HEAD HOPPING]
Jacob and Kathy entered the gym together. Wow, they really did a first-class job of the decorations this year, he thought. Almost overnight the senior prom committee had transformed the ugly old gym into a ballroom for the senior prom.
I’m sure glad he asked me to the prom, Kathy thought. No way did I want to go with that creep Todd. The word “no” wasn’t in his vocabulary, not where girls were concerned.
At first Jacob thought they’d taken down the basketball hoops, but as he looked closer, he could see spotlights mounted on them and the iridescent streamers dangling beneath, just enough to conceal the hoops. Even the bleachers had been decorated with posters from the Twilight movies and embellished by works from the art class.
This perfect, he thought. I’m glad she said yes to being my date tonight. God, she’s so gorgeous in that dress. He’d had a crush on her since his sophomore year. If he didn’t blow it tonight, maybe they’d have the future together that he’d always dreamed of. He’d seen Todd the Jock hanging around her and had been so afraid she’d go with him instead. Todd had been after her ever since his last girlfriend had dumped him. That creep’s been practically stalking her, he thought. I know he wanted to ask her to the prom and have sex with her after the dance.
The band began to play “A Thousand Years,” Kathy’s favorite song from the “Breaking Dawn, Part 1.” I love this song, she thought. I just hope he knows how to dance.
Jacob knew she loved the Twilight movies, not his thing really, but he understood why the girls loved it. I’m nothing like Edward or that Jacob, he thought. I wonder if my name was the reason why Kathy agreed to go with me. “You want to dance?” he asked her.
Little did they know that their future together was doomed. Ten years from now, she’d be in a fatal accident and would die in his arms. “I have never stopped loving you, and I’ll always be with you” would be her last words to him. (359 words)
Jacob and Kathy entered the gym together, each astonished by the overnight transformation from a gymnasium into a ballroom for their senior prom. At first it seemed to Jacob as if they’d taken down the basketball hoops, but a closer inspection revealed spotlights had been mounted on them and the iridescent streamers dangling beneath, just enough to conceal the hoops. Even the bleachers had been decorated with posters from the Twilight movies and embellished by works from the art class.
This is perfect!. She loved the Twilight movies, not his thing really, but he understood why the girls loved it. He was nothing like Edward or that Jacob. Had his name been the reason she’d agreed to go with him?
He was glad Kathy had said yes to being his date tonight. God, she was so gorgeous in that dress. He’d had a crush on her since his sophomore year. If he didn’t blow it tonight, maybe they’d have the future together that he’d always dreamed of. He’d been so afraid she’d go with Todd the Jock instead. The creep had been after her ever since his last girlfriend dumped him.
Jacob turned to Kathy and smiled. “Do you like it?”
Kathy smiled back. She liked it very much. She’d been hoping he would ask her to the prom, anything to avoid that creep Todd, who wouldn’t have taken “no” for an answer otherwise.
The band began to play “A Thousand Years” her favorite song from the “Breaking Dawn, Part 1.” And, as she’d hoped, Jacob led her onto the dance floor to begin their magical evening together. She wasn’t sure he knew how to dance, but right now she didn’t care. They were together, and that was enough.
Neither knew what the future held, but both hoped for the best. Ten years from now, after the accident took her from him, Jacob would look back on this night and everything it had promised. Before Kathy died in his embrace, she would gaze into his eyes and promise that she’d always be with him, no matter where he went. “I have never stopped loving you,” she’d whisper with her last breath. (361 words)
Note the almost identical word count of both examples, proving that it takes no more words to do it right than to do it wrong.
Hopefully, these examples will both clarify and emphasize the need to avoid the habits mentioned last week. Any book filled with these any of these problems can be an immediate turn-off to a reader. Keep in mind that the reader might leave negative feedback regarding these problems, which future potential buyers might see. This is why we have emphasized over and over the need for proper editing. You only get one chance to impress a reader. Don’t turn him away by falling into bad habits learned from published authors.
–Scott and Rick