Monday, October 20, 2014

Empty Phrases

Often when we write a query, we want to be clever. We want to be mysterious. We want to entice the reader with things that keep them guessing. And these are all great things to strive for. However, sometimes in a query we write a phrase that sounds great to us, but it leaves the reader confused and with little information. For instance, what does mostly dead mean anyways?

These phrases that are vague and confusing are called empty phrases. Because they are exactly that—empty, devoid of important information that would help the reader become interested in your story. And there are many reasons to avoid empty phrases.
They Waste Space
When you write a query letter you only have a couple paragraphs to clearly explain your story. When you use an empty phrase it tells the reader nothing. Even worse, you could have spent that valuable query letter real estate actually explaining what changed, the big secret, the difficult obstacle, or what was bad enough. Explain your story.

It’s Telling not Showing
Empty phrases tell the reader how they are supposed to feel and react rather than giving them an example of what happens and letting those feelings happen organically. Instead of making a point clear, they just leave the reader wondering and confused about the specifics.
They Don’t Have Details 
When you write empty phrases you often think you are being a little mysterious about the plot, and are therefore exciting or enticing the reader. The problem is you are doing the opposite. Empty phrases are vague and tend to turn off the reader. You are better off using specific details to set your story apart from everyone else. If your story doesn’t sound unique, a reader is going to give up.

They’re cliché
Empty phrases tend to be commonplace and overused statements. They aren’t overly creative. And why would you want your story to sound like everyone else’s? Make your story stand out.

So how do you get rid of empty phrases in your story? 
Okay not really. Sure empty phrases are hugely disappointing for a reader, but don’t lose hope. There are many ways to eliminate them. You start by going back to the details and focusing on what sets your story apart. You show the reader instead of telling.

Here are some examples of empty phrases, and what you might do to replace them with better story related information.

He soon learns: Rather than waste space, just show the reader what happens. What the character “learns” should come through in the story, not be forced down the readers throat. Stick to what actually happens and what “he learns” will become apparent on its own.

With nothing holding her back: If there’s nothing holding her back, where’s the story? Show the conflict and the problem the character is facing. Let the reader see the dilemma. Then you’ll have something that will entice readers.

However, fate has other plans: Well that’s great for fate, but what happened to the character? Tell the reader the details and leave fate out of it!

As if that wasn’t bad enough: If you’ve done your job right in a query letter, you won’t need to say this at all. It will be obvious the situation is bad. And as you continue to walk the reader through the conflict, you will show how things are about to get worse.

Life is turned upside down: Literally? Well that’s sort of crazy… Okay, I’m sure you don’t mean literally, but what happened to the main character? What horrible thing made life so unbearable? Give the reader details, then you’ll have something compelling.

Encountering multiple obstacles: Well, every main character encounters obstacles, but what specifically does your character have to deal with? Someone literally blocking your path is very different than dealing with death, or the fact that you have detention and you can’t go to that awesome concert. Those are all very different stories. So think about what specific thing is standing in the way of what your character wants and then use that detail to show the reader the problem.

A horrible secret: We all have secrets. But the drama and tension begins when we know someone else is hiding something from us. And while we may not know what the secret is exactly, we all have ideas on what those secrets might pertain to. So when you go into the details, the secrets start carrying weight. Only then are they truly interesting.

And then everything changed: Really? Stuff changes all the time. The leaves change colors, the weather changes, we change clothes, we change jobs, classes, you name it. What changed for your main character? Just say it, don’t waste the reader’s time saying everything changed because it’s probably unlikely that everything is different. Some things will always stay the same.
Yes, yes, you do! So when you write a query, show that you are smart. Show the details of your story. Show what sets it apart. And use that valuable space to make that query shine with specific, interesting details! What empty phrases have you or others used, and how did you get rid of them?


  1. I've been guilty of a couple of these, but never the "with noting to hold her back." That example cracked me up. :D

    1. yeah I am guilty as well of some. But I try to stay away as much as possible. Smooth transitions are hard.

  2. Some great tips - I detest writing queries, and I'm pretty sure I'm awful at it:(

    1. Yes, querying is tough. It's really hard to boil your book down to 2-3 short paragraphs. But it does get easier with practice.

  3. We all fall into that empty phrase trap. Good reminder to go in and clear those out. Thanks.