December 28, 2012

Ditch the Dummy Subjects

Dummy1It was a dark and stormy night. That sentence surely takes the prize as the most clich├ęd and often cited example of bad writing. Do you know the reason? It lies in the first two words, “it was”. This construction and its variants are ubiquitous in our speech and much of our writing. For example,

It’s snowing hard as I write this post. There are several people sitting near me who look worried. It’ll be hard to get up the slippery driveway when I get home if this continues.

In sentences like the ones above, “it” and “there” are dummy pronouns because they refer to nothing specific, thus functioning as dummy subjects. Simply put, they are a form of passive voice, which generally weakens your sentence and slows the story.

The fix is simple. Reword your sentence to ditch the dummy subject. For example, here’s a possible revision of that initial dark and stormy night intro:

The heavy scent of rain filled my lungs, and my scalp tingled with anxiety as I peered through the window. Nearly constant lightning showed trees bowing like ballerinas before the gale. I imagined the gods bowling up above, and the stakes were high.

Moving on to the next example:

I look up from my keyboard and see snowflakes the size of nickels rapidly coating the ground. Worry etches the faces of people peering out the window at nearby tables. A woman at the next table looks my way. “Wow, I dread the trip home on these roads, and my uphill drive is going to be impossible if this keeps up,” I say. “How far do you have to go?”

These revisions switch from telling to showing. They add sensory detail to pull readers into the scene and create connection.

Don’t worry about simple dummy subjects as you write your initial draft. They are easy to spot and easy to toss, so think of them as  your friends, giving you a springboard for going on to greatness. Use your imagination to flesh out the thoughts and add life to those dummy subject.

As with much writing advice, there is an exception to this rule has an exception for dialogue. Real people use dummy subjects and other grammar shortcuts all the time in casual conversation. Sanitizing these elements out off written conversation will result in stiff, plastic-sounding characters, so let them keep the occasional “there are” or “It is.”

Write now: Read through a story you’ve written, keeping an eye open for dummy subjects, then edit them out. Then read a published story by an acclaimed writer and reverse this process. See how many sentences you can deconstruct, adding dummy subjects. Analyze the effect.

Challenge yourself to write at least twenty pages without using a single dummy subject, other than in dialogue. Then, if you feel their absence has ruined your writer’s voice, of course you can add a few back in, but you’ll do so with the power of purpose and awareness, not because you don’t know better.

18 comments :

Nancy La Turner said...

Great advice. I'm adding this tip to my list of editing tools. Love the "dummy" image too!

SuziCate said...

It makes a big difference doesn't it? Sensory details bring writing to life...or should I say brings life to writing?

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks Nancy. Dummy subjects are so deeply embedded in our core language center that learning to write around them is a huge challenge, rather akin to learning to speak without using Um or Uhr. Toastmasters is a big help with the speaking. Writer buddies can help each other with the dummy subject stuff.

Like nearly everything, that image has a story. It's a picture of the artist's mannequin I snagged when my father cleared out my mother's stuff. It sits near my desk and I think of her each time I see it, several times a day. That mannequin and the framed original of my hearts logo are two items that keep her in my life on a constant basis.

Sharon Lippincott said...

SuziCate, bringing life to words and words to life may be what you do best, but then I know you only through your words, and your beautiful photos. Nicely put.

Boyd Lemon said...

Excellent advice and examples, Sharon! I would add one related piece of advice, which you followed in your revisions: use lots of action verbs, "filled my lungs," and "peering out the window."

Boyd Lemon said...

And yes, you also added nice sensory details. You changed a yawner description into one the reader can visualize, which is likely to keep him or her interested in what comes next.

Boyd Lemon-Author of "Retirement: A Memoir and Guide" (December 1, 2012); Eat, Walk, Write: An American Senior’s Year of Adventure in Paris and Tuscany (2011); and 5 other books. Information, reviews and excerpts: http://www.BoydLemon-Writer.com.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Good point Boyd about including action verbs. Your comment about adding more sensory detail is an astute observation. You'll be hearing more about this in coming months. Dummy subjects are sturdy hooks for hanging mind-snagging description.

Sharon said...

Please leave new comments. Apparently when I switched to Disqus, all the old ones were eaten. I hope they'll be back!

KathyPooler said...

Thanks for these practical tips,Sharon. I never heard the term "dummy subjects" but your vivid examples make it easy to remember.

Sherrey Meyer said...

Sharon, like Kathy, I've never heard the term "dummy subjects' before but you have made it simple to understand and remember. Love your updated look!

Sharon said...

Thanks Sherry. I hadn't heard the term either until I did a little research for this post.

Sharon said...

You are welcome Kathy. I hope they are not only easy to remember, but that people will begin adding real character to their dummies!

Elizabeth-Anne Kim said...

I love the post! There are (yes, I know--it's (again!) purposeful) a couple of other exceptions, but they all lie in parody/allusion. For example, Madeleine L'Engle's children's classic A Wrinkle in Time begins with "It was a dark and stormy night" because L'Engle wanted to invoke that genre of the ominous physical unknown in order to convey the even greater danger of worlds of conformed thinking.

Another reason to avoid the passive voice (and dummy subjects) is not just specificity (dummy subjects with no clear antecedents) or demonstration (showing versus telling), but also because these extra words provide another layer between your reader and your thoughts. Getting rid of these extra words allows us to see through the narrator's eyes without recognizing the filter so much.

Sharon said...

Elizabeth, I can always count on you for profoundly deep insights into any topic I can image. My admiration for your insight knows no bounds. Thank you for adding to this discussion!

Elizabeth-Anne Kim said...

Haha! Sharon, I feel the same about you! I'm just sorry that I'm only catching up on your posts now (and not a month ago)!

And actually, I'd been thinking somewhat about this topic for awhile because I'm working on some curricular (and possibly a theoretical paper) books on writing in general with particular area subsets. I've just started the series of posts on writing and teaching writing on my teaching blog at http://ummteacher.blogspot.com. The first two posts are up, but I haven't really gotten to creative writing yet, although I will mention it in a post I'm hoping to have up by Monday.

Linda Austin said...

This post perfectly shows, not just tells, about the "show not tell" concept that can be difficult for new writers to understand and can easily be forgotten by more experienced writers. Yes, telling and using dummy subjects is how we speak so we do have to train ourselves out of it when writing. I'll be checking even my blog posts and articles now for these issues - at least until I forget!

Sharon said...

Once I became aware of this, it came sharply into focus for keeps, and pops out at me as if in red ink now. It's become a fun challenge to work around it, so I hope you also enjoy it.

Wayne Groner said...

"Dummy subjects" is a great term. Thanks, Sharon, for your excellent examples I will use in my library class on lifestory writing.

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