A Single Word Can Change the Tone

by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

In your WIP, are you inadvertently tossing in a word here and there that jolts the readers out of your story or gives an incongruous impression?

Once you’ve completed a first or second draft of your story (or your muse is taking a break), now’s the time to go back and reread each scene carefully. Does every word you’ve chosen contribute to creating the overall tone and mood you’re going for in that scene? Or are some of your word choices unintentionally detracting from the impression you want readers to take away?

Is it possible you may have unconsciously inserted the odd “cheery” word into a tense scene in your story? Or a relaxed-sounding word in a scene where the character is stressed or in a hurry? Or maybe your teenager or blue-collar worker sounds too articulate? I’ve seen examples of these quite often in the fiction I’ve edited over the years.

For example, the heroine and hero are running through the woods, pursued by bad guys intent on killing them. The debut author, thinking it’s a good idea to describe the setting, uses words like “leaves dancing in the light” and “birds chirping” and “babbling brook.” These light-hearted, cheerful words detract from the desperation she’s trying to convey as the young couple races frantically to escape their pursuers. In this situation, it would be better to use more ominous words, perhaps crows cawing, a wolf howling, water crashing over rapids, or thunder cracking.

Read through each of your scenes and make sure every word you use to describe the setting, the people, and their actions, words, and thoughts contributes to create the impression you’re going for in that scene, rather than undermining your intentions.

DESCRIBING YOUR SETTING:

Here’s an example, slightly disguised, from my editing. It’s supposed to be a tense, scary moment, but the author has, without thinking about the impact, inserted relaxed, even joyful imagery that counteracts and weakens the apprehensive mood he is trying to convey (my bolding).

He locked the door behind him, his harried mind ricocheting between frightened alertness and sheer fatigue. He took a furtive glance out the window. No one there, so far. Despite the cold, a warming shaft of morning sunlight filtered through the stained curtain, and languid dust particles slow-danced in its beam.

What had he gotten himself into? They would certainly be on to him now—it was only a matter of time before they found him. He looked out again through the thin curtain. Sunbeams were filtering through the branches of an old tree outside the window, the shriveled shapes of the leaves dancing in the breeze, playing gleefully with the light. He swore he saw movement on the ground outside—a figure.

Some of the wording in the two paragraphs above is excellent, like “his harried mind ricocheting between frightened alertness and sheer fatigue” and the phrases “furtive glance,” “stained curtain” and “shriveled shapes of the leaves.” But the boldfaced words and phrases, warming, languid, slow-danced, sunbeams, dancing in the breeze, and playing gleefully with the light weaken the imagery and tone because they’re too happy and carefree for the intended ominous mood. Perhaps the writer, caught up in describing the view outside in a literary, “writerly” way, momentarily forgot he was going for frightened.  

Check to be sure every detail of your imagery enhances the overall mood and tone of the situation.

Here’s another example where the description of the setting detracts from the power of the scene and doesn’t match how the character would or should be feeling at that moment.

The protagonist has just had a shock at the end of the last chapter, where she’s discovered her colleague murdered. This is the beginning of the next chapter, a jump of a few days.

Mary gazed at the brightening horizon, immersing herself in the beauty of the rising sun. She watched as the dawn’s rays danced across the waves. Mary adored this time of day when the hustle and bustle had not yet started, and she could enjoy watching the waves wash in and listening to the seagulls overhead. It was one of the many reasons she loved this area so much.

Since the murder of Teresa three days ago, Mary had been in a state of turmoil. Teresa’s death had changed everything. Gruesome images continually flickered through her mind like an unending motion picture. She could think of nothing else and was racked by guilt.

To me, the two paragraphs seem contradictory in mood. If she’s racked by guilt and can think of nothing else, how can she enjoy the sunrise so much?

Be sure to choose words that fit the mood you’re trying to convey.

THOUGHTS, IMPRESSIONS, & IMAGERY:

Here’s another example of a tense, life-threatening scene whose power and tension have been inadvertently eroded by almost comical imagery.

The room went black and shots rang out in the darkness.

He took to the floor on all fours and, panicking, scrabbled around aimlessly, searching his addled mind for a direction, a goal. He poked his head up and looked around. Spotted the red exit sign of the back door. Loping ape-like across the office floor, he tried to keep his body below the level of the desks—he had seen them do it in the movies, so it was good enough for him. Several more bullets whistled overhead.

 

The words “addled” and “loping ape-like” seem too light and humorous for the life-or-death scene. Even the bit about seeing it in the movies, so it was good enough for him seems too light-hearted – this could be the last moments of this guy’s life if he doesn’t find a way to avoid the bullets!

Here’s the same scene, rewritten to capture the desperate mood:

The room went black and shots rang out in the darkness.

What the—? He dropped to the floor and, panicking, searching his frenzied mind for a direction, a goal. Get out of here! He poked his head up and looked around. Spotted the red exit sign of the back door. At a low crouch, he set out across the open office, dodging from one desk to another. Several more bullets whistled overhead.

Another example with imagery that’s fresh and creative, but does it actually fit the moment?

A truck came barreling toward them. He wrenched the wheel to the right, and they passed the truck, missing it by inches. Mud splattered onto the windshield, and the wipers smeared it like chocolate ice cream.

I think the chocolate ice cream imagery, although clever, is too positive and playful for the tense, scary moment.

A cliched phrase that doesn’t fit:

The frightening story cut too close to home for Diane. Just the possibility of it happening to her family scared her silly.

My comment to the writer: The word “silly” detracts from your intention to show her nervousness and fear. I’d express this with a less “silly” word. (and less of a cliché).

ACTIONS: The character’s body language and actions need to match the situation.

Don’t have someone “strolling” when they’re worried. Have them “pacing” instead. Similarly, when they’re arguing, don’t have them leaning back in their chair – have them hunched forward, or pointing a finger.

As they entered the police station, a tall, balding man with a goatee and an expensive suit shuffled down the hall towards them. As he passed, he handed a card to Wilson. “I want to see my client now, alone.”

My comment to the author: “I wouldn’t have a high-priced, confident lawyer shuffling. Save that verb for elderly or sick people, or a prisoner with chains.”

Another example of a verb that doesn’t fit the situation:

Joe stood up, shocked and numb, after his boss delivered the tragic news about the death of his friend. He dreaded his visit to Paul’s widow. He sauntered back to his office, his mind spinning.

“Sauntered” is way too relaxed and casual a word for the situation. The guy’s just been told his friend is dead. Maybe “found his way” or “stumbled” back to his office.

Another example: A high-ranking Nazi officer is about to invade the home of a wealthy Jewish family during the Second World War. The author wrote:

He giggled inwardly, thinking about the chaos he was about to bring to the Jews who lived here.

My comment to the writer was: The verb “giggled” fits a couple of schoolgirls, not a nasty Nazi. I suggest “smirked” or “gloated.”

Another example:

At the funeral, the widow caught Peter’s glance and squinted her eyes in accusation. She no doubt held him responsible for her husband’s death.

“Squinted” is like against the bright sun. I’d say “narrowed her eyes” or “glared at him.”

How is your character moving?

Is he strolling, trudging, striding, tiptoeing, stomping, shuffling, meandering, staggering, lurching, sauntering, tramping, slinking, mincing, strutting, pacing, sashaying, marching, or slogging along? Each word paints a very different picture of the state of the character and the situation.

For lots of specific suggestions for choosing just the right verb for the situation, see my post “It’s All in the Verbs” from a few years back here on TKZ. And read the comments there for more great suggestions.

And for specific lists of effective, evocative verbs for various situations, check out my post on my own blog, “People in Motion — Vary Those Verbs!

Make sure every single word fits the scene and enhances the mood.

Even one incompatible word can jolt the reader or dilute the power of a scene.

Can you pick out the word below that deflates the moment?

The guard drew in a shuddering breath as if to cry out. He half-coughed and half-gasped, then started to scream again, this time with enthusiasm. Brad covered the man’s mouth and knocked his gun to the ground.

Rather than screaming “with enthusiasm,” I’d use “in desperation or “in terror” or something like that. The choice of “with enthusiasm” evokes positive, cheery connotations.

Here’s another example of just one word jolting us out of the mood:

They broke the lock on the warehouse and looked around. “Let’s check the big freezers in the back.” He strode over and opened the freezer door. The smell of frozen flesh and blood smacked him in the face. An emaciated, naked man stared at him with lifeless eyes, frozen like a popsicle.

Yes, it’s that word at the end. I imagine the writer was searching for a good word for “frozen like” but “popsicle” is an unfortunate choice as it evokes an image that’s way too upbeat for the situation. Best to look for a more somber or horrific simile (maybe “like a pale slab of beef”).

Read these short passages and see if you can pick out the single word in each that contradicts the desired mood and tone.

  1. As the realization of what had happened hit her, Linda gasped and dropped to her knees, a myriad of twirling thoughts bombarding her mind.
  2. Could Greg have sold him out, led him here into a trap? Tony fixed his friend with an intense stare brimming with disappointment and betrayal.
  3. In the interrogation room, the accused man’s stiff, jaunty movements, drumming fingers, and constant glances around made Derek wonder if he was on something.
  4. The car spun on an invisible axis then crashed into a light post. Steve’s head bounced off the window, and his headache blossomed anew.

Words that don’t fit:

  1. “twirling” seems too light-hearted in this situation, like a dancer or a baton twirling. Maybe “whirling” or “swirling.”
  2. “brimming” is too cheery, too positive. Maybe just “his voice filled with disappointment…”
  3. “blossomed” seems too positive for a headache caused by a crack on the head during a car accident. Maybe just something like “intensified” or rewrite the phrase.

Your turn:

Rewrite any of these sentences with a more apt verb and any other tweaks you’d like to add:

  1. The big man walked into the… 
  2. The little girls danced around the room.
  3. The rabbit/squirrel/deer ran off.
  4. She looked at him, hands on hips. “What?”
  5. The crowd moved along the sidewalk.
  6. The pickpocket ran down the street.

Or feel free to make up one of your own. Have fun!

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. Website: www.JodieRenner.com; blog: http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/; Facebook. Amazon Author Page.

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12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

 Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process:

1. Brainstorm possibilities – or just start writing. Make a story map/diagram to decide who (protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters), what (main problem), where (physical setting), and when (past, present future, season). Or just start writing and see where it takes you — but be warned that this “pantser” method (writing by the seat of your pants) will require more editing, cutting, rearranging, revising, (and probably swearing, hair-pulling, and rewriting) later.

2. Write with wild abandon while your muse is flowing. Don’t stop to edit or rethink or revise anything. Just write, write, write! Don’t show it to anyone and don’t ask for advice. Just try to write uncensored until you get all or most of the first draft of your story down. If you get blocked or discouraged, put your writing aside for a bit and go to step 3.

3. Run out of steam? Take a break and hone your skills. Read some highly regarded, reader-friendly craft-of-writing books. Here’s a list of recommended resources for fiction writers. And maybe attend a few writing workshops or conferences (here’s a list of writers conferences in 2015), or join a critique group. Also, read blog posts on effective writing techniques. Check out our resource library here at The Kill Zone (down the right sidebar), as well as blogs like Writer Unboxed, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University (formerly The Other Side of the Story),  K. M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors, Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers (formerly The Bookshelf Muse),  Elizabeth Craig’s Mystery Writing is Murder,  Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn, John Yeoman’s The Wicked Writing Blog, and more. (Add your own suggestions in the comments below this post.)

Captivate_full_w_decal4. First revision. Go back to your story and look for possible ways to strengthen your characterization, plot, pacing, point of view, and narration, based on your reading of the various techniques that make up a bestselling novel today. Also, check for continuity, logistics, and time sequencing. Does your basic premise make sense? If the problem/dilemma your whole novel is based on is easily solved, you’ve got work to do! Go through the whole story and revise as you go. Always save the original copies, in case you want to go back and incorporate paragraphs or scenes from them.

5. Distance yourself. Put your story aside for a few weeks and concentrate on other things. Then you’ll have the distance to approach it with fresh eyes, as a reader.

6. Now go through it as a reader. Change the font and print it up. Or send it to your e-reader or tablet. Then be sure to read it in a different location from where you wrote it. With pen in hand, mark it all up.

7. Second revision. Now go back and make the changes you noted while reading.

8. Send it to beta readers, 3-6 volunteers — savvy, avid readers who enjoy your genre. Give them specific questions, like: Were you able to warm up with and start bonding with the main character early on? If not, why not? Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not? Are there areas where you were confused? What specifically confused you? Are there areas or details that didn’t make sense to you? Why not? Are there any points where your attention lagged, where you felt like putting the book down or skipping ahead?  Check out my list of 15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions.

9. Third revision. Read through the feedback from your beta readers and strongly consider revising any parts that confused or bored them. Any areas of confusion or other issues mentioned by two or more of your readers should be red flags for you. Revise based on their suggestions.

10. Professional Edit. Now seek out a reputable freelance fiction editor who reads and edits your genre. Be sure to check over their website very carefully and contact some of the people listed as clients or under reviews or testimonials. And get a sample edit of at least 5 pages of your story – not someone else’s.

11. Final revisions based on the edit. Read your story out loud or use text-to-speech software to have it read aloud to you. This will help you pick up on any awkward phrasing or anywhere that the flow is less than smooth. If you bumble over a sentence or have to read it again, revise it for easier flow. (Do this at any stage of your story.)

Also, either before the professional edit or after, try changing the double-spacing to single-spacing and the size to 6” x 9” (e-reader size) and sending your story to your Kindle or other e-reader. Then read it on there, as a reader rather than a writer, but with a notebook beside you. See what jumps out at you that should be changed.

12. Get a final proofread of it, if you can afford this step, or perhaps you’ve made arrangements for your copyeditor to do another, final pass to go over your revisions, looking for any new errors that may have cropped up as a result of the revisions. (I edit in sections, and each section goes back and forth with the author at least 2 or 3 times.)

Now your story should be ready to send to agents and acquiring editors or to publish yourself. Good luck with it! Hope it enthralls readers and takes off running!

Do you have any essential steps to add or emphasize? What about more great blogs to help writers hone their skills? We always value your input!

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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Dangling Participles, Misplaced Modifiers, and Other Awkward Constructions

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speakerJodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centred

In your writing, have you inadvertently created some awkward sentences involving misuse of participles?

In my editing of fiction manuscripts, I find even my smartest, most talented authors sometimes commit gaffes with participles, which can affect the meaning of the sentence. Some readers may notice these style blunders, and others may just feel subliminally confused or inexplicably mildly irritated.

Problems with participles, dangling or otherwise:

Participles are verbs that end in –ing (present participle) or –ed (past participle). According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “The present participle (-ing verb) denotes the verb’s action as in progress or incomplete at the time expressed by the sentence’s principal verb.” In other words, an –ing verb expresses an action that is still taking place when another action occurs.

For example, “As he was driving on the freeway, a police car whizzed past, lights flashing and sirens blaring.” Or “She escaped while the house was still burning.”

So –ing verbs are mainly used for ongoing actions or to indicate an action that is still taking place when another action occurs. Here are some examples of incorrect use of participles:

Captivate_full_w_decal~ Logistical impossibilities

What’s wrong with these sentences?

Hurrying up the sidewalk, she ran into her office building.

Striding across the lobby, he jabbed the button for the elevator.

Tapping her toes impatiently, she dashed into a free elevator that stopped.

What’s the problem ? Logistics. The -ing verb indicates that the first action is still happening when the second one occurs, but it’s physically impossible. She can’t run into her office building while hurrying up the sidewalk – it’s physically impossible. And if he’s still striding across the lobby, he can’t be jabbing the elevator button. Nor can she tap her toes while dashing into an elevator!

~ Check those sentences starting with -ing verbs.

Newbie writers often start sentence after sentence with -ing verbs (participles). That’s another sign of amateurish writing, and causes logistic problems. Besides being repetitive and boring, this sentence construction usually ends up describing a physically impossible series of actions – sequential actions described as if they’re simultaneous, as in the examples above.

Here’s another one: “Pulling the car over to the curb, she ran up the sidewalk.” She can’t run up the walk while she’s pulling over to the curb. It should be something like, “She pulled the car over to the curb, parked, then ran up the sidewalk.” Or “After pulling the car over to the curb, she jumped out and ran up the sidewalk.”

So vary your sentence structure, and if you start a sentence or clause with an –ing verb, make sure it works.

~ Don’t get caught with your participles dangling!

According to Merriam-Webster, a participle is a word having the characteristics of both verb and adjective. As mentioned above, participles are verb forms that end in –ing or –ed, like “buzzing” or “roaring”, or “satisfied” or “soaked.” A participial phrase modifies a noun, like “Climbing the mountain, the hikers soon grew tired.” The phrase is talking about the activity of the person or thing closest to it, in this case, the hikers, so it’s correct.

Here’s an example of a dangling participle: “Exploring the trails, the birds chirped merrily.” It’s not the birds that are exploring the trails, so it needs to be changed to something like “Exploring the trails, the hikers heard birds chirping around them.” Or “As they explored the trails, the hikers…”

A few more examples of dangling participles:

Wrong:
Dodging the traffic, his cell phone got dropped on the street.

It’s not the cell phone that’s dodging the traffic, so it needs to be:

Right:
Dodging the traffic, he dropped his cell phone on the street.
Or: As he dodged traffic, he dropped his cell phone.

Wrong:
Gazing out the window, the willow tree swayed in the breeze.

This sentence implies it’s the willow tree that’s gazing out the window. It would need to be changed to something like:

Gazing out the window, she saw the willow tree swaying in the breeze.
Or: As she gazed out the window, she saw…

~ Misplaced modifiers are a mistake.

Also, watch where you put your descriptive phrases in sentences, as they modify the words closest to them. For example,

Tall and rugged, the teenage girl gazed at the basketball star in admiration.

As it is phrased here, the “tall and rugged” refers to the teenage girl, when it’s supposed to be describing the basketball star. It should be rephrased to something like:

The teenage girl gazed at the tall, rugged basketball star in admiration.

Similarly with:

Tired and dirty, the lady of the house watched the farm workers trudge past at the end of the long day.

It’s not the lady of the house who’s tired and dirty, so this sentence needs fixing.

The lady of the house watched the tired, dirty farm workers trudge past…

Wrong:
Slathered in chocolate icing with sprinkles, the customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts.

It’s not the customers who are slathered in icing with sprinkles! This should be changed to something like,
The customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts slathered in chocolate icing with sprinkles.

And you wouldn’t want to write, “Soaked to the skin, she dried off the kids when they came in from the rain.” Unless the mom is soaked to the skin, too!

Readers and writers – have you seen or accidentally created some awkward sentences involving misuse of participles? Care to share any humorous ones?

I provide lots of tips, with examples, of these and all kinds of other style gaffes to avoid in my award-winning editor’s guide to writing compelling stories, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION.

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller,Captivate Your Readersand her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebookand Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.
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