This lesson is invaluable, so read carefully.
Wait, does invaluable mean no value or lots of value? Quick internet search… Okay.
Yeah, there’s gold in today’s lesson.
BODY LANGUAGE = GOOD
CRUTCH WORDS = BAD
Also, a way to find and deal with your crutch words. Didn’t know you had those? You do.
Tag, your manuscript is it!
First, let’s discuss dialogue tags: those little phrases that follow a section of dialogue.
“Run,” he said.
“Why?” she asked.
“There’s a T-Rex coming!” He exclaimed.
“Oh,” she said warily.
One of my favorite things to do is to wait until a new author writes “Why?” she asked and then I say, “Lose the tag, we know she asked – the question mark gave it away.”
It’s fun for me.
Most dialogue tags aren’t needed.
Try to use as few as possible in your story. Readers skip over them anyway, so if they aren’t even reading them, why put them in? Use “beats” instead – little phrases describing action.
He glanced over his shoulder. “Run!”
That’s a beat, describing what he did as he spoke, instead of going with: “Run,” he said.
Beats can easily be overdone.
Add your beats and let the MS rest, then read it out loud. That staccato sound you hear is bad beats. Add to them or scale them back. Vary the length and rhythm. Put a tag back in.
Sentences that sounds the same or have the same rhythm become dull to readers, and a dull reader puts your story down, never to return. They may not even know why, and it might be a great story otherwise. More on that in a second.
You can do nothing, too.
If two people are talking and one stopped, the next person talking is the other person in the scene. Readers will get that.
A combination of beats and tags and nothings will get your conversation across just fine.
– as long as the convo is to the point and interesting – but think about what actions are used when speaking, and what those actions say to the reader.
Some examples are when
- Mallory puts her hands on her hips. In the kitchen no less. What’s that say? Did your mom ever do that?
- She puts a hand to her forehead. Which means…
There are even lists you can get from the internet. Check them out and use some of the suggested beats for expressing what your character is feeling.
What about when Mallory won’t look at Doug when he’s talking to her in the bedroom? Been there!
LOOK – AT MY CRUTCH WORDS!
One more thing – the word look, or any of its evil friends.
We all have our own crutch words – words or phrases that we use too much throughout the course of a chapter or story.
For example, in my head I know what I mean when I say “He gave her a look.” I’m prone to saying things like “He gave her a look.” Like when I did something wrong as a kid, my mother would give me a look.
In my writer head, I know what I mean when I write that. You may not. Odds are my reader certainly doesn’t.
Now, if I write that my mom put her hands on her hip and raised an eyebrow and waved a wooden spoon at me while she looked at me, that sends a whoooooole other message than just “look.”
A look can be anything. That spoon wagging thing can’t.
So “look” is one of my crutch words. I have characters look out the window or look at the ground or look at each other all the time.
When you read a random chapter out loud to yourself, you will hear your crutch words. If you don’t spot them all yourself—and you wont—give an early chapter to somebody else and ask them to read it with the specific intention of finding words that you repeat too often. (Odds are, within your first five chapters you have established what your crutch words are going to be.)
And once you decide “look” is the devil – because it is – and you spend a week eradicating it from a 100,000 word manuscript as though pulling pieces of broken glass from your eyes (which you’d rather do at that point), you will replace it with glimpse, peer, eyed – until you want to heave your keyboard off the nearest bridge. THEN whenever you go to type “look” in the future, you will flinch like the keyboard gave you an electric shock. And you will type PEER.
In fact, you will type peer so much that it’s a new crutch word.
Yep. If you’ve been watching, you’ve seen lots of glances in this “final” version of my story. That task remains to be done. (It’s final, not final-final.)
So here’s how you get around that particular dog chasing its tail.
You can go online and you can find lists of words to use for substitutes. Synonyms are readily available, but some writer-oriented websites will have words to use instead of “look” or “walk” (stepped, crept) or whatever crutch word you are trying to avoid.
But before you do that, just read some of your manuscript out loud. One chapter will usually do it, three at most. And while you are thinking that takes a lot of time, it’s cheaper than paying an editor to do it and it’s an easy way to avoid bad reviews because your book read amateurish.
Now do a keyword search for the offenders and write down how many times each one appears. I put my list right at the top of my manuscript to keep me humble:
- Suddenly 15
- Smile 85
- Look 445 (told ya)
- Glance 41
- Peer 16
- Shook (head) 34
- Sigh 32
- Nod 67
- just 415
- went 152
- shrug 10
- wheeled 5
- scene 14
- chuckle 10
My beta readers will attest to this. And that list was before we started the editing! Now there are fewer looks but more glances. Ugh.
If the word “look” appears 15 times in 100,000 words, you are probably fine.
You still want to scroll through all 15 instances to make sure all 15 aren’t in the same paragraph, or ten times on one page! Just because it doesn’t occur very often overall doesn’t mean it’s still not too much where it does appear.
Then, go through and decide you’re going to replace half or more of the hated crutches with synonyms.
You’re going to spend a few hours with your brow furrowed at your screen while you try to figure out whether “peer” or “scanned” or “searched” is a proper replacement for the next time you used “look.”
And believe me, after an hour or two of doing that in a single day, you won’t know any good replacements for anything.
So don’t try to do it all at once.
(“Was” also needs this process, but for different reasons. Was is Satan because it’s less actiony than another verb. That, we’ll attack another time.)
Also, you may run into “staccato sentences” like we discussed above when we were replacing dialogue tags with beats. You can end up with lots of paragraphs or sentences that all start the same way. (That happens even when you aren’t replacing tags, by the way. A lot.)
What I recommend if you have three phases that all sound very similar or all start the same way…
She ran asxiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur hfmnj sdbvpiu egfkjbdn s fpoiryue wt kjnsc mcznvd
He looked xiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur hfmnj sdbvpiu eg
Jonah chuckled xiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur hfmnj sdbvpiu egfkjbdn s fpoiryue wt kjnsc mcznvd hjsfpo ueiw l ksdjgflmv no isdfjoiw
I sighed. Xiu yhdscm nd fvpiqur
… simply leave one third alone, rewrite one third, and reverse one third, more or less, until the staccato section stops being staccattoey.
So instead of “Jonah chuckled” you start with “Chuckling, Jonah… went and did whatever Jonah did.
With the next one, rewriting it might just mean taking the second half of the sentence and putting it first.
And of course leaving one third alone, you don’t have to do anything with those.
So those are two tips – and neither one is fun or easy.
Sometimes those are the little things that a reader might not be able to articulate as to why your story wasn’t as sharp or engaging as they were expecting.
These are the things that take it from less polished to more polished. And they’re reeeeeally dull to do.
In fact, they are absolute hell the first time you do it, a little less hellish the second time, and by the third or fourth time you do it – as in the 3rd or 4th story you write after learning about them – you just kind of get used to it.
This is the process of building your writer muscles. No pain, no gain.
Dan Alatorre has had a string of bestsellers and is read in over 112 countries around the world.
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