Descriptive Verbs

Using descriptive verbs instead of -ly words.

-ly words (in this context) are adverbs, and their job is to modify verbs.
-ly words are considered Bad.

Why are they Bad, you ask? They are considered cheating, too easy a solution; they allow a writer to get by with a minimum of effort.

Take these simple examples:

He walked quickly across the room.
He walked quietly across the room.
He walked slowly across the room.

What do we know about the man from these sentences? Right. Nothing.

But compare these more descriptive verbs. Each one tells us something about the man:

He stomped across the room. Temper, temper!
He tiptoed across the room. Shh!
He strode across the room. Yes, sir!
He stormed across the room. Yikes!
He staggered across the room. One too many, maybe?
He minced across the room. o.O

I know some writers that brag they do not have a single -ly word in their stories. Personally, I use them when I feel they are truly needed, and try to excise them otherwise.

One bit of advice. Don’t use this technique with attributions. Why, you ask? That’s coming up next time.

originally published in The Sword Review 2005-12-04


Tuck, Don’t Dump

what to do when you feel the urge to infodump your readers

You know all those wonderful, long, descriptive paragraphs we have read and often write? Well, sometimes they bog down our writing and bore our readers. Really. Our brilliant passages might merely be tiresome purple prose.

So what to do when you feel the urge to infodump your readers?

One solution is to tuck instead of dump.

Instead of a paragraph telling what a character or a place looks like, for example, just work in little bits all through the scene. Consider these sentences:

He tossed his long brown hair over his shoulders.
He stepped close, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief.
His cousin grabbed him by the leather jerkin and hauled him to his feet.
He wiped off his grey pants.
His hand absently rubbed the pommel of his sword.
He grinned, running his fingers over his moustache and close-cropped chin beard.
His leather boots scuffed leaves and grass as he walked.
He spun, his grey cloak flaring out, and swept into an elaborate bow.

By the end of the scene, we can have a fairly good description, without long narratives. Let’s see what we know about this man? He has long, brown hair, blue eyes (that sparkle when he’s up to something), and he’s wearing a sword. He’s also wearing grey pants and grey cloak, he has a moustache and chin beard, and is wearing leather boots and jerkin.

Not bad, eh? And all without a long narrative.

originally published in The Sword Review 2005-11-12

Say What, er, I Mean, How?

beats, attribs, and dialogue tags

A dialogue tag indicates who is speaking (said, asked, etc.) – and sometimes how as well:

“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” he asked breathlessly. “Let’s go.”

An attribute is a more descriptive way of telling who is speaking (these are sometimes called CSA’s – colorful speaker attributions):

“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” he growled. “Let’s go.”

A beat gives action:

“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” His eyes shone as took her hand and tucked it into his arm. “Let’s go.”

“Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?” He snatched her by the back of the neck, a sneer on his face. “Let’s go.”

The trend now is to use more beats than dialogue tags or attribs merely because it can do so much to set the scene and help the reader really see what’s going on.

It’s not that dialogue tags or attribs are bad, just that beats are better. Some writers advocate completely eliminating dialogue tags and attribs; however, I merely try to use them sparingly. It’s all a matter of voice and style.

One last problem with attribs is that some of them end up explaining what the reader knows, but that’s a topic for another column.

originally published in The Sword Review 2005-11-01

Those Pesky Details

Getting facts straight in a story isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it.

This time I’m not sharing a tidbit I’ve learned, but just ranting.

As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.” I agree.

Granted in SF/F, we ask our readers to suspend disbelief. It might be to accept faster-than-light travel, time portals, flying dragons, or magic, but we ask it and readers grant it to be drawn into a new world, a new story. But that suspension of disbelief should not carry over into every-day reality. A blaze in a fireplace will only last a few hours (tops – and I’m being generous!) without needing logs thrown on it. A writer shouldn’t ask me to believe that the fireplace has been banked to last three days – unless perhaps magic is involved.

One author put a disclaimer in the front of one book of a series, stating something to the effect that if she states in one book it takes three days by horse to get from city A to city B, and in another book that one can walk the distance in half a day, who cares? It’s only a story.

But to me, little things like this are important. And I think they are to most readers. If this weren’t true, why do so many research lists and forums exist where writers ask questions to get details right? And why do so many fans get their knickers in a twist when they catch inconsistencies or scientific facts that aren’t right: “Hey, helium doesn’t explode – hydrogen does!”

This brings me to my dilemma and rant.

I am a stickler for reality being followed where it possibly can. And some facts have gotten in the way of my story. I’m considering various solutions to this, but it’s put my series of stories on hold until I have a satisfactory answer. Grrr! *bangs head on keyboard*

So I have no advice to share from my own school-of-hard-knocks-writing this time, just my opinion that despite the royal pain in the neck it can cause when facts obstruct your story, work through it, don’t dismiss it. Save your suspension of belief for those times it has to be used.

originally published in The Sword Review 2005-10-21

From Boring to Better

adding description without narrative infodump

My problem with descriptions is a lack of them. I tend to have naked, faceless mannequins that stand on air. So I have to go back and add scenery and put flesh and clothes on characters.

Every writer has their own method of doing this. I’m going to show you some examples of what I do – at least at this stage in my writing. Instead of saying there was this, she saw that, I try to bring descriptions alive. Use active verbs. Give action in the midst, or put my character in the action to draw the reader in more.

Let’s take a simple description. I want to have my character see tall towers, turrets, balconies, and alcoves. I also want a small, circular courtyard with a water fountain and flowers. And yes, this may sound familiar, I used the towers and courtyard example in an earlier column. But let’s use it anyway:

We have lots of towers and turrets and they’re tall and high up. So instead of just saying they were there, let’s have them do something. They rise up in the air. Like guards – which helps describe their function as well.

Balconies. What could be happening on these balconies? Perhaps women are on them, shaking out rugs or gossiping. Might there be a decorative touch on the balconies? Perhaps some flowering vines on the rails?

Alcoves. Ooh, nice and dark – cool on a hot day.

That courtyard. Let’s bring it alive. It has a fountain, so how about someone fetching water. What sound does the water make?

And also consider, what is the weather like? It’s the end of summer so it’s still hot. And it’s mid to late afternoon.

So let’s put it together:

Glittering white towers and turrets rose as sentinels, and she squinted as she tried to see their tops in the blazing sun. She brushed the damp hair from her forehead as alcoves beckoned, tempting her with cool darkness.

Shouts drew her attention above. Women on balconies shook out rugs while they chatted to each other over rails overhung with blooming vines.

Several girls shrieked as they raced down stairs that curved descended into a small, circular courtyard filled with baskets of bright flowers. Water tinkled musically into a fountain and the girls dipped their ewers in it as they laughed.

Yeah, yeah. I could add so much more. The texture of stone used, a breeze cooling her sweating face or that she wishes she could splash some of that cool water from the fountain on her face, the sweet scent of the flowers wafting to her, what those women on the balconies look like as well as the girls in courtyard. But I’m not trying to do a complete job, just give some examples.

Besides, for a passing impression as she walks by, how much more is needed? If she were to stop in the courtyard to talk to the girls perhaps we’d go into more detail then. But a column on how much description is enough will have to wait. I’m still learning that as well.

originally published in The Sword Review 2005-09-19

There Was/Were – Avoid These Bad Boys

Why there was/were should be excised from your writing.

There was a bad habit I had to overcome in my writing. It’s in the sentence I just wrote – using ‘there was/were.’

These phrases are just weak writing. They’re wordy and slow the pace of the story. Also, they create a distance from your point of view character, and take the ‘activeness’ out of your writing.

Other than perhaps in dialogue, there was/were – or if you write present tense there is/are – should not appear.

Consider these examples:

OLD: There were towers and turrets rising high in the air, and she gazed up at them in awe. Along the back wall, there was a curved staircase going down into a small courtyard.

NEW: Towers and turrets rose high in the air, and she gazed up at them in awe. Along the back wall, a staircase curved down into a small courtyard.

I hope you can see the wordiness in that brief example, and how this would slow the pace of your story. It can also distance your readers from your character.

So go to it, eliminate those bad boys from your manuscript. And be glad we have computers to do searches for us – can you imagine the old days when we wrote longhand or on typewriters?

originally published in The Sword Review 2005-08-30

(article revised before republishing)

First Things First

putting your reactions after your actions

How many times have you read – or written – something like this:

She laughed as the waiter slipped and fell.

We all have. I still find sentences like this in my writing. What’s wrong with that sentence, you ask? I’m so glad you’re inquisitive.

Order is what’s wrong. What happened first? The laugh or the waiter falling? You got it. So why put the cart before the horse, or in our case, the reaction before the action?

Take a recent example from my writing. I didn’t catch this, but a crit partner did:


Her arm hair stood on end at a distinctive growl.


A distinctive growl made her arm hair stand on end.

Easy huh? It usually is once we see it. I could reiterate this point to pound it in – and increase my word count so this article isn’t embarrassingly short – but I don’t think it’s necessary. Just remember – action, then reaction.

originally published in The Sword Review 2005-08-11