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Monday, March 12, 2012

Do or Do Not. There is No Try: Clarifying What Your Characters Do

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Characters try to do a lot of things in stories. They try to get up, they try to hide, they try to hold back tears. Sometimes the act of trying is valid, but a lot of times, what the writer really means is that they do something, not try to do something.

That doesn't mean every instance of tried needs to be cut from your manuscript, but it is worth taking a peek to make sure your character really is trying, and not doing.
He tried to stand, grabbing the chair and dragging himself upright.
Tried to here suggests failure. An attempt was made but it was unsuccessful. But at the end of this sentence, the guy is standing. He didn't try, he did.
He tried to sneak into the girls' locker room.
Do you get the sense he actually did or that he was caught? You can almost hear the "but he got caught" at the end of it. The tried to implies that he failed.
She tried to smile.
This one's tricky because you really don't know if she's standing there with a weird look on her face or if she isn't smiling at all. What does the tried to mean here? It's ambiguous because we only know the intent, not the actual outcome of this action.
I tried not to squirm, tried not to think about the soldier's hands.
Tried can also be used to indicate a personal struggle for your characters. In some cases it works fine, but in others it's accomplishing the opposite of what you might want. In this example, is she squirming or not? You can't tell. It's clear she is thinking about the soldier's hands since she mentioned them, so tried (and thus failing not to think) works here. But for that first tried? It could go either way. She could be squirming, or standing still, or trying to stand still but twitching a little.

Ask yourself:
  • Is the person doing what they're trying to do or not?
  • Are you intending to show the struggle, the failure, or the success?
  • Are you showing an action or a motivation?
  • What is your character actually doing?
Rethinking tried is just one more way you can tighten your prose. You'll say what you actually mean instead of using a vague description that could be read a few different ways. It'll also help pinpoint potentially told areas and give you opportunities to make a section stronger.

It was good advice for Luke Skywalker, and it's good advice for writers.

How do you feel about tried? Are you using it to show a struggle or failure, or as a setup to the actual action? 

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I don't use tried that much. I do have my characters try and fail. I think they have to. But I try (ha!) to show it, not tell it. I'll have to watch out for unclear trying of my characters though.

  2. I didn't think I used tried much, but now I'm trying to remember... and failing! I'll have to watch for this - excellent advice!

  3. I'm not sure I use tried much, but now it's been brought to my attention, I will definitely "try" not too, or at least consider it a lot more.

  4. This is something that sneaks through in my first draft from time to time, but before letting my writer's group "have at it," I get rid of every instance because they'll nail me for sure! (I love my writer's group.)

  5. The questions you've given for any writer to ask him/herself seems obvious, but often forgotten. Thank you for listing them!

  6. I will love you forever for using "try to" instead of the infuriating and incorrect "try and" which I see everywhere.

  7. Okay, I'm really not a Star Wars hater, but let's just say Yoda and I don't have the best history in the philosophy department...That line in particular certainly doesn't help.

    Seriously though, I do have problems with this regard.

    On the one hand, while there some things we do that are either done or not done, like walking the dog, or making the bed, or writing your WIP opposed to a new blog entry, etc.

    There are still some things I haven't concretely done, but doesn't mean I'm putting it off, for example-

    I haven't hooked agents with my last novel. That doesn't mean all the sleepless nights and tear-filled food binges crafting better query letters was wasted.

    I did something besides feel sorry for myself. But I did SOMETHING that will help me in the long run, right?

    So yeah, as a writer trying to break into publishing, I struggle with this logic, but I'd like to think I'm not a walking contradiction, because I'm making the effort, even if I can yet say I have an agent, or I published a book, or that I can edit or rewrite a book in less than a year.

    I'm still WORKING towards those things. In my opinion that's better than just submitting to doubt which I'm guilty of sometimes.

    If I'm reading this wrong, I apologize, but as I said, Yoda and I have a touchy history.

  8. Natalie, hehe, sounds good!

    Charmaine, I found a few myself. It's probably not a huge issue for most people, but they do slip in there.

    Rebecca, can always do a search and see if you use it or not. :)

    Susan, ooo good group. I catch myself doing it in first drafts all the time. It just rolls off the fingers.

    SA Larsen, most welcome! It never hurts to brush up on what we "know" we know.

    Lin, add it to the first draft checklist :)

    Sarah, glad you mentioned that! That's one to watch out for for sure.

    Chicory, so many little snags are :)

    Taurean, I never said it was absolute, just that it's a word that often doesn't say what we want it to say. If you're trying to get published, that shows a struggle/pursuit, and is perfectly valid use of it. But if you use tried to when it's clear they either did or didn't, it can cut to tighten the prose.

  9. Great post. I'll add that to my first draft revision checklist

  10. Okay, that's what I thought. Sorry I got carried away. That phrase is one of my "Hulk Triggers" so I sometimes forget myself whenever I read it.

  11. Mmmm .... I didn't think I had a problem with this, until I did a word search on my latest WIP!
    Thanks for your wonderful posts, Janice. They are always so relevant and you have such a knack for explaining things. :)

  12. I've used it more often than not, so, yeah, have to watch this one. Usually catch in edit stage.

  13. Pete, thanks! It's on mine now, too.

    Taurean, no worries. I was speaking purely from the usage in a novel standpoint, not a judgement call :)

    JT Webster, they sneak in there, don't they? And thanks!

    Traci, it's a good one to put on those "things to double check" lists.

  14. This is interesting. I've never thought about this.

  15. I love seeing this issue addressed. Yes, tried to sneaks into a lot of manuscripts. I'm with you--when the character succeeds, the phrasing is almost always stronger without tried. If try is a legitimate action for your characters, write try to rather than try and.

    Phrases that need work---He wanted to try and swim the ocean; she said he'd better try and find a more expensive ring; I knew I had to try and race home before the storm.

    This is a great tip for writers. Thanks for sharing it.

  16. Beth, they're good red flag phrases as well. They often show up in scenes where we're not 100% sure what's going on, and ones that could use a little tweaking.