Grammar Gremlins: Point of View Weasels

Weasel words often do their sneaky best to slip between character and reader. In The 10% Solution, Ken Rand says that he rarely applies his word paring methods to dialog, and I certainly agree with that. Character shines through dialog, from the close-mouthed to the verbose. Bad grammar, malapropisms, five-dollar words, and so on all say something about the character speaking.

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Rand does point out that said is almost as invisible as the or an, and seldom should be replaced by fancier words. Sometimes it isn’t necessary at all; action tags may convey more than simple speech tags.

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“Look what I found.” Joe slapped the book on the table in front of George. “Right where you left it.”

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“I can’t believe you said that.” Margie jumped up, knocking her chair over with a metallic crash. “I’m outta here.”

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Keep the speech tags simple. Tags like said, whispered, shouted, asked, and replied are words with useful meanings, and won’t bounce a reader out of the conversation. Tags like cajoled, articulated, conversed, exclaimed, and (heaven forbid, but I’ve seen it) ejaculated fly way over the top. Unless you’re trying for comic effect, avoid them.

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Where Rand hits the mark on what we generally refer to these days as “deep point of view” is with this list of verbs to watch out for: felt, heard, smelled, saw, tasted, and touched. “When you show the world filtered through a character’s senses,” Rand advises (yes, I thought about that tag!), “you distance your reader one degree from sensing the story environment themselves.”

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As fiction writers, we are often advised (actually, bludgeoned might be the word) to use all five senses, but that doesn’t mean we must repeatedly tell the reader that we’re doing so.

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He smelled bacon frying – or – the aroma of bacon floated through the kitchen door.

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She saw the puppy run to greet her – or – the puppy wiggled its butt with joy at her approach.

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He tasted dust in the air – or – dust covered his face, his nostrils, his lips.

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He felt the velvety texture of her skin – or – her check was velvet to his touch.

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Two major offenders that Rand does not mention are thought and seemed. Like all words, they have their places, but often kicking them to the curb closes that gap between character and reader.

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Joe looked up. Oh, dear, he thought, there’s a tornado on the horizon. Maybe he should leave now – or – Joe scanned the sky. Tornado on the horizon! Time to move.

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There seemed to be something moving outside the window – or – a distorted face pressed against the window pane, freezing Mary in her tracks.

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You get the idea. I’m making these up on a Saturday morning. You can do better. Make a list of the weasels that sneak into your own work, and keep it handy when it comes time to edit and revise.

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