1. UrsaBear
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    UrsaBear New Member

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    "A moan escaped my lungs." Ugh. Please help.

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by UrsaBear, Jan 9, 2014.

    Hello writers.
    I'm annoyed with myself.
    Thankfully, the internet is full of lists like "other ways to say 'said'" and the like, but that doesn't help me here.

    I have noticed that I keep using the two phrases "a [sound] escaped [someone's] mouth/lungs" and "[someone] gave a little [sound/expression]". AND I HATE IT.

    I sighed vs. I gave a little sigh.
    I moaned vs. A moan escaped my mouth.
    He grinned vs. He gave a little grin / He flashed me a grin.
    Her mouth curved up in a smile.
    His mouth twitched into a frown.

    The first three bolded phrases I use WAY too often for my liking, though naturally I use the more simple alternatives more often. I feel like those three bold phrases are a bad habit that I don't know how to quit.

    Are those phrases seen as redundant, overly wordy, lazy, cliché, or just silly? Are they fine to use only once in a while? Are there other ways of writing something similar to "a moan escaped my lungs"?

    I know why the phrase "escaped from" is used. It insinuates an involuntary bodily action/function. But there has to be another, at least one more way to write that, or describe it. Does anyone know any?
     
  2. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with any of these phrases. However, if you use them frequently, the frequency will get noticed, as you've obviously guessed.

    I think lots of writers fall into this trap, and it's the kind of 'mistake' you catch during an edit. Once you catch it, you will be aware of it, and probably won't use it too often in future. That's good news.

    As far as the specific phrases you've mentioned, you could simplify. I sighed. I moaned. He grinned. He flashed a grin. (Oog, that's one I over-use myself.)

    I think the trick is first to isolate all the instances when you've used a particular phrase. Then go through them, one by one, and see how you can eliminate most of them.

    It's difficult to suggest alternatives, because we haven't got context to work with. Often it's not a matter of replacing one word or phrase with another, but finding an entirely new way to present an action. And that will require context.

    I notice you just joined today. Once you've been a member for the required number of days, done your required number of critiques in the Workshop section ( see Important Information in the menu at the top of the page, and read the bits pertaining to new members) and have made the required number of general posts—then post some of your work containing these phrases in the Workshop section for critique. Ask specifically for help with this issue when you do. Forum members will be glad to offer suggestions.

    Good luck and welcome!
     
  3. graphospasm
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    graphospasm Senior Member

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    First of all, "a moan escaped my lungs" is just plain weird--because lungs don't make sound. If yours do, see a doctor or use your inhaler. Your vocal cords make sound. On a basic level "a moan escaped my lungs" doesn't make anatomical sense. Neither does "his/her mouth curled up/down as he/she smiled/frowned." If you look at your face while you smile, your cheek muscles lift as your eyes get smaller--your mouth elongates, definitely, but its upward curve is very slight and definitely not the most noteworthy portion of a smile's physical manifestation. People tend to think of the big yellow "smiley face" when they describe smiles in literature and it bugs me. Maybe try focusing on other parts of the smile when describing it for a fresh (not to mention more accurate) perspective.

    Sidebar: Dialogue tags are full of logic lapses like the aforementioned. I see people write stuff like "I love you," I smiled all the time. Um. I dare you--dare you--to smile a word into existence. You can smile while you speak, but you can't smile a word into existence. People also use "hiss" when the dialogue has no sibilant consonants--"I gave him a dog," I hissed. Urrrrrgh. You can't hiss a sentence like that! The book Twilight (shudder) is full of misused dialogue tags if you're in the mood for a freakshow.

    I actually find some of your examples hilarious. "I gave a little smile" sounds like you physically handed someone a little smile, OR that you handed a gift to a Little Smile. Same with "a sound escaped my whatever." That phrase almost personifies the whatever (moan, laugh, etc.), like it was a prisoner with its own will and a need to be free. That can be effective if maybe the character in question doesn't want to moan and does anyway, the moan's personified will/needs overpowering their own, but I doubt many authors realize quite what they're doing when they use those cliche phrases.
     
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  4. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    These kinds of tags and descriptive phrases that are meant to augment a spoken bit of dialogue are one of those things that people tend to have an opinion on, of which there are many to chose, so get ready for no two responses to be alike. ;)

    To get away from the he/said - she/said inundation, and to escape the plethora of smiles, simpers, giggles and other descriptive dealies that can make a piece tedious to read, look for where they are really not needed at all, in any way, and make them gone and just plain gone. Let the dialogue carry the weight. And no matter how much you love each and every one you wrote, a goodly number of them aren't needed or point to weak dialogue, else why the need for the verbal crutch and the fact that you yourself are noting how many there are.
     
  5. graphospasm
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    graphospasm Senior Member

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    Good dialogue is its own reward. Great advice, here. If your dialogue needs exhaustive tags to work, something's wrong. Wreybies' got it.
     
  6. Glacial
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    Glacial Member

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    I would have to second this advice (third I suppose now that I see Graph's last post). I think this would be a good exercise for you to help you not be so repetitive or redundant. More often than not the 'he/she said' is enough. It's one of those things in literature that I don't really notice anymore. It's just there to make it clear who is talking when necessary. And once in awhile you can have some kind of descriptors - they do have their place.

    I see people commenting on 'he saids' and 'she saids' a lot, and Jannert is right, people have a lot to say on the matter.
     
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  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Quick, pounce on it before it can wriggle away!

    Nothing really to add to what Wrey said.
     
  8. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Kill them. Kill them all. Well, almost all of them.

    The only reason that I can see for a sound "escaping" is if the character is actively trying to keep from making a sound and then makes that sound involuntarily anyway. I doubt that that would happen more than once per book.

    One thing that I notice in many of your examples is that they disconnect responsibility for the action from the character taking the action. The character didn't moan, smile, or frown, his mouth did. "I gave a sigh" and "He gave a grin" also seem to limit the character's resposibilty for the action, or at least that's the vibe I get. Only "He flashed me a grin" seems like a purely voluntary intentional action.

    Is there any reason why your characters might want to disclaim responsibility for their emotional expressions? Are the extremely stoic? Or are you feeling disconnected from them? Yes, I might be amateur-psychologizing here, but it does feel like a pattern.
     
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  9. hvb
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    hvb Member

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    Mmm....just yesterday I wrote : Norma took him out of earshot of the woman and hissed: "lalalalalal"
    I wanted to convey: this is an order from the police sergeant to the police officer. She is setting up a cover up, there is urgency, there is no time for a discussion, her voice is soft but very insistent.
    Should I kill it? POV is the police officer
    Hetty
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    You cannot hiss, "lalalalalal." Try it. Hissing is not a means of speech unless you are speaking Parseltongue.
    Say what you want to convey. If you don't want the reader to know what Norma whispered, then leave that out. She whispered urgently, he listened. He nodded?
     
  11. graphospasm
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    graphospasm Senior Member

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    Cogito, I second your advice. ((SO GLAD someone else pointed out the hissing thing! I did so in an above post; it drives me absolutely nuts.))
     
  12. hvb
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    hvb Member

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    Thanks. Makes sense..
     
  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    That's a very interesting observation.
     
  14. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Usually I tend to go with, if I can say it with fewer words, I usually do that, but as long as they're grammatically correct, it's up to you to use whatever you like. Not sure about "escaped my lungs"... Maybe a breath could do that if one was being choked? You could say "escaped my lips" which is clearly figuratuve, but it's also awful, imo.

    As for the alternatives for 'escape.' Look for synonyms or verbs that describe something leaving something, like milk spilling from the carton or a soap bar slipping from your hand and see if those verbs can, in your opinion, be used in another context to describe sound.
     
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  15. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    Neither work well. The second one is a report and inherently dispassionate. It's the narrator, in their personal moment of "now," not the one experiencing the action. Of more importance it, or its equivelent is likely to cause instant rejection.

    The first one is passive. Which would you rather read, "Doubled up in pain I moaned," or, "The pain exploding through me made thought almost impossible. I tried to clamp down on it—to curl around the pain and contain it—but I whimpered like a woman in labor."

    Forget reporting. Forget prosaic language

    “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug.” ~ Mark Twain

    Go for the lightening.
     
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  16. Magnatolia
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    Magnatolia Active Member

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    Technically you can hiss words. Words can have different associations for different people. For me hissing is the sound of air being forced between the teeth. The closer the teeth the more pronounced the 'hissing'. And it's quite plausible that a person will whisper in this style if they do not want to be noticed. For example let's say we have a mother 'whispering urgently' as her son wanders closer to a sleeping man:

    'Adam looked inquisitively at the snoring man. "Get back here," Laura hissed. The man mumbled something unintelligible and rolled over'. To me this conveys a lot more than if she had whispered.

    It's quite common for things to 'slip' out of a character. But this has to be caused by something. Excitement, fear, stress. Or just your characters general way. For example let's say you have two teenage boys hiding behind a bush as they listen to and watch the reactions of people finding fake vomit on their car. They're trying not to laugh but it's going to escape.

    For me personally I try not to use too many words like said, cried, shrieked, unless I feel that the imagery it provides is beneficial. Instead I prefer to use sentences such as "Careful!'. Janice cringed as the porcelain plate wobbled precariously. In that it conveys the emotion and comes across as though stealth isn't necessary. However I might add 'Janice whispered as the porcelain plate wobbled precariously. That time is much clearer. By whispering it indicates she doesn't want her presence known to anyone else.
     
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  17. Magnatolia
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    Magnatolia Active Member

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    Plus, once your character has whispered you don't need to use it again to remind the reader. Good choice of sentences and dialogue will make this clear. 'Janice glanced around furtively, her heart pounding in her chest. "We need to find another way out."
     
  18. Simon Butler
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    Simon Butler New Member

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    I think almost every writer has favorite words or descriptions or lines or whatever. The trick is to pick ones that work well for you reader and for you as well, and not to over use them. Or find different and perhaps more colorful ways of saying the same thing, perhaps something that reflects the scene around you at that particular moment in an appropriate way.

    This is where i should offer an example but it is quite late and my brain is simply not feeling creative at this moment, so my apologies.

    As a rule I try never to repeat the same line or description in the same way. It is quite a difficult task but it does force one to conceive of different often quite colorful lines that some things up perfectly in an interesting way. I love writers whose writing itself is as aesthetically pleasing as the story they tell.

    Something like
    "The girl had red hair stood at the top of cliff with a sword in her hand preparing to fight"
    becomes something that takes in a little more and builds a living image in the readers mind.
    "The girl stood tall over looking the burning field from the clifftops, her crimson hair gently flowing with the wind. She clenched her blade tight between her delicate fingers whispering a prayer before beginning her decent!"

    The point is the same scene could be depicted a thousand ways, pick one that is colorful and that brings life to your story, and try never to re use it exactly.

    Regards
    S
     
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  19. Liam Johnson
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    Liam Johnson Member

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    Often, I find a good thing to do is translate whatever emotion or expression you're trying to get across with those statements (e.g. A moan escaped my mouth) into a physical action or interaction. In this case, if s(he)'s moaning out of passion, maybe you could describe the softness of his skin as she digs her nails into his back. If it's a moan of dread or annoyance, perhaps she could arch her neck backwards and run her hands through her hair. This sort of thing keeps your characters alive and moving and helps with the pacing of the prose too. I think it was taught as a practice at UEA that one; always split lines of dialogue up into two parts and have an action or movement in the middle.
     
  20. Magnatolia
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    Magnatolia Active Member

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    How do you mean in the middle? I tend to add action/movement/description when I feel it combines into or enhances that line of dialogue. If someone said 'hello' I wouldn't do it unless I wanted the reader to see that she's maybe bothered, or perhaps she's excited. But it might not necessarily be the middle of the dialogue.
     
  21. Liam Johnson
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    Liam Johnson Member

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    Well, I think the purpose of it was to encourage the writers to always keep the visual image strong and moving in their minds and on the page. It wasn't like it was a rule and if you didn't do it you were terrible but more to keep the pace of the story moving and avoid long passages of dialogue where you weren't really moving too much. So, with "Hello", rather than have:

    "Hello."

    "Hi, how are you," she replied.

    "I'm not too bad, actually."

    you'd get

    "Hello," the automatic hail had barely left my lips before it was returned in kind, twenty crystal polished teeth inquiring to my mood, "I'm not too bad, actually." I hoped my teeth measured up.

    So, it condenses the space and also uses the actions of the smiles to visually represent the greeting rather than them actually going through the everyday motions we would, in the street, with dialogue. I think that was meant to be the main idea of it.
     
  22. hvb
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    hvb Member

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    I think this is a great forum and I learn a lot here and enjoy reading all the posts.
    However (you knew this had to be followed with a 'however' didn't you!:))
    If you read all the don't and all the rules and take them all to heart, you don't necessarily become a better writer. In fact you may be so discouraged by learning you can mess it up in so many ways, you take up knitting instead.;)
    Hetty
     
  23. hvb
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    hvb Member

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  24. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    I have to agree with both @graphospasm and @Cogito. Without sibilant sound, the bold section doesn't make sense to me. I don't think 'different associations'. I think, poor choice of vocabulary. It is one of those little details that bugs me immensely. How can she hiss when there's no 's,' 'sh' or 'z' sound? (Or in the absence of a lisp—I have a very slight interdental one due to a small gap between my top incisors, so I know a thing or two about hissing, lisping and spitting. I work hard to keep it under control.) She could be 'ordering,' or 'demanding,' in a hushed manner, perhaps... but 'hissing? No. Doesn't work for me, personally. I caught myself doing the very same thing when I first laid pen to paper. It struck me as being nonsensical and since then I've desisted. (Try saying that with a lisp. ;))

    @hvb
    Imho, absolutely. It gives me pause for thought, but not for the right reasons. My brain is internally screaming the contradiction.

    Whilst you don't have to abide by all the rules and regs, it helps to be passing familiar. I understand it can be discouraging. I think for any aspiring writer, the initial learning curve is very steep—so many conflicting opinions. My take is that, in some styles of writing, contradictory language can be used to great effect. My feeling is that this is not one of those cases.

    @UrsaBear There's lots of good suggestions here. I think the most encouraging thing I can say, without parroting what has already been said, is that you recognise there's a problem and you are annoyed by it. So much better than being oblivious and/or not caring and going full steam ahead, regardless of feedback. The biggest problems with my own writing stem from the things others can see that I can not. (@Wreybies points to Bob, my narrator, being a prat on a regular basis. It's not Bob's fault. He's only doing as instructed, leading to all manner of unwelcome authorial intrusion.) Knowing you are falling into a pattern will be the very thing that will help you break it. :D

    If I'm really not coming up with the goods, and my flow is being hampered, highlighting the offending portion and going back to it later with a fresh outlook helps. It never ceases to amaze me how the right word, or term, can jump out onto the page once I quit cogitating and stressing over it.
     
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2014
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  25. Magnatolia
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    Magnatolia Active Member

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    Again this is simply your personal belief in that particular choice of word. I looked up the word hiss in four different online dictionaries and all four had a similar version of 'to express disapproval' and 'to say something in a quiet angry way'.

    I do agree that there can be better ways, but where do we draw the line between using a particular action word to describe the dialogue, and lengthy details to 'show' the reader what was implied by the action word. I also think that our readers probably don't pay as much attention to these sort of things as we do. I'll refer to Harry Potter books in this example. I know, every writer who knows the rules says it's poorly written and breaks lots of rules. Yet she made billions from those books, inspired a lot of people to read (I'm making an assumption here), and wrote a book for children that adults fell in love. This tells me that the 'rules' can be broken successfully.

    In my example I guess I could say 'Laura whispered, glancing fearfully at the man as he mumbled something unintelligible and rolled over.' However I feel that it loses the punch. It gets the fear across, but by doing a hybrid of show/tell. The reader doesn't get to feel her fear, they just see it.

    Same can be said for a word like 'growl'. If I say 'Jacob growled at her. "Yer kiddin' righ?" Nobody imagines him actually giving a dog-like growl yet technically that is what the word 'growl' means. And of course 'bleat'. Both of these also have dictionary definitions that relate to the their intended purpose in dialogue.

    Obviously these should be kept to a minimum, otherwise they simply become a crutch.
     
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