Today editor Robin Patchen tackles Fatal Flaw #3: Weak Construction. We’ve been examining this flaw all month, looking at the various ways writers stumble into the mire of weak construction through poor word choice and flawed sentence structure, as well as vagueness and bland or clunky dialog. Be sure to read through all these posts to learn how to catch this fatal flaw in your fiction writing!
“We get it.” I type those words often in my clients’ manuscripts. And when I see a lot of redundancy in their books, I’ve been known to simply type “DRD” in the comment box. Department of Redundancy Department—a great Monty Python line.
So many writers fall into this trap. They think of a few different ways to say the same thing, and they really like every one of their choices. They must, because they leave them all in. The quickest way to slow down your manuscript is to be redundant. It’s . . . how shall I say this? Boring.
Another great way to muddle your prose is to use lots of “ing” words and lots of adverbs rather than choose the one perfect word for the situation. One strong verb is better than two or three weak verbs with those little “ly” words tacked on for good measure. How do we clean up our sloppy prose so it’s both clear and riveting?
Exactly What Are You Trying to Say?
That’s the question you need to ask yourself. What do you want your reader to learn from this passage? What tone do you hope to convey, and what emotions do you want to elicit? Keeping those ideas in mind, ensure that every word in your passage matches your goals.
In the following paragraph, my POV character has just returned home after many years away. It’s the middle of the night, and her grandmother, who lives in the house, doesn’t know she’s coming. Rae has just pulled into the driveway and is surprised to find the house dark—that’s what I want my reader to learn. There is an element of danger in my book, so I want the reader to pick up on some suspense. And I want my reader to feel Rae’s emotions—eagerness to see her grandmother, worry about her grandmother’s health, and beneath that, an underlying fear.
Allowing my gaze to wander over the property, I took in the house, the barn, the woods, the yard, and the driveway slowly. I wondered why the light wasn’t on on the porch and no light fell onto the surrounding ground. Turning around, I looked at the road from which I’d come and looked at the trees, which stood high above my head all around me. Gazing at the car, I looked into the backseat, and I saw my son, sleeping in his car seat, relaxed in repose, his eyes closed and his mouth moving as if he were dreaming of warm milk. I turned back to the house, to that dark porch, and those black windows where no lights had been lit, no life lighting its interior as if all the brightness had seeped out, the darkness had crept in, and there was no joy in there at all. Worriedly, I moved cautiously, keeping my feet from tripping on the gravel driveway, then turning slowly, I walked up the walkway to the dark porch. I lifted my hand, knocking gently on the door. Unfortunately, no light lit within the darkened residence, and nobody answered the door.
I knocked again worriedly and hoped my grandmother would come quickly. The baby was in the car and would wake up soon. And I needed Gram’s help with him. Mostly, though, I really wanted to feel my grandmother’s arms around me, to hug her and hold her tight, to see that she was all right, knowing she was healthy despite the fact that the house was dark. I was hoping Gram would make everything all better for me.
Riveting, right? Did you see all those redundancies? Let me point out a few. She “allowed her gaze to wander” and then “took in.” Later, we have, “Gazing . . . I looked . . . and I saw.” And in that same sentence, the baby is “sleeping . . . relaxed in repose . . . his eyes closed . . . dreaming.” Then there’s the “dark porch . . . black windows where no lights had been lit, no life lighting its interior . . . all the brightness had seeped out, the darkness had crept in . . .”
If I were editing this, I would highlight all of that and type “DRD” in the comment box.
And as if the redundancies aren’t bad enough, let’s look at all those adverbs. I counted ten. That’s probably ten too many (and yes, I just used an adverb. Don’t judge me.)
Finally, let’s look at the “ing” words. They tend to weaken and slow down your prose, so you want to use them sparingly. There are so many in my before paragraph, I didn’t bother to count them. (Go ahead and tell me, though. I know at least one of you is counting as we speak.)
I hope you got the point of the passage—that the house is dark and Rae is worried about why. Did you feel nervous or fearful? Did the tone seem suspenseful to you? Probably not—due to all the redundancies. Let’s see if we can fix it.
I stepped out of my car and breathed in the familiar scents of forest and fall. The leaves, still green, rustled in the slight breeze. But the house—why was it so dark? When I was a kid, Gram had always left the porch light on. Maybe she’d gotten out of the habit. Maybe her senility was worse than I’d thought. No, Gram would be fine. As soon as she saw us, she’d wrap us in those wrinkly arms and pull us inside. She’d make a pot of tea and tell me to drink up, because the chamomile would help me sleep.
I gazed at Johnny, sound asleep in his car seat. Gram would love him. And Johnny and I would be safe here, at least for a little while.
A car passed by on the street behind me, and I whipped around to watch its lights fade in the surrounding forest. Nothing to worry about. Julien didn’t know where I was—not yet anyway.
I lifted Johnny out of the car and started for the house. Once we got inside with Gram, everything would be all right.
Better, I hope. I eliminated the redundancies and the telling words—saw, looked, wondered, etc. I kept (and added) some important details and dumped the unimportant ones. I tried to use more straightforward verbs—fewer “ing” words. I had her react to the car driving by to hint at her fear. I added the bit about Gram hugging her and making the tea because I want the reader to feel eager for Rae to see Gram and nervous that there’s something wrong. Is it better? I think so. What do you think?
Do you have trouble pulling out the redundancies in your writing? Do you write with a lot of “ing” words and “ly” words? A lot of words than tell instead of show? What are some adverbs you overuse or hate to see overused in the novels you read?