The right word can mean the difference between connecting emotionally with a reader and having them forget a character’s name. The more they connect, the more likely it is that they’ll love the story. They more they love the story, the more likely they are to tell all their friends about it and buy the next one. No pressure, but using the wrong words could have a huge impact on a writer’s career.
Since writing a novel is a massive endeavor, we often use placeholder words in a first draft. They quickly capture the emotions we want to convey in the fewest words so we can keep on writing and get our ideas down while they’re still exciting and new.
This is fine for an early draft—we don’t need to be perfect while we’re still figuring it all out—but the trouble comes when we leave those placeholder words in the later drafts. Instead of deepening the emotions we know the characters feel in those moments, we rely on our memory and story knowledge to feel what’s happening in a scene, and wind up with emotionally stunted sentences.
(Here’s more on writing with placeholder words)
I see (and use) three common placeholder words all the time in early drafts:
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of them, they frequently wind up in emotionally stunted sentences such as:
- I frowned.
- He smiled.
- She sighed.
These sentences say nothing about how the character feels, but they look like they do because we bring prior knowledge to the sentence. This is doubly dangerous when these sentences are paired with dialogue (and they usually are) because we infuse those spoken words with more emotional impact than is actually making it onto the page.
- I frowned. “You went to the movies last night?”
- He smiled. “That’s sounds great, sure, count me in.”
- She sighed. “I never want this moment to end.”
The reader just sees an emotionally stunted sentence, but we know:
- I’m frowning because I don’t trust what my best friend is telling me.
- He smiled because he knows if he doesn’t the villain will realize he’s figured out the truth.
- She sighed because life really couldn’t get any better and she’s never been so happy.
In some cases, there’s more context in the scene and the emotion is clear and the shorter sentences do indeed convey what we want them to. In others, the only emotional clue is a single word. And there’s always the paragraph that conveys the emotions perfectly and the stunted sentence is redundant.
It’s our job as writers to decide which group each emotionally stunted sentence belongs to.
How to Fix Emotionally Stunted Sentences
Step One: Go through your manuscript and search for frowned, smiled, and sighed.
Step Two: Evaluate each sentence and decide if it’s doing its job or if it’s bringing the passage down.
Step Three: Cut or edit the sentence so it conveys the emotion you know is there.
(Here’s more on describing emotions)
Evaluating Emotionally Stunted Sentences
Identifying weak words is easy—a search is all you need—but deciding what to do once you find them can be trickier. Writing has exceptions to every rule, and the exact sentence can work in one instance and fail in another. As you go through your manuscript, look at each weak word and ask:
If you cut the sentence, is the emotional meaning of the passage clear? If so, you probably don’t need it.
If you cut the sentence, does the meaning of the passage become ambiguous or misleading? If so, you likely need more emotional description in that area. If a passage can become muddy without that one word, that’s a red flag that you’re bringing more emotional to the scene than is actually there. Consider fleshing out the emotions more and turning a “he smiled” into something richer.
(Here’s more on getting what’s in your head onto the page)
Does the rhythm of the passage just read better with it in? If so, leave it in. How the narrative flows is just as important as what it says,and sometimes traditionally “weak writing” is exactly what makes a section sing.
Is it a necessary tag to know who’s speaking? This one’s a judgment call. There are times when you need a quick tag that doesn’t draw attention or mean anything to help readers keep track of who’s speaking. If taking it out creates confusion, leave it in.
As always in these cases, not every instance of frowned, smiled, or sighed needs to be cut, so use your best judgment. If you’re worried your manuscript feels weak or you’ve gotten feedback about readers not connecting to it, this could be a reason why and a good place to start to fix it.
How often do you write emotionally stunted sentences? What are some of your emotional placeholder words?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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