Check Your Word Choices

Outtakes 382


Check Your Word Choices

By Cait Collins


There are times when I find myself using too many passive sentences and echoing words in my narration. Robert Ray author of The Weekend Novelist Writes the Novel, suggested this exercise during a workshop. You will need a pencil, paper, a timer, and highlighters.

You will be free-writing. Do not think. Do not lift the pencil from the paper. Do not cross out and correct. Just write. The opening sentence begins, “My first boyfriend (or girlfriend) sat across from me….”  Set the timer for five minutes and start writing.

When the timer goes off, put down your pencil.  Do not complete an unfinished sentence.  Read your work.  Using your highlighters, underline the nouns. Highlight your active verbs and circle the passive ones.  Highlight adverbs in a different color, and adjectives in a third color. Now count your strong nouns. How many strong, descriptive nouns are in the paragraphs? Do the adjectives enhance the noun choices?

Count your active verbs and your passive verbs. Do you have more active verbs or more passive verbs? If there are more passive verbs how can you correct this? Adverbs are not your friend, so can you eliminate some adverbs by choosing more active verbs?

Free-writing allows the subconscious mind to take over and pilot the narrative. It allows our instincts to lead us to choices we might not consciously make. Using exercise like this we can develop a better vocabulary, improve our word choices, and create better narration in our stories.



Outtakes 381

By Cait Collins

I love writing dialogue, but I’m not as enamored with writing narration.  You see, my background is in journalism. When writing the news, you’re limited by time.  Let’s face it; each story might get 15 seconds.  And unless it’s a major event, 30 seconds would be the maximum for a story. A good journalist learns to get the who, what, where, and why covered quickly and efficiently.  There’s just no time for excess words.

And that’s where I have problems.  I try to tightly edit my stories so that I’m not using too many words in a scene.  After all, is the sky color that important?  While I’m working hard to keep the novel or short story clean, I under write the piece. Believe me, editing out can be easier that adding in.  Adding in is a risk as the additional words could overpower the story.  And then you have to rewrite the scene.

I’ve come to realize that writing is a study in balance.  It takes time and practice to master the narration of a work and the verbal action.  I’m still working on it.



Keep It Simple

Outtakes 380


Keep It Simple

By Cait Collins


Have you ever started reading a story or book and realized you needed a dictionary to understand what the author was saying?  I can’t say I had to pull out my handy Webster’s Dictionary, but there have been times when I had to read paragraphs several times before I could follow the story.  I usually don’t finish the book.

The point is that we don’t need to impress our readers by filling the pages with flowery description and hundred dollar words. Our narration should lead the reader in entering the story and bringing him in to the lives of the characters. The words should be descriptive, seasoned with adjectives and adverbs that strengthen but not over power the narrative.  Less can often mean more and better.


The Other Character

Outtakes 279


The Other Character

By Cait Collins

Narration is a major component of a story.  Through narration we learn where we are. We become aware of the specifics of the setting, the season, the weather, and our characters.  We meet our characters through narration.  The narration sets the scene and introduces action.

I thought writing a screenplay would free me from writing narration, but guess again. Although the screenplay is heavy on the dialogue, the scene must be set,  characters introduced, and the action started.




The Brisit man-o-war, the Glory, rides the swells of the outgoing tides as she sails into the Straits of Florida


We were two days out and tacking west

into the Straits of Florida when the

look out sighted a galleon of f the

port bow,closing fast.

The Spanish galleon, the Luca, sails within firing range.


El Diablo stood at the helm, cutlass

raised.  Captain Thomas ordered a volley

over the Luca’sbow.  El Diablo slashed’

the air with his sword and his cannons


A ball blasts through the Glory’srailing and breaks through the

deck.  Shouts of “Fire” echo across the Glory’s ranks.  A cannon

ball blows a hole in the Luca’s starboard bow.

(Excerpt from Legends, Lies, and Lizards A Screenplay based on the unpublished novel of the same name.)




The narration in the screenplay serves the same purpose as the narration in a short story or novel.

As a main character, the narration must have personality.  Its tone must reflect mood and pace of the scene.

Let Down

Outtakes 377

Let Down

By Cait Collins

Have you ever started reading a story and when you reached the end, it was a real let down?  Good plots lead to a satisfying ending.  No one wants to read a romance only to find the hero and heroine separate at the end. Rule number one of a romance is to have a happy ending. But when Prince Charming leaves Cinderella with a peck on the cheek and a “see you later”, we’re not satisfied.  And chances are we will not purchase another book by that author.

A good story catches the reader within the first few pages. It maintains a rhythm that builds to a climax and then begs for a resolution. It’s spiced with twists and turns that challenge the characters. The obstacles force the hero to grow and become stronger. And in the end the questions are answered and the hero is able to build a life beyond the troubles and trials of his past.

Sometimes the writer’s journey is really difficult. A promising story falls apart. I write my characters into corners and can’t find a way to get them out without the story seeming contrived. Good writing requires patience and an open mind. It doesn’t happen overnight. I am currently reading an early Nora Roberts release. It’s fun and I am enjoying it.  But the real thrill is seeing how she has continued to hone her talent and find new stories to tempt the reader.

Plan Ahead

Outtakes 376

Plan Ahead

By Cait Collins

While I admit to not being an in depth plotter, I do admire those who do spend time plotting out their story.  I’ve known writers who know to the minute when the hero will propose to the heroine.  They have detailed character sketches; know whether the hero will bring roses or gardenias. Will they vacation at the beach or in the mountains? Will the heroine wear Michael Kors or Levi’s?

Timelines stretch across one wall of the office. Sticky notes are moved from one point to the next.  Every move, every word, every decision is meticulously planned. There is no deviation from the first word to “the end”. The story or novel is almost perfect from beginning to end. I do envy those writers.  They know where they are going. They make it work.

On the other hand, I enjoy the times my characters throw a monkey wrench into the plan. So he doesn’t fall madly in love with the heroine.  What’s wrong with them being best friends? That’s a rewrite. But it works for me.

The amount of research and planning that goes into writing a short story may change the amount of time and detail that goes into the preparation. Genre may also change the game plan. The point is each one of us must embrace the method that propels us forward in our writing adventures. It may mean we experiment from time to time. Or try to fly in a different direction to get the job done. The method is not as important as completing the work and being happy with the result.



Thoughts on Plotting

Outtakes 375

Thoughts on Plotting

By Cait Collins


Every writer has to experiment with ways to plot his stories.  There is no one right way to craft a story. Personally, I prefer to sketch my characters.  I write just enough so that I know the basics.  Once that’s done, it’s up to the character to tell me who he is.  Same with the actual story development.  I have a few plot ideas but they can work on their own, or they can intermingle.  I decide where the story takes place.  And then I free-write.

I will admit that the free association has led me down some strange paths, But in unraveling the twisted paths, I often find a lead that creates new possibilities.  I guess you could call me a “pantser”.  I write by the seat of my pats.  It may not be the most practical method of storytelling, but it works for me.

Keep It Real

Outtake 374

Keep It Real

By Cait Collins


When we are talking to one another, do we speak the King’s English?  “Of course, we don’t. We tend to do just the opposite.  We speak with crazy idioms, slang, and sentence fragments.  Many younger people have more limited vocabularies because their main communication method is via Facebook or texting.  Therefore, as writers we make conversations more real by employing the changes in style.  I’m not suggesting we write like we text.  “R u riding with me,” may be more convenient, but it’s not the way we write dialogue and it’s definitely not acceptable in a memorandum or a report.

Imagine saying, this.  “I sauntered to the convenience store this morning to purchase a quart of Borden’s eggnog and a pound of unshelled peanuts. I strolled along the parkway to my home, tossing peanuts to the squirrels’.  They are so delightful to watch scurrying around gathering their nuts and seeds before scampering up the tree to deposit their goodies in their holes.

Seriously, this is not the way we talk.  We don’t use fancy words.  We walk to the store.  The squirrels make us smile.  When the dialogue is too out there, it stalls the story’s progression and it can interrupt the story flow.

If your characters live in the Deep South use the moonlight and magnolias, but use it sparingly. Don’t allow the idioms and local vocabulary to take over the dialogue.  In the Northeast, alobstais colorful, and a stahis cute.  But do you want to see that on every page?  The local terms are spice only.

While profanity has a place, too much can be a turn off for the reader.  I don’t like it in the movies or on TV. The same goes in our dialogue.  A “hell” or “damn” carries more of a punch if it comes out of the blue.  Remember Rhett Butler’s parting comment to Scarlet?  “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” sent the critics into orbit, but it was such an appropriate response to the self-centered Scarlett.

Dialogue is action and well written dialogue moves the story and elicits a response from the reader. Keep it real.  Use local slang and pronunciation to add spice to the conversation.  If you use profanity, don’t over-do it.  Make the words appropriate for the character so that they add a punch to the verbal exchange.



Silence is Golden

Outtakes 373

Silence is Golden

By Cait Collins


I do love dialogue, but sometimes silence is best.

Two guys loved the same girl.  They were the three Musketeers, always together, always laughing.  She sits alone on a marble bench looking at their pictures.  She traces the features, and pauses as if a memory stirs.  Her head falls back; she closes her eyes and allows the sun to warm her face.

Her thoughts go back to the last time she saw them. They were leaving for boot camp.  Their goofy grins faded when they boarded the bus.

A loon’s mournful song echoes in the coming darkness.  She shivers…

A tear slips down her cheek as she stares at the marble grave stones,

“I miss you both,” she whispers. “I love both of you.”



Let Your Words Speak

Outtakes 371

Let Your Words Speak

By Cait Collins


Imagine a novel or short story that has no dialogue.  No verbal interaction between the characters to move the action. Dialogue is action.  It provides emotion and insight into the needs and desires of the players.  Writing dialogue can be the hardest writing, but it can be the most rewarding.  Choose your words carefully.  Avoid trite phrases.  Write in an active voice and eliminate as many helping verbs as possible. Allow your words to direct the emotion so that exclamation marks are not necessary.

Dialogue tags are needed to avoid confusion as to who is speaking, but write so that the reader doesn’t need stage directions such as shouted, banged, slapped, slammed, cried, and so forth.  Allow the dialogue to set the scene and create the mood.  For example:

“You chose to end our marriage.  “I accept your decision, but I’ll always wonder if we could have salvaged the relationship.”

“Are you trying to make me feel guilty, Mark?”

“No. That would be impossible.  A person with no soul feels no guilt or remorse.” Mark put on his glasses and began reading the newspaper.  “Have a nice life, Beth. I just hope the next sap you target gets a better deal. “Goodbye and don’t forget to leave your keys.”

The door bell chimed.  Mark looked toward the glass door.

“On second thought, forget the keys.  The locksmith’s here.”