Better writing comes with knowledge and experience; it helps writers make the right adjustments to their writing. Knowing what to adjust and what to look out for comes through the apprenticeship of writing, by making mistakes and learning from them.
One of the things to look out for is the habit of using ‘started to/begin to/decided to’ in descriptions with characters. It’s one of those constructions that look perfectly normal within your narrative, yet it doesn’t make for good writing. Of course, we’ve all done it as beginners, so no one is immune or perfect. It’s not that it’s inherently wrong, but rather that it’s good practice not to do it – it helps writers improve and strengthen their writing.
Why should you avoid these constructions?
Started to/Began to
The thing to remember is that writing should always be active, so when a character decides to do something or starts to do something, the writing quickly turns clumsy and instantly stops being ‘active’, for example:
She started to get up and her legs felt weary.
He began to dig where he thought the box was hidden.
The heat rose and she began to unbutton her shirt.
At first glance, there doesn’t appear anything wrong with these sentences, but a closer look reveals the awkward structure. Don’t have characters ‘start to’ or ‘decide to’ or ‘begin to’ do something – simply have them do it, for example:
She got up and her legs felt weary.
He dug where he thought the box was hidden.
The heat rose and she unbuttoned her shirt.
Notice that these examples are much better – they’re active, they are a much tighter construction and so they avoid being clunky or awkward. They get straight to the point. This makes for better writing, always.
This is another one that, on the surface, looks fine, but doesn’t do much for the sentence structure. We all decide to do things – we decide to make a coffee, we decide to go for a walk, we decide to go to bed – but within fiction, a decision isn’t actually an action, it’s a thought, but writers still make the mistake of trying to make it an action, for example:
He decided to head towards the bar.
She glanced up at the sun, decided to put on her sunglasses.
He decided to turn right.
These examples may not look that bad, but they are not actions and should not be construed as actions. They are thoughts. A decision is a thought.
These kinds of constructions almost always render the narrative passive. If written correctly, they would be as follows:
He headed towards the bar.
She glanced up at the sun and put on her sunglasses.
He turned right.
These are much tighter, they’re active and they get straight to the point.
There is an exception with having a character ‘decide to’ do something, and that happens if you are writing from a character’s POV, when you are using interior dialogue. This means you are directly describing his or her thoughts, so a character deciding to do something is actually relevant, for example:
He realised he couldn’t move the steel girders. He sat in the darkness for a moment, thought about his options. He decided to turn back and head towards the upper floor.
This structure is acceptable because rather than it being an actual action, the character, whose POV is being represented, is going through a thought process and then decides on an action. The interior thoughts show the reader what is happening, so in this case, it’s correct use. Remember, a decision is a thought process, not an action.
There are many ways a writer can make their writing better. Remember to keep the narrative active and aim for strong sentence structures. You can do this by weeding out any instances of ‘started to’, began to’ or ‘decided to’. If the character has to do something, simply have the character do it.
Next week: Better writing – how to start and end chapters