Thursday, May 5, 2011

Beats, Break Ups and Bothersome Words

Hi FFFers - thanks for hanging in there with me. My youngest daughter, Mary, is an active senior in high school. That makes me a very busy mom! Besides concerts, activities, competitions, fundraisers and scholarship applications, we have also been busy with college registration and prep. She will be attending Five Towns College in Dix Hills, NY, for Film Production. If any of you want a college for fine arts, this is the college to attend on the East Coast. Check it out.

Okay - we've been talking about dialog, including tags and beats. Let's do a quick review. Tags are the "he said/she said" that come after dialog. Beats are a small piece of action that typically comes before the dialog that indicate who is talking without having to use a "he said/she said." Mixing up beats and tags helps make your writing flow and brings it to life.

Break ups are how we format the page. Most readers like to see a lot of white space. Think about it; when you open a book and it's loaded with words, it can feel overwhelming. But if the paragraphs are varied and there's more white space on the page, it's not as intimidating. The key here is mixing it up, like beats and tags. Some paragraphs are longer. Some are short. Same with sentences. And when you are writing dialog, make sure you start a on a new line with each person who is talking.

"It's so hot," Sue said.

Jill fanned herself with a magazine. "I could melt right into the floor. I hate summer."

Bob shook his head. "Why don't you just turn on the air?"

The girls looked at him with distain. "Right," Sue said. "How about you pay our electric bill and we'll do that."

If I were to go on with this scene, I would go to narrative at this point. It doesn't have to be long, but we need to break up dialog from time to time.

Bothersome (or repeated) words. We all have our favorite words or phrases. And that's okay if your character has something they like to say, but if you are using words or phrases that kind of stand out or are unique in some way, it can get real bothersome to the reader. I recently read a NY Times best seller and the main character, Maggie, groused. She groused all the time. She groused four times on one page! And at one point, Maggie groused and it was not an appropriate use of the word. Who the heck says "grouse" anymore? And do you even know what it means? It means to complain. It was so distracting, I never finished the book.

This is why it's so important to have someone else read your stuff. If you can't rope anyone into that, read it out loud to yourself. You'll spot bothersome words and repeated phrases more then reading silently.

Variety is key to strong, interesting writing. What do you think? How do you handle it?


  1. I also find it annoying when there are out-of-date words used to describe something that could be described much more simply.

  2. LOL - I actually do say "grouse" in this context. Teehee. But only b/c I learned it in a novel many years ago. It's one of those words that, if you choose to use it, should be used only once in a very long novel.

    You make a very good point, in other words. Thanks.

  3. Fozzy brings up a great point - be careful of current expressions. They often change and you date yourself if you use them unless you are writing in a certain time period. Fantasy writers can (and should) make up their own expressions. We also need to be aware of regional words and phrases.

    Ellyn also said something very important: if you do use an uncommon word, it should only be used once. Maybe twice if you space them out.

    We don't want to pull our readers out of our story. We want to keep them in and with us for the ride. It's worth taking the time to make sure you aren't repeating words or phrases.

  4. I find it very helpful when people critiquing my manuscript also point out words which I use to excess, like "glanced." Fozzy actually brought to my attention that I have a tendency to describe different things in the same way--for example, in my prologue, all of my unicorns were "silver in the moonlight", even though most of them were actually different colors. I'm trying to be more creative about describing my characters, especially characters like unicorns who do tend to resemble each other =)
    Also, someone once warned me that using the same word (often a name) to start multiple paragraphs can break up the flow of the story.

  5. Yes, Elisabeth, starting paragraphs with the same word can be distracting, too.

    I have an observation about your unicorns in the moonlight; pretty much everything looks silver in strong moonlight, so you may want to say something like, even though the herd had varying colors, they were impossible to distinquish in the silver moonlight. You know, something like that.

  6. That's true... Ah, the things I never think of >.< Thanks, Pam!!!

  7. Although sometimes, with more experienced readers, large white gaps make the book look like it's written for a younger audience... (Which means, I like it when the words are packed in. More to read. :-D)

  8. Seth, you are right. Thanks for commenting. We do need to keep in mind the age we're writing for. But even with high fantasy, it's nice to give the eyes a break with some white space here and there.

    My daughter (age 18) enjoys BIG books. She's a fast reader and an epic novel prolongs the enjoyment for her because it takes longer to read. I agree. What it comes down to is this: Do you know your audience? And what does the story require?