Subtle sabotages every author does at least once
Pull up your latest manuscript and get ready to do some searching. Chances are good you have some phrases in there that are stabbing your story in the back.
And the sad thing is, they look so innocent. Then again, so do termites, and just look at the damage they can do:
“I don’t know why, but X.” This little freeloader, and its baby brother, “I can’t explain it, but I just x,” is a favorite go-to when authors have painted either their character or themselves into a corner. It’s code for, “well, I don’t know what just happened here, but I’ll use feelings to excuse reason and get back on track.” Frankly, it’s lazy. If you don’t know where to take the story, take some time to visit with your characters off the page. Learn more about what makes them tick, how they think, what they want, and put those traits in action to solve this moment. “I don’t know why” is a cry for help that your story hasn’t supported this conclusion, action, decision, emotion the character is about to dive into.
If it’s your hero or heroine being blind or willfully stubborn at this juncture, don’t let them off the hook with the “I don’t know why” excuse. Keep their feet to the fire and make the own the moment and solve the conflict.
The good news? Many times this phrase is a mere writing crutch. The character proceeds to explain why in the next sentence.
“I think” crutch. Human beings, and often women in particular, want to avoid the hard edges. So we soften our opinions and hedge in an effort to avoid confrontation. That may work in a social setting where you need consensus or when you are pondering new viewpoints, but too much of time it only renders your hero and heroine as wishy-washy. Throw in a little tough love and kick away this phrase they’re leaning on:
“I think we should get out of here and head over to my hotel room.” v “Let’s get out of here and head over to my hotel room.”
The second version is someone I don’t doubt wants to go check out the sheets and pillows as opposed to kinda sorta maybe being talked into it. It’s OK for your characters to own their decisions, whether it’s a salad order or their dreams—unless hesitation is part of their personality or interpersonal conflict. Then, by all means, salt some “I thinks” into your dialog!
“As if” misuse. Ah, this one sucker punches a lot of authors. It signals that the character is comparing the current situation to a fantasy, something surreal, impossible, unbelievable. But too many folks fill in a solid, realistic situation. For instance:
“Give me the code or I’ll kill your puppy,” she said. He looked around the room, as if seeking an escape.
Well, yah, I’d bet my paycheck that’s what he’s doing. I certainly would in that situation. This is more what the reader expects:
“Give me the code or I’ll kill your puppy,” she said. He looked around the room, as if Ace Ventura would come bursting through the window or from behind the bar or maybe right through the bathroom wall, dangling Goldie by his scruff.
Notice how the “as if” phrase forces you out of a telling mode and into showing the emotions and reactions.
Other times, “as if” hides your sin of playing psychic and inserts the very thought or reaction or decision the POV character needs. You end up with She scrunched her nose as if she, too, thought Aunt Dottie was way out of line, a whining bully who would benefit from a good-old fashioned smackdown. (All that from a nose scrunch? Points for understanding the fantasy aspect at least.)
Readers know a sneaky head hopping workaround when they encounter one, so kill these little bugs before your book is published.