Categories
Creative writing The Good Reader zombie words

Do or do not. There is no try. More Zombie Words

I’ll try and begin to…ah, see how easy it is? This week’s zombies, neatly corralled in five words. The “tried to”/“began to” habit is another instance of distance words that push readers away from your story.

If you’re looking for an inspirational truism in the vein of “just write something, it doesn’t matter how good it is”, I am happy to disappoint.1My tip for stuck writers is to imagine you’re a clueless young local newspaper reporter, barraged with obscenities by a tobacco-stained alcoholic news editor as the print deadline ticks closer.
Then imagine the diatribe will start again when he’s read the crap you sent over. You’ll soon fill pages with words that you’re not ashamed to read back.
If you’re here for tips on double-tapping zombie words, please take a seat. We dealt with “could” in the previous episode.

“Try” and “begin” have a place in conversational dialogue. People use them frequently, but in descriptive prose they do little more than bulk up the word count. You might feel that they make your writing more accurate, but there are better ways to achieve this goal.

The begin fallacy

It’s not unreasonable to argue that events have a beginning, middle and end. “Begin” becomes a problem when it’s used to show the start of an ongoing process, instead of describing each stage.

If it began to happen, it happened.

THIS IS BAD:

The zombies began to pour through the opening.

Tell your reader what happened.

THIS IS BETTER:

The zombies poured through the opening.

Show your reader how it began.

THIS IS BETTER STILL:

The first zombie broke through the fence. It splintered apart and the horde poured in.

Yep, it’s an example of the classic writers’ rule: show-don’t-tell.

“Begin” can also be used inaccurately, to describe processes that don’t have a beginning.

It’s got to begin somewhere

THIS IS BAD:

He began to swallow a mouthful of pie but then spat it out at the rank taste of the meat.

Where did it begin?

THIS IS BETTER:

He chewed a mouthful of pie and the rank meat taste flooded his mouth. He spat it out.

The problem here is that swallowing is usually a one-way action. By the time you swallow something, it’s too late to spit it out. You’ll be gagging, retching and vomiting to get that rank meat back up. Think about the action, imagine the experience and describe that.

Try harder

“Try” is a more complex case, where you can trip over it in at least two ways.

We rarely use “try” in conversation, unless we’re going to tell someone that we failed, to soften the disappointment.

In prose, “try” is a shortcut that short-changes your reader. They’re here for the failures your protagonist endures in their struggle, or on the road to their ultimate defeat. Even Sisyphus gets his rock to the top of the mountain.

If you tried, then you did something.

THIS IS BAD:

I tried to write another blog post about zombie words, but I couldn’t think of any more.

There is no try. There is only do.

THIS IS BETTER:

I knew that more zombie words lurked in my draft, waiting to gnaw on the interest of unsuspecting readers. The blinking cursor mocked my failure.

From a reader’s point of view, the best option here is to describe the failure. You could use the rule of three to describe repeated failures before I stumbled upon a Facebook post inspired me to look at “begin” and “try”.

The second failure mode for “try” is also when it’s inaccurate. That’s typically when someone tries to do something and they succeed, or a group is having mixed success.

If you tried, you failed

THIS IS BAD:

The zombies tried to grab at anything living.

Doing does not imply success

THIS IS BETTER:

The zombies grabbed at anything living.

In the second example, it’s not clear that the zombies grabbed everyone. There’s room to describe their attempts and failures, but the action is immediate.

When is it OK to use “try” and “begin”?

Beyond the conversational exception, some zombies are acceptable in a first draft. Maybe you’re on a writing sprint and you want to get a lot of story onto the page. Maybe you’re focused on dialogue or world-building, and the action is a skeleton that you’ll flesh out later.

Make a note (using comments in Word or Scrivener), or search your text when you revise your draft. Scrivener can search for regular expressions — zombies and other bad writing habits. It takes some patience to learn, but it’s extremely powerful.

This is a golden opportunity to turn zombies into heroes.

Endnote: My thanks to the writer of a Facebook comment which inspired this post. I should have noted your name and the post it was attached to.

Image: Yohann Libot/Unsplash

One reply on “Do or do not. There is no try. More Zombie Words”

Mentions

  • Read this for Nanowrimo: How Not To Write A Novel | Alexander Lane

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.