By Robert Gray

You’ve probably got a list a mile long of rules you must not break in writing fiction. I’m talking about using adverbs in dialogue attribution, passive voice construction, redundancies, head hopping, tense shifts, and so on. But there are also plenty of rules that are not necessarily wrong, but if overused, can lead to lazy writing. I’ve called this month’s article Proceed With Caution for that reason.

Linking Verbs + Predicate Adjective – Linking verbs connect a subject to additional information. These verbs offer no meaning at all. They are the equivalent to an equal sign. A predicate adjective follows a linking verb and describes the subject. In the sentence, The boy is small, is is the linking verb and small is the predicate adjective. While this sentence is grammatically correct, you’re asking a modifier to do all the heavy lifting, and that leads to boring writing. Not to mention small is a relative term. How small is the boy? Is he smaller than a house? An ant? Give your readers an image they can cling to by using nouns and action verbs. Use figurative language to compare the boy’s size to something readers can visualize.

Look, smile, turn, sigh and shrug – One of the first lessons you learn in writing is not to use adverbs in dialogue attribution:

“The boy is small,” John said loudly.

To get around that dreaded adverb, you have to build up the context of your story so the reader knows how John said something. As a result, we rely on the speaker’s actions to dictate his tone. But what often happens is we use clutch words in an attempt create mood:

He turned to the girl and sighed. “That boy is small.”

It’s an easy trap to fall into, because you know the speaker needs to do something, but you haven’t fully visualized what that something is. These little gems will probably be all over your first draft, and that’s fine. The first draft is all about finding your way, and crutch words can help keep you moving forward. But remember to go back and check for these. A few here and there, no big deal. My guess is you’ll find them by the truckload, though.

Ambiguity with demonstratives – The demonstratives are this, that, these and those. Demonstratives are used to point to nouns, e.g., this house, that car, those trees. Since demonstratives fall into the pronoun category (sometimes adjectives, too) they can stand in place for a noun to form a complete sentence: That made him angry. But if you’re not careful, they can confuse your readers. Here’s an example:

John hopped in his car, loaded in his favorite CD, and headed over to his girlfriend’s house. This made him feel alive.

It’s not clear what made John feel alive. Was it his car? Favorite CD? Seeing his girlfriend? All three? The problem can often be corrected simply by sticking a noun after the demonstrative to clear up the ambiguity. This CD made him feel alive. Not gonna win any awards, but at least the reader knows what you’re talking about.

Don’t overuse “there” at the beginning of a sentence – Beginning a sentence with there is or there are is called expletive construction. What you’re doing is removing the subject (noun phrase) from the beginning of the sentence and forcing there to act as a pronoun. The result, a dull, wordy sentence:

There are three days left until the weekend.

Notice how you can’t replace there with a noun, and you have are carrying the action. If you force yourself to rewrite sentences like the one above, you have no choice but to make the sentence better. To add to this, I’d also suggest you mark it was, that was, and who is as suspect. Why write, It was John who murdered Kelly, when you can just say John murdered Kelly?

Sentence Fragments – I’ll be honest. I love sentence fragments. Love them. Frags are a great way to get around passive construction. Even better, they can give special attention to what you want your reader to focus on. Here’s what I’m talking about:

John’s flight was delayed.

Here I used passive voice because I don’t care why the flight was delayed. The important thing is that the reader focuses on the delay itself. If I wanted to make the delay stand out more, I could rewrite the above sentence to something like this:

John scanned the departures until he found his flight. Delayed.

By using a frag, I can give focus on the delay and avoid passive voice. It’s a nice effect, but like any effect, if you overuse it, it becomes boring.

Qualifiers – Qualifiers increase or decrease the quality of an adjective or adverb. For example, in the sentence, He was very small, the word very is the qualifier. Qualifiers include rather, very, more, most, least, too, just, enough, a little, kind of, even, pretty, almost, somewhat, quite, and so on.

And if you use them just a little bit too much, they can really make your reader kind of want to toss your novel into a rather large fire.

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