Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Crutch Words

I'll return to world-building shortly, but this week I've reclaimed the momentum lost in a very sticky scene that needed to be sorted out, and I confess I'd rather take a good few hours of the night writing my characters into worse trouble within the world of their story than composing a lengthy and detailed post on the building of such worlds.

Instead I'd rather talk writing, and one of the smallest -- and biggest -- problems I encountered in said sticky scene. Crutch words.

We all have them, we all use them, we pray we'll catch them all before submission or publication. It's fine and dandy to say "Don't overuse that word" or "Avoid relationals, be precise" but if we're leaning on crutch words, it can be tough to figure out how to get off the damn things. Even worse, a writer can wind up pushing off one crutch word and stumbling right onto another one.

Crutch words, if you don't even realize you're leaning on them, are noticeable words (or phrases) used over and over again throughout a story. Some readers may not notice them, but others may start picking them out, bracing for them, counting them, or ultimately chucking said book across the room. Crutch words are lazy writing, and nine times out of ten act as telling rather than showing. The tenth time, they're an example of showing that was so brilliant, the author kept using the exact same brilliant phrase over and over. I call these Special Snowflake crutches (you know, because each snowflake is beautiful and unique... until you use it every third page).

Some common crutches and their problems:

Relational words: just, almost, really, nearly, barely; also big, little, small, large, near, far
The problem: These words take the wind out of a sentence. The same as a single verb with a razor edge lacerates a flabby adverb and a weak verb any day, these little relational words destroy the energy of a scene. Did your character 'just' reach the door, or did he reach it? Is she almost a foot away from him, or is she a foot away? A little pile could be the size of a shoe or the size of a child, and only works in relation to something else, so just tell us how big it is.

Time: fraction, moment, instant, while, etc
The problem: These are filler, and nefariously subtle forms of telling. You're telling us time passes rather than letting us feel it for ourselves. Don't give us "For a while she said nothing, and then..." Instead give us "She picked at her nail polish, flakes of 'Strawberry Daiquiri' flying onto the fresh-wiped table. They clung to the wood and her fingers. She sighed, dusted them off, and said..."

Movement: passed, turned, moved, etc
The problem: Again, weak words, but moreso these words are wasted directional cues. Keep telling me your characters are turning before every action ("He turned and said," "She turned to him and smiled," "I turned back to the fire,") and I'm going to start picturing them rotating on the spot like some bad special effect from a vampire movie. Movement gets implied in many actions, and if you need to specify the movement, try stronger words such as whirled, dashed, or spun. If the scene doesn't call for strong movement, you can probably ignore the rotating character. Does it really matter if every reader pictures precisely the same positions you picture your characters in?

Expressions: grin, smile, laugh, smirk, etc; also facial 'expressions' such as sardonic, wry, and the always-vague 'dark look'
The problem: These words can mean so many things, but which one do you mean specifically? Is your character grinning out of happiness, mirth, joy, malevolence? Smirking is even worse, as a smirk always implies a contradiction in emotion: non-sincere positive mixed with something negative, but it could be sarcasm, it could be cruelty, it could be arrogance, it could be wry amusement. Which is it? I don't know, you just said he smirked. The second batch do the opposite, telling you the emotion rather than showing it. What on earth is that 'dark look' every angsty hero and his dog seems to level on people? Do you picture a wry expression the same way I do?

The exercises:

Last post's writing exercise met with great participation, so I thought we'd try the same again this week. Challenge your writer's brain to think outside the box:

1] Lose the crutch: Share your crutch words, and take a look at the crutch words others have listed. Let's pool our resources and try to workshop as many crutch words as we can into other viable options for use in sentences!

2] One man's trash: Those of you who delight in being contrary, take a look at the crutches, or others you can think of, and see what sort of situations you can come up with where the crutch word is actually the best choice.

I'll start (but you don't need to do both).

1] One of my most noticeable crutch words is 'smirk,' which I love to death for my male lead. It really isn't useful, though, and I try to offer variations. Instead, I wound up with Special Snowflake, "the corner of his mouth quirked," or alterations on the same. My alternative for myself: I try to decide what emotion I'm conveying, rather than the default physical reaction, and find new ways to show it. The Bookshelf Muse's emotion thesaurus is excellent for exploring alternatives. Check out the sarcasm/verbal disrespect entry here.

2] When crutches are appropriate? Voice. Some parts of a paragraph are narrative, other parts are very much the character, and a remark like "My heart nearly leapt out my throat" can reflect the tone of the character, such as wry sarcasm. Expression crutches can also be appropriate when the POV character can't tell another character's mood, only the response (such as an ambiguous grin), but that ambiguity should be present in the narrative to convey the same uncertainty to the reader. This is also a style consideration as well (think Hemingway or McCarthy).

Your turn! Which exercise will you choose?


Liz Fichera said...

Great tips and reminders! I can relate (unfortunately!) to the crutch word "just." When I go back and edit, inevitably I find way too many! "Just" might be the appropriate word every now and again, JUST as long as it's used sparingly. :-)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
Arghhh!!! Unfortunately, I know all about crutch words. I tend to overuse all the relational words you spoke of, especially just, little, and smile or grinned. I try to take them out in edits but still too many creep into my work. I'm pretty sure I'm guilty of using many of the other crutch words you talk about as well.

You make a very good point about these crutch words smacking of telling rather than showing. That point was brought home to me recently when I received edits from my editor. I thought I knew the difference between showing and telling, but apparently not. Crutch words tend to sneak in and steal the strength from a story.

I'm going to print out your post and refer to it as I do my edits. I've got plenty of work to do!


Karyn Good said...

Okay, new best friend, The Bookshelf Muse blog!

I love, LOVE, the words 'turned' and 'took'. Love 'em. Also fond of 'just' but more often then not catch that one in revisions. I have a list and do a search for all my worst offenders as part of my revision process. Hopefully, those revised sentences contain more showing than telling.

Great post, Hayley.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Liz, 'just' can be a great speaking mannerism, or a quirk of a character's narrative voice, but you're right, it definitely has to be sparing. It's one that can creep in a little like 'that' (which is filler, rather than a crutch), and wind up all over the place without the writer ever realizing how much force it takes out of things.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, I'm glad it's useful! I find I struggle sometimes with showing and telling as well. I've read other writers' posts on crutch words and while I agree with the crutches needing changes, I don't always understand why their suggestions for alternatives aren't also showing. For example, switching "He smirked" to "He arched a brow, eyes full of wry amusement." Isn't that just as vague? I suppose we have to draw a line somewhere between relying on telling just the emotion and telling just the physical, both of which may not be helpful.

Ah, I think I just took my own reply to you off topic. Oh well, perhaps you've some thoughts on it? :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, yes I love that blog, it's full of great thought starters for action and emotion.

Turns and looks are subtle buggers for me, but at least that means I won't fret over them in the first drafts (unlike smirk, which I always wind up stopping and trying to fix right away). It's hard to realize what steps along the way we can chop out and leave for the reader to fill in. At least they're a reasonable fix, with stronger verbs or complete omission. How have you been killing them in your revisions?

Vince said...

Hi Hayley:

You make very important points.
I just read a 9 to 12 year old book in which the word ‘giggle’ was used ad nauseum. I understand young girls giggle a lot but I just wonder if there is another word that could have been used.

I read one author who used the word ‘chortle’ way too often and this points out a problem: if your clutch word is unusual it stands out like a fog horn. If you are going to use clutch words, use common ones.

Another problem: the cliché. A cliché like ‘her toes curled’ has the impact of at least ten clutch words. Avoid clichés.

Still another problem: sounding like a thesaurus with words that sound stilted and are only being used in place of the clutch word. I’d prefer a clutch word itself.

As for myself, I like to use a colon: like this. Can you have ‘clutch’ punctuation?


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Vince, from some books I've seen, I would say an author can definitely have crutch punctuation. Now and then I'll find an author whose works are just riddled with em-bashes or lots of bracketed asides. If it's part of a style (such as emulating the fiction of a certain period, or a narrator's way of 'speaking') that's one thing, but regardless, if it gets noticeable, it becomes a huge distraction from the reading.

Cliche phrases are deadly, especially the subtle ones like common turns of phrases in romance novels, or standard reactions like your curling toe example. Not blatant phrases, but flat and familiar, and when they pop up a lot, it gets bad. Equally problematic, though, are when an author finds a brilliant new way to avoid a cliche... and then uses that phrase every single time :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hayley, in one post, you've enlightened my world. No guff.

I really try hard to show vs tell in my writing and yet it's one of the things judges always mark me down on - not by much - but it's often enough to stop me from finaling. And yet, I didn't understand everything it entailed until I read your post. Brilliant! Even I can understand it. :D

Thanks, Hayley. Going off to copy it...