Author of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Stood and Looked – Two words badly used by new authors (I was one of them)

The most common method of writing by new authors is third person, past tense. Whether omniscient or limited, it does not matter. As to first person, past tense, the problem is still the same. They all have a penchant to use these actions – stood and looked.

Take, for example, this simple sentence.

Bob stood at the door.

Everyone understands what is trying to be conveyed. Bob is in front of the door.

Examine this again from a literal point of view. Was Bob not standing prior to this and has now stood near the door? Does this mean that, although he is by the door, he may not be facing it? After all, he stood at the door, not toward it. Or, was Bob somewhere that the door was visible to him and when he stood he was facing the door? He may be across the room but when he stood his posture was toward the door. Let’s get even sillier. The door approached Bob and he stood at it.

The sentence also implies Bob is motionless. If Bob was moving prior to this action, then he has come to a stop. Normally, that is not the kind of action a character takes. Sure, his forward momentum may be halted as he opens the door, but the action has not stopped. He is moving. He has perhaps extended a hand to open the door and has pulled or pushed the door to open it.

Am I overdramatizing this issue? Perhaps, but this is about flow in the novel. The statement interrupts that flow. Is Bob going to open the door or not? It is far better to flow through the action than have it jerk to a halt.

Bob opened the door

What follows is a continuous use of the word to put the character in locations the author wants the character seen, or in actions where he is a participant.

Bob stood next to Sue. Bob stood alone in the room. Bob stood in the middle of the fight. Bob stood in the way.

Then there are the double duty ones.

Bob stood to his feet. Bob stood to understand it. Bob stood to his convictions. 

Taken literally, they all sound ridiculous.

I know. Inane, right? The point is, this is a common mistake made by many. Search for the word stood in your latest novel and get a count. You’ll be surprised. Flow through it and avoid stood where you can.

Now for the other word.

Bob looked at Sue.

Why is he looking? What does he see? Why did he look?

This is common where authors want the reader to know who the protagonist’s dialogue is aimed at. It is also a precursor to an action that the character is about to engage in. You often will find writing where characters look to do something. Although the intent has its merits, especially when used in place of dialogue tags, in such a use it implies the reader is an idiot and cannot figure out what is happening.

Here’s an important rule. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE READER.

They are not morons. If dialogue is occurring between two characters the reader will automatically assume they take turns talking unless informed otherwise. If the character engages in an action of some type the reader does not need to be informed beforehand that the character is looking at doing something. Sometimes this is called filtering. I’ll save that discussion for another day.

Once again, do a search and get a count on how many times the word look appears in your writing. If it’s shocking then you know you have a problem.

If you stood for good writing then you would have looked at how to limit the use of these two words.

or

Write well by limiting these words.

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4 responses

  1. Annamaria Bazzi

    guilty — but look always persecutes me and won’t leave me alone…

    October 27, 2014 at 7:42 pm

  2. Yet another thing to look for in my writing. You’re turning this into work for me Michael.
    Good writing is worth the effort though. Thanks!

    October 28, 2014 at 8:44 am

  3. Good advice, Michael. Thanks.

    October 28, 2014 at 12:54 pm

  4. Great advice. I know I use too many ‘looks’. I usually use them to try and avoid the ‘talking heads’ situation. You do have a good point, however. Thank God for word processers. It allows me to find all those pesky words and do something about them.

    October 29, 2014 at 6:13 pm

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