Just as Kryptonite renders Superman powerless, certain words, phrases, or techniques can weaken our writing. The examples below are culled from the last few manuscripts I’ve edited:
1) “His gaze followed me as I walked away.”
Does the narrator have eyes in the back of her head? This is a POV (point of view) error, in which the character through whose eyes we’re viewing the story tells us something she can’t possibly know.
2) I’ve been guilty of allowing this kind of Kryptonite into my work: “She found herself staring at the lake.”
How does one properly greet oneself? Is there an exchange of names, or does the conversation go straight to the weather?
I’m a fan of writing that doesn’t get in the way of story. Be straightforward and simple: “She stared at the lake.”
3) “She removed her eyes from the road… .”
With what? A spatula?
“His face fell,” but we don’t know where it landed.
Beware “wandering body parts” syndrome. Be aware of what you are actually writing.
His gaze can capture hers, but if his eyes do, then that’s just nasty.
4) “She suddenly realized (fill in the blank).”
Really? That fast?
Most sentences are stronger without “suddenly” — just let the action happen, let it be abrupt, and readers will know that it was sudden. As for realizations, they can be plainly communicated on the page, and don’t need to be announced.
5) “He heard” or “she saw”, or any variation thereof, can add distance between the story and the reader.
Make the action seem close, immediate, engaging by simply describing whatever it is that the character saw, heard, etc.
“He watched his neighbor dig up her roses” becomes “He glanced over the hedge. Mrs. Mason dug a trowel into the soil, still dark after the rain.”
6) “Judging from her expression/his tone/their actions, (fill in the blank).”
Who is making that judgment? Why do they come to that conclusion?
Show the expression, describe the tone, reveal the actions. Rather than doing all the thinking for them, allow readers to infer the intent or the thoughts behind expressions, actions, or vocal inflections.
7) “He began to plow the field,” or “They started pushing the car.”
Are characters always beginning but rarely finishing?
If readers are being guided through a process, then “started” is necessary i.e. “At daybreak, he began plowing the field, but was interrupted when the blade broke against a rock.”
However, most action needs simple treatment: “They pushed the car up the hill.”
Akin to began and started are before, after, while, during, etc. These words are necessary for certain situations, but should be used sparingly. Describe the action in sequence, be straightforward, and readers will “see” the story.
8) “He pulled the key from the ignition, unlocked his safety belt, pulled the door latch… .”
It’s good to help readers visualize the action, but avoid tedious play-by-play descriptions. Skip to the relevant material.
“Joe parked on the street then jogged to the backyard. Football teams were already forming.”
Readers will assume he must have also parked the car, stepped out of it, locked it, etc.
In the future, I’ll post more examples of writing Kryptonite. Meantime, it’s not in the abundance of words that a story is told, but in the right words.