The Balloon Experiment

The other day I stumbled across an article called “1000 Verbs to Write By.” Basically it lists common verbs and gives a list of stronger verbs, that is, verbs that show rather than tell the action. The “bad boy” verbs include: walk, jump, touch, take, pull, push, had, put,  hit, was, reacted, sat, look, stood, smell, thought, said, heard, lay, lie, felt, entered, left, and turn. It doesn’t mean you can’t use those verbs now and then, with “now and then” being the operative cliché phrase. Too many of them, and you’ve got a blah manuscript.

My beta readers noted occasional repetition in my WIP, which means there’s probably a lot more to fix. So I tried my balloon experiment. Why do I call it “balloon?” Because as I edit manuscripts, I make notes inside a balloon, like the balloons coming from a character’s mouth in a comic. Using Word’s “find” feature, I typed in the “bad” words to see how many my manuscript contained. Well, my tale was riddled with them. I’m halfway done streamlining my verbs, and I’ve eliminated over 1000 words from the manuscript. I’m aiming for tight writing, where I get your point across in one sentence instead of two paragraphs.

One thing I disagree with, and have no intention of changing. There is nothing wrong with writing “he or she said.” Better “said” than cluttering up a manuscript with saidisms like interjected, exclaimed, gushed, etc. Using “said,” though, may indicate a necessity for dialogue tags that attribute an action to what your character is saying, as shown in the following example.

Fair: “If anything crawls from that grave, I’ll destroy it,” Johnny promised Carol.

Better: Johnny pulled Carol into his arms. “If anything crawls from that grave, I’ll make it take a long dirt nap.”

When I typed “have” into Word’s Find feature, I discovered that half of my “haves” weren’t necessary. The sentences read better without them. Ditching “tell” words like put, walk, etc. enabled me to tighten my sentences and make them look better, as in the next example.

Fair: Tyrone put one hand around Alexis’ shoulder.

Better: Tyrone grasped Alexis by the shoulder.

Later on, an editor or I may decide the latter sentence doesn’t work, but at least I’ve eliminated a repetitive verb.

Do you struggle with repetition in your stories? How do you get around it?

My balloon experiment meant making all my repetitions float away.

None of my balloons look alike, so why should my words?

About Barbara Custer

Author of: Twilight Healer Steel Rose Life Raft: Earth City of Brotherly Death Close Liaisons Infinite Sight When Blood Reigns Infinite Sight Publisher / Editor of Night to Dawn Books & Magazine
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  1. It depends on the story. I pay a lot of attention to internal rhythm of the language as well as the description the words present. With that being said ‘action’ is always best.

  2. I don’t see anything wrong with using simple language in dialogue. If the character hasn’t much time to act or isn’t well educated then keeping what is said clear and uncomplicated seems to me to be the way to go. Of course if all the characters blend in with their dialogue into being the same then you do have a problem.

    To me there is a big difference between putting a hand on someone’s shoulder and grasping said shoulder. One requires more force than the other and is more intimate. A shy person for example is likely to go for the light hand on someone’s shoulder even when warning them about something and would never dream of grasping at all. Sometimes your character dictates the action to be taken. Still there are variants to be used such as touching a shoulder rather than putting a hand on said shoulder. What I am trying to say here that the nature of a character can be changed by substitution and it may not be a change you or your readers want.

    Yes. Nothing wrong with writing he said or she said. Sometimes the reader wants to get past the dialogue even if it is important to the overall story just so they can get back into the action. In such instances he said or she said is perfect.

    I think every writer at one time or another struggles with repetition. I struggle less in the short story. In a full length novel you may have to reinvigorate an idea or a previous part of the overall plot or risk the lose of the reader. I have noticed this in a number of Star Trek novels I have recently read. Characters that haven’t been touched upon for a while in the chapters needing to have who they are and how they fit in redefined. There is a certain artistry in doing this without being totally lame-o repetitive.

    Usually I get around the problem of having to reintroduce characters by having them seen through the eyes of characters that haven’t either previously dealt with them or haven’t previously commented on them. Throwing them in to new situations where their abilities or lack thereof become apparent also isn’t a bad way to go.

    • Great thoughts, Rod. Alexis was about to fall, so Tyrone had to grasp her to keep her from falling. But you’re right, in another situation, “touch” might be better. Also great point about characters who haven’t been in the story awhile needing to be reintroduced. 🙂
      Barbara of the Balloons

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