From the Words section of section of my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells: “Don’t get me started.”
A common locution that I see in manuscripts (and published novels) is “started to.” Also, “began to.” While there are times when those expressions are appropriate, they aren’t nearly as frequent as some writers seem to feel.
When/if you use “started to” and “began to” in your narrative, spend a moment and think about what the words really mean. Another usage that tangles meaning is “with.” I’ll get to that later.
Here are some examples of “started to” drawn from a number of submissions.
When we started to get repeat responses to stimuli, we changed the system.
This says that the two things happened simultaneously, although they couldn’t have; they didn’t change the system until after the repeat responses occurred. Rewrite:
After we got repeat responses to the stimuli, we changed the system.
What about this one?
She turned away and started to laugh.
What is the start of a laugh? “H—” and then silence? No, in this narrative, the character laughed. Rewrite:
She turned away and laughed.
Tears make an appearance:
Her tears started to flow.
So they appeared in the corners of her eyes and then just sat there? Nope, if they flowed at all, they rolled on down her cheeks. Rewrite:
Her tears flowed.
Getting a character moving:
Larry slid from his stool and started to follow the beggar.
So did Larry get his feet on the floor, lift a foot, and then stop? Take a step or two and stop? No, he followed the beggar. See how much crisper it is to say:
Larry slid from his stool and followed the beggar.
Can an action be partial?
He started to laugh but stopped short when he saw how angry she was.
Another “H—” here? Wouldn’t this create a better picture of what might really happen?
He laughed, but then stopped when he saw her anger.
What about thoughts?
His mind started to whirl with crazy ideas.
So what’s the idea here? His mind starts, like a song beginning, and then, “r-r-r-r,” dies out? Not likely.
His mind whirled with crazy ideas.
Be careful of continuity.
She started to sob and Steve held the weeping child in his arms.
Okay, if she only starts (which can mean that she stops), then how come she’s weeping when she gets into Steve’s embrace? Rewrite:
She sobbed, and Steve held the weeping child in his arms.
Actually, written this way, “weeping” isn’t needed.
She sobbed and Steve held the child in his arms.
A confusing mix of actions:
She began to back away when a faint movement in the yard stopped her.
A really confusing set of words for me. She was backing and a movement stopped her? Doesn’t seem possible. Rewrite:
She backed away, but then stopped at the sight of movement in the yard.
Sometimes, though, “started” is right.
She stopped him when he started to rise to his feet.
This one is okay because the action was interrupted.
Do without the “with” redux
In the Dialogue section I bemoaned saying things with “with,” but there’s another way in which “with” can befuddle your narrative—when it adds things together nonsensically. When you think about what the words really mean, there are times when “with” is the wrong word—and it’s your job to think about what words really mean.
He watched her with a satisfied smile.
So his teeth are capable of vision? Maybe, in a sci-fi adventure, but most of us use our eyes for this sort of thing. Also, this is telling—what does a “satisfied smile” look like? Rewrite:
He watched her and smiled, satisfied.
This one has one heck of a dog.
The dog started to chase the sheep with a snarl.
A double whammy: first the “started to,” and then how did the dog hold the snarl with which he chased the sheep? In his teeth? How does one use a snarl in a chase, anyway? Rewrite:
The dog snarled and then chased the sheep.
Misuse of roaring.
With a roar of encouragement, the watchers pushed him back into the fight.
So how did they get a grip on the roar in order to push with it? Aren’t those things slippery? Rewrite:
The watchers roared encouragement and pushed him back into the fight.
A tragic use of “with.”
She ran into his arms with a strangled sob.
Where did she get the strangled sob? Who strangled the poor thing?
On the other hand, sometimes I could use one of these.
Margaret straightened her back with a groan.
I never thought to use a groan to straighten my back. Rewrite:
Margaret groaned when she straightened her back.
A touching use of “with.”
He touched it with a worried expression.
So did he place his face against it? Rewrite:
He touched it, his worry shown by his expression.
Do a search for “started to” and “began to” and “with” and see if you find any of these potential befuddlements lurking in your narrative.
For what it’s worth
© 2011 Ray Rhamey