Noncommittal words: Don’t use them

Over on the ShortbreadStories Facebook page we got to talking about Steven King’s book On Writing. This discussion was provoked by an article from Maria Popova on ‘Brain Pickings’ entitled ‘The Adverb is Not Your Friend: Stephen King on Simplicity of Style‘. Interestingly (yes, I just used an adverb), one of the ShortbreadStories members, Diane, took the discussion past basic ‘ly’ adverbs and included the verb ‘seem’ in her repertoire of words to be avoided.

Diane stated, ‘Something that I have noticed also is the temptation to put “seemed” into so many scenes and I think this comes from the same place as overuse of adverbs.’

She continued with an example and explanation, ‘”The body seemed to flop forward” – either it did or it didn’t and “The body flopped forward” is so much stronger in my humble opinion.’

Diane hit the mark with this comment. I responded to her on Facebook with, ‘It is easy to confuse telling a story to your mates and writing a story. When I tell a story about something that happened in “real life”, I’m not sure of all the details. Much of it may be second-hand or I can only guess what the others in the story were thinking. So I use words like “it seemed” or “he kind of” or “maybe”. But as writers, we have complete control. We know what happened; there is no “second hand” information. So, writing a story is very different to telling and that is where the confusion lies.’

Phrases and words like ‘kind of thought’ or ‘seemed that’ are, what I call, ‘noncommittal’ words, and they make a story less active.

There are two reasons a writer would use ‘noncommittal’ words and phrases. The first is a lack of confidence, which is easily rectified. Just go through your work, and take out all the ‘noncommittal’ words and phrases. (Oh, and don’t forget to adjust the tense of the sentence once you’ve made an omission. For example, ‘The body seemed to flop forward’ becomes ‘The body flopped forward.’)

The other reason is a bit more tricky, because it has to do with point of view. Even though you may be writing in third person, you may be telling the story from a character’s point of view, as is the case with third person limited; therefore, that character may not know all the facts. However, while this reason is valid, ‘noncommittal’ words and phrases still bog down the language and keep the story from flowing.

These messages between Diane and I (and the rest of the internet) were appropriately timed, as I recently edited a bit of writing for a friend. She was telling a story in the third person, but from a specific character’s point of view, so she often relied on ‘noncommittal’ words and phrases. Here is the advice I gave her:

‘Be aware of noncommittal words, phrases, and sentences; either something happened or it didn’t. You may be using these noncommittal words because you’re telling the scene from the character’s point of view. However, when a noncommittal word is used in third person, it alludes to a trick.

For example:
“The man seemed to not be breathing.”

This implies that the man “seemed” to not be breathing, but in a moment you’re going to tell us something else happened. So the reader expects to read something like this: “The man seemed to not be breathing, but then he stood up.”‘

Once again, going back to the difference between telling a story in ‘real life’ and in writing, we omit in writing. In ‘real life’, I may look at a man and think ‘He doesn’t seem to be breathing.’ However, when I retell the story to my friends, I say, ‘He wasn’t breathing.’ I don’t need to justify how I knew he wasn’t breathing (unless it’s important to my story).

A few of you may be thinking, ‘But the reader will question how the character knew the guy wasn’t breathing?’ Once again, this is comparing a ‘real life’ conversation and a written story. For example, a verbal conversation may look like this:

Me: I was walking down this alley, and I came across a man who wasn’t breathing.
Friend: How do you know he wasn’t breathing?
Me: I’m not a moron. He wasn’t breathing. I could tell. Anyway, I called for an ambulance…

Assume that your readers are not as mean-spirited as your friends.

When writing a story, omit the information that does not move the narrative forward, whether it’s a friend questioning your first-aid experience or the word ‘seemed’, the reader will happily assume the character can tell if someone is breathing or not.

This entry was posted in About Writing, POV and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Noncommittal words: Don’t use them

  1. Diane says:

    I do admire the way that you explained this, you have, for me, hit the nail on the head but put it a very clear and concise way. Thanks – it seemed that I could easily understand it!!!!!!!!! he he


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