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Words you just don't need

As I try to tighten up my prose and delve deeper into my characters, I'm finding there are a whole lot of unnecessary phrases and sentence constructions that can weaken my storytelling. So I thought it might be useful to talk about them.

Recently I've been paying particular attention to those related to point of view. All of my books--and most books, these day--are written either in first person or close third person (with a single narrator or switching between more than one). Which means the narrative at any given time is directly from one character's POV. And since it's from one person's POV, there are certain things you just don't have to say.

1. Sensing verbs. One bit of writing advice I often hear is to evoke all the senses--show what the character is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, etc. And that's great advice for bringing a story alive. But it can also lead to a whole bunch of weak sentences beginning with I/She/He saw/heard/smelled etc.

When you're writing from a character's POV, s/he is the only person who could be sensing these things! You don't need to tell the reader, "He saw a big house on the hill" -- "A big house stood on the hill" will tell us what he's seeing. Why write, "She felt the waves crash around her" when you could use "The waves crashed around her" instead? It's simpler and more to the point. Dropping sensory verbs can also allow you to use stronger verbs in their place. Compare "I heard a piercing cry" to "A cry pierced the air"--which one gives you a more vivid image?

2. Looking. Related to the above but not quite the same. A glance, a gaze, or a glare can convey so much without the characters having to speak! But it's easy to end up with pages upon pages of characters looking here and staring there--which gets repetitive.

Thing is, you can save your glances and gazes for when it's particularly important that you emphasize what the character choosing to focus his/her attention on. The rest of the time, just describe the things s/he's looking at. For example, from "The mountain's peak disappeared into the clouds. Dad frowned." the reader will know that the narrator was first looking at the mountain, then looked at his/her father, without you needing to state it.

3. Feelings. Of course you want readers to know what your character's emotional state is. But the rule "Show don't tell" is around for a reason. Just saying "He felt sad" or "She was infuriated" isn't going to make the readers feel what your character's feeling. With any character, POV or not, you can use actions and dialogue to get that across. But when you're writing in a close POV, you've got even more tools at your disposal.

-Internal physical responses. Stomachs twist, hearts pound, lumps rise in throats. Use in moderation or it may start sounding melodramatic.

-Narrative choices. A happy character and a depressed character will describe the same scene in different ways, and notice different things. The details you focus on and the tone of your narration give all sorts of hints at the POV character's mental state. Something as simple as "Sunlight beamed through the window" vs. "Sunlight glared through the window" can say a lot.

-Thoughts. With a close POV, you're allowed to reveal exactly what's going on inside your character's head, which opens up a whole new level of dialogue. Speaking of which...

4. Thinking. When trying to let readers in on a character's thoughts, you may be tempted to fill pages with italics and "s/he thought" tags. Not necessary! In a close POV, the narration itself is technically the character's thoughts (most directly in first person, but to some extent in close third as well). A couple of examples:

"I thought about how careless I'd been." vs. "I'd been so careless."

"They're always bugging me, he thought. It's not fair." vs. "They were always bugging him--it wasn't fair."

In both cases, I'd go with the second option any day. More integrated into the narrative, fewer words to make the same point.

Naturally, this is all just my own POV on how to tighten up a narrative and bring readers even closer to the viewpoint character. :) You're welcome to agree or disagree. And I'd love to hear other words you've found you just don't need!


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 10th, 2009 03:36 pm (UTC)
I call that POV scaffolding, and it is intensely embarrassing how many years went by before I saw that stuff. I do think it helps in first draft, because it anchors the writer who is splashing down the story. But yes, "I looked up and saw" can just about always be excised--especially because I am using two boring verbs to report one action. Bad Smith, no biscuit!

Other stupidities I commit: "I turned and went . . ." 'turned and' is almost always useless, because it's an implied action. If I want to dramatize a turn, then I have to use language to make that turn mean something. And yes about the 'I felt"--I wish I could get a nickel for every one of those I use, instead of a snore!
Aug. 12th, 2009 12:07 am (UTC)
Yeah, it can definitely be helpful in the first draft--I just have to be careful to catch it when I'm revising. :) And good point about "turned and went". I'll have to keep an eye out for that!
Aug. 10th, 2009 03:38 pm (UTC)
Yes, yes, yes! Pretty much everything you've listed here is something I've seen and excised from a draft at some point or another. And then recently a few others and I were listening to a John Grisham novel on CD, and it contained a phrase that was something along the lines of "he looked at him with his eyes." Me, I usually look at people with my elbows. *snerk* Clearly no one's reading Grisham for his prose stylings, but... seriously?
Aug. 10th, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)
Heh, that's up there with "I thought to myself" (or "She thought to herself"). Because unless it's a book about telepaths... who else would you be thinking to? :D
Aug. 10th, 2009 04:20 pm (UTC)
I agree about integrating direct thought in close third person.
Aug. 12th, 2009 12:07 am (UTC)
I think first person thoughts + italics work *sometimes*, but it just feels much more artificial most of the time to me.
Aug. 10th, 2009 05:54 pm (UTC)
It's great to be reminded of these things, especially when revising. Thanks for the post!
Aug. 12th, 2009 12:08 am (UTC)
Glad it was helpful!
Aug. 10th, 2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
Great post! I've been trying to do everything you've mentioned here since taking a couple of writing workshops on it last fall. There's no doubt that it tightens up writing!
Aug. 12th, 2009 12:08 am (UTC)
It does! Just can be hard to remember when we're all caught up in getting the story down. :)
Aug. 10th, 2009 07:40 pm (UTC)
I admit there used to be a lot more of these words in my MS. I've made a conscious effort to delete them but I always miss a few (that's why I love critiques . . . other people see the ones I miss).

A few other words I pull out of my MS are:

was (when ever possible)

and a whole list of others (I wrote them down so I wouldn't have to remember them and they're in the other room . . . I'm too lazy to go get them).

I also try to replace dialogue tags with action instead.
Aug. 12th, 2009 12:09 am (UTC)
Yes, I keep an eye out for "just" and "that", too. Though sometimes "that" is necessary for the sentence to make sense.
Aug. 11th, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)
not so random commenter
some great advice, thanks!
Aug. 12th, 2009 12:09 am (UTC)
Re: not so random commenter
Glad it was helpful!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

My Books

Earth & Sky
(Earth & Sky #1, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2014

The Clouded Sky
(Earth & Sky #2, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2015

A Sky Unbroken
(Earth & Sky #3, science fiction YA)
Skyscape/Razorbill Canada, 2015

The Way We Fall
(Fallen World #1, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2012

The Lives We Lost
(Fallen World #2, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2013

The Worlds We Make
(Fallen World #3, apocalyptic YA)
Disney-Hyperion, 2014

Those Who Lived: Fallen World Stories
(Fallen World #3.5, apocalyptic YA)
self pubbed, 2014

Give Up the Ghost
(paranormal YA)
Henry Holt, 2009

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