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?
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?