by: Noelle Sterne
Vague Isn’t in Vogue
You may be scandalized or skeptical at the suggestion in this title. But as writers, we’re sensitive to words and probably almost always think about them. After all, they’re our currency. Even when we take breaks, talk with other people, read magazine articles, or watch television, we unconsciously evaluate the words we hear with disdain or grudging admiration.
This sensitivity can help us assuage any lingering guilt for time away from writing. Admittedly with this reasoning as a rationale for marathon TV watching, I discovered that television shows could teach us valuable lessons when we write. Beyond the standard scripted sentences (“I want my lawyer.” “Crash cart, STAT!” “We need to talk.”), I’m talking about a choice of words that’s equally easy, automatic, and (sorry) lazy.
Once we recognize this penchant, we can avoid these words and phrases in our writing. First, I describe two types of lazy language and suggest lessons we can learn from them and remedies for our writing. Then I list a few more current cliches and some alternatives, all to help you infuse your work with freshness.
In an episode of “Raising the Bar,” a TV series (unfortunately belated) about public defenders, a lawyer takes on elderly twin brothers who illegally cashed a deceased friend’s Social Security check. In the first meeting, instead of acknowledging the seriousness of their case and listening attentively, the brothers (played by actual old-time comedians) barrage the attorney with a constant stream of jokes.
One brother rattles off a story about an old man who goes to the doctor. When the doctor asks for samples of bodily substances, the patient replies, “Doc, just take my underwear.” The other brother shouts, “No, stupid! Underpants! Underpants! Specific is always funnier.” He’s right.
Lesson: Specific is also, well, more specific. How can you sharpen your language?
Remedy: Say you’re writing a mystery set in winter in Chicago about a man in dire circumstances. You’ve supplied enough of the backstory to show him believably forced into robbing a shipment of expensive fur coats. You write, “Jeffrey pulled on his jacket and headed out the door.” Given Jeffrey’s poor circumstances on a freezing Chicago night and his motive for choosing what to rob, the story is enlivened, and our sympathies deepen when we know more about his jacket. Jeffrey’s situation contrasts radically with the luxurious coats: “Jeffrey pulled on his windbreaker, much too thin in the brutal weather, and headed out the door.” Or better: “Jeffrey pulled on his thin windbreaker, threading his hand into the torn left sleeve, and headed out the door.”
One Sentence Fits All
Trendy colloquialisms show up in many television shows. A ubiquitous offender I keep hearing on almost every primetime show is a question with particularly annoying tortured syntax.
Only one example: In a series of TV movies adapted from Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone mystery novels, a Los Angeles homicide cop fired for drinking becomes sheriff of a small New England town. With recurring regulars, often absorbing plots, and a range of engrossing characters, nevertheless, at some point, almost every character asks another the same question.
- When Jesse reveals an arcane statistic about the population of a far-off small Western town, the homespun woman deputy asks, “You know that how?”
- As Jesse confronts his rather cool, sometimes love interest with a certain accusation, she asks, “You know that how?”
- When Jesse’s shrink (and former cop) tells him about corrupt big-city cops, in an inspired variation, Jesse asks, “And you know this how?”
Whatever the burning curiosity, why does every character speak the same way? We know this how? By listening to them repeat themselves every show.
Lesson: Vary your dialogue! Match the speech patterns and idioms with your characters’ traits! Resist the temptation of today’s hot verbal fashions.
Remedy: Your characters’ responses should reflect their natures, as in these possibilities instead of the how question.
- Homespun woman deputy’s question: “Wow, Jesse, where did you get to know that?”
- Jesse’s lover’s response: “Ha, big man. I can’t imagine how you knew that.”
- Jesse’s question to shrink: “You’re the former big-city cop. Who was your pipeline?”
Listen to Your Characters
If you’re stuck for a reply true to a given character, ask the character to talk to you. James Scott Bell in The Art of War for Writers advises us, in one of his favorite techniques, to write a character’s “voice journal”: “The voice journal is simply a character speaking in stream-of-consciousness mode.”
Author Karen Dionne relates how a character came to her and started talking: “I woke up in the middle of the night, and this character was in my head talking to me, telling me her history and who she was. I wasn’t dreaming about this character. She was just there, as real as if she were sitting in a chair beside me”
Invite your characters to speak. You may need to let them go on a while, but you’ll know when you hear the correct answers, especially to that maddening “You know that how?” question.
You’ll notice their natural cadences and quirks as you prompt your characters. Your characters will become less one-dimensional, your story will ring more authentic, and your reader’s interest will perk up.
Other Too Popular Examples to Ward Off
Other expressions have become ubiquitous today. In almost all sitcoms, romcoms, detective shows, medical shows, reality shows, drama shows, docudramas, and fifty other types of shows (not that I watch them all), the characters too quickly spew out these words and phrases.
“Amazing!” and its alphabetical cousin “Awesome!”
In one two-hour movie, I counted twenty-two exclamations of “Awesome!”—usually in the shrill grating voice of the heroine’s bespeckled spike-haired best friend. Alternate possibilities: “That’s really great!” “So glad to hear/see this!” “Wow!” (but not too often). “I get it.”
Meant to convey empathy and understanding, this sentence just falls flat. The character would have to be played by Meryl Streep to truly convince.
Alternates: “Your words touch me.” “I’ve felt the same way.” “Oh, sweetheart!” (with a hug).
“Wait . . . what?” This one is particularly universal and irritating whenever the recipient of startling news expresses incredulity. How about these alternatives? “I don’t believe it!” What did you say?” “Why?” “How?” “Who?” “More!”
“Shut up!” Not a scolding or enraged command in a fight but an expression of disbelief. When did this offensive cry become so common? There’s a chance the hearer will take it the wrong way and be offended, walk away, and offer no explanation that the shouter craves. Instead, some of the responses just above can work. “Wow! Tell me more!” “I don’t believe it! Tell me more!” Also, “Hard to fathom, but tell me more!” “Are you kidding? Tell me more!”
You may have noticed other facile words and phrases. Write them down and avoid them like fake whipped cream.
Lazy No More
Even when we feel lazy or guilty watching television, we can counter such self-judgments by learning from the words in TV productions' imprecise, lazy, overused, simplistic (I could go on) wording. Click To Tweet
When we finally turn away from the TV screen and to our writing, we’ll craft the language that reflects our characters’ uniqueness and our own originality.
Dr. Noelle Sterne is an author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, and gentle nag. Noelle has published over 700 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation, A PowerPoint Teaser: http://trustyourlifenow.com/more-for-dissertation-writers/challenges-in-writing-your-dissertation-a-little-teaser/
Journal of Expressive Writing: https://www.journalofexpressivewriting.com/post/i-don-t-have-to-be-amanda-gorman
Life and Everything After: https://lifeandeverythingafter.com/angel-in-the-mall/
Live Write Thrive: https://www.livewritethrive.com/2021/02/08/a-startling-remedy-for-jealousy-of-other-writers/#comments
Women on Writing: https://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/55-How2-MatchQuerytoManuscript.html
Writer’s Digest: https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/shocking-fun-short-story-writing-technique
Pieces have appeared in various anthologies as well as individual publications such as Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul (sixth story November 2021), Journal of Expressive Writing, Life and Everything After, Live Write Thrive, MindBodySpirit, Mused, Pen & Prosper, Romance Writers Report, Ruminate, Sasee, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching (bimonthly), Unity Daily Word, Unity Magazine, WE Magazine for Women, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writing and Wellness, The Writer, Writers Digest.
Monthly Contributor for:
Textbook and Academic Authors Association
Two Drops of Ink Blog
In July and August 2018, Noelle was one of six webinar presenters for TAA’s “Writing Gym.”Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish”, which continues to be offered. She is also one of several coaches in TAA’s program of free one-hour academic coaching to members.
Noelle also contributes pieces to other national and international publications on dissertation issues and writing. In July and August 2018, she, was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish,” which continues to be offered.
Swallowing her own advice (hard as it may be), Noelle is completing her third novel.
I serve writers in all genres through individual, private, customized sessions. I offer coaching, guidance, idea generation, structuring, critiquing, line and developmental editing, and gentle and uncompromising critiques, helping you create and complete your unique work.
Wherever you are stuck—idea stage, molasses beginning, desert-dry middle, deflated end, agonizing final editing—I help you dig out and move forward.
Services include time management; block-conquering; emotional, psychological, and spiritual support; and specific suggestions and examples for continuing and finishing your draft. I am honored to help you complete your work to the highest standards, develop your talents, and reach your dreams.
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