Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

I would go to the store if it wasn’t raining.

I could leave the house, but there are zombies outside.

I should fix the car, but I’m saving up for a boat.

Would, could, and should are what I consider if words; they imply, they insinuate, and they excuse or absolve one from the action at hand. Generally, they make for weak writing when they’re used in prose, and for all of you who often read self published, or independently published, books, you’ll notice that every writer uses one of those words in every other sentence, on every single page.

Sometimes, would, could, and should are great words. People do use them in dialogue. At times, would, could, and should work well in prose, too, but this is a difficult maneuver.

Since they’re weak words, or implications rather than assertions, they’re great words for either a weaker character, or they can be used to show deliberation. I’ll provide examples of everything in a moment, but first I want to portray, I mean, really get across, how different prose can be with and without those words.

I always like to take a look at the works of writers who claim to be best sellers. I often check their work, their rankings, and find that they are far from best sellers. Then, I look at the reviews, and often they have 500, glowing, five star reviews, but they have about a dozen one star reviews, and when I check them out, I can see that the one star reviews are given by angered readers, and the five star reviews are given by other authors.

Why are authors doing this? They think that giving each other great reviews in exchange for great reviews sells more books, and they think that reviews are for authors, and they think that they can trick people into buying a bad book, and sometimes it works, and that’s why the readers are angry when they buy a poorly written book.

Reviews are for readers, though; a reader decides that a book was or wasn’t worth their money, their time, and they want to let others know. Readers and authors aren’t reviewing Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher to help him sell more copies.

Generally, when it comes to reviews of indie books, there’s one chief complaint- lack of editing, sometimes called clunky writing, or poor flow, or they say it reads like a draft. Why? Why does this happen to every indie writer, and why are no indie authors spotting this?

Editors spot this kind of stuff. I say it all the time: Editing is not the same as proof reading, editing software cannot make your account of events more palatable to readers; you must hire a competent editor. Editors aren’t working for authors; they’re working for readers. Readers deserve to spend their money on a well written story, regardless of whether or not they enjoyed the plot, characters, etc.; you’ll never please everyone, but an editor goes a long way.

So, I have a short excerpt from Lola Silverman’s, Escorting the Wrong Billionaire.

Excerpts can be used in reviews and discussion, so I just grabbed the first few lines from the book by using Amazon’s look inside feature, a feature that readers need to use before they buy.

Kaylee opened the window of her apartment and took a deep breath. Perching her butt on the sill, she slung her legs out onto the fire escape. She hated heights. Thank God her unit was only on the second floor. Any farther up and she would have fainted dead away before plummeting to the concrete. (Aaron’s mental note: I thought there was a fire escape.)

Someone pounded on her front door. “Kaylee! I know you’re in there. I’ve given you three weeks on the rent and I can’t give you any more. Pay up or I’m going to have you evicted!” (Aaron’s mental note. Front door? This is a second story apartment. Is there more than one door?)

Yeah, hitting her head might actually be a positive thing. (Aaron’s mental note: Not sure from where this thought came. Who gave the idea of hitting her head?) If she had a concussion, maybe Mrs. Tobolovsky would feel sorry for her and give her another week to pay her rent. Except a concussion would mean a trip to the hospital—and that Kaylee could not afford.

Let’s see…five sentences in, would. Eleven in, would. Twelve, would and could. That’s four uses in two paragraphs, but what other way is there to write out this scenario? Do readers really care about would and could or weak writing?

Aaron’s rewrite:

Kaylee opened her studio apartment’s window. There, she sat, peeking out into the monotony of the world. Her feet dangled carelessly. While she didn’t like heights—the mere thought churned her stomach—she was on the second floor and protected by the fire escape. A sudden pounding drew her attention.

“Kaylee, I know you’re in there! You’re three weeks late on the rent! How many times we gotta’ go through this?” Mrs. Tobolovsky made her regular effort to collect, yelling and pounding, in the hopes of avoiding an eviction. “Hey!” She screamed, and followed up with another set of fists to the door. “I’m tellin’ you, you get your head straight, or you’re outta’ here!”

Yeah, my head straight, Kaylee thought. Rather than paying, she felt sorry for herself, her situation, and figured she was better off with a concussion than having her head straight. Unfortunately, a concussion came with more than a headache, it came with bills, and if she didn’t have rent money, she didn’t have hospital money.

See? The original phrasing was just awkward, and it didn’t tell us what we needed to know- Kaylee is in a jam, and she doesn’t have her life together. Instead, the original prose took us into and out of different perspectives and tenses, and with a weaker voice.

Let’s see, step-by-step, what changes were made and why.

Kaylee opened the window of her apartment and took a deep breath.

Nothing wrong there. It’s a great opener.

Perching her butt on the sill, she slung her legs out onto the fire escape.

Still moving along, but that’s weird. She slung her legs onto the fire escape? How are the window and escape built? Shouldn’t her feet be on the escape? Perching her butt…we normally sit on our butt and perch on our toes, like squatting. We know Kaylee is at home, sitting on the window sill, and with her feet over the fire escape…right?

She hated heights.

If she hates heights, why is she doing this? How far up is she? Well, we get a partial answer in the next sentence.

Thank God her unit was only on the second floor.

Okay, so she hates heights, but being nearly twenty feet up in the air is okay? Besides, she’s over the fire escape, which has a platform, right? Then, we get a weird addition in the next sentence.

Any farther up and she would have fainted dead away before plummeting to the concrete.

So, what do we have? What do we know? What is this paragraph trying to tell me, the reader? It tells me Kaylee is dangling her legs out from her window, and that she’s okay doing so because she’s not up very high, but I’m also told there’s a fire escape, and then I’m told she would otherwise faint and plummet to the concrete. It’s conflicting and confusing information. As a reader, do I want to learn  more? I’m so plagued with questions.

Next, we have the following:

Someone pounded on her front door.

Alright, simple enough.

“Kaylee! I know you’re in there. I’ve given you three weeks on the rent and I can’t give you any more. Pay up or I’m going to have you evicted!”

Here, we have some dialogue, and now we get an idea of what’s going on. As a reader, now I’m assuming that Kaylee is a derelict, or that, perhaps, Tobolovsky is a horrible person. It is implied that Kaylee doesn’t pay her rent, and judging from the tone, this is a regular occurrence. Now, I’m expecting something to happen; there’s an opening for a discussion, or action, or some event.

Yeah, hitting her head might actually be a positive thing.

Okay, this is Kaylee’s internal dialogue, right? She’s having a rather strange thought from out of the blue. Who mentioned anything about hitting the head? Why is that a positive thing?

If she had a concussion, maybe Mrs. Tobolovsky would feel sorry for her and give her another week to pay her rent.

Well, that’s a strange a take on the story. Am I supposed to think that this character, Kaylee, is actually considering giving herself a concussion to avoid some rent? Why is that her first go to thought when the rent is overdue, assuming it’s overdue? I’m not really even sure that’s the case.

Except a concussion would mean a trip to the hospital—and that Kaylee could not afford.

Seems fairly obvious, but why is that sentence written that way? Why is there a dash? A comma is required. Furthermore, it’s evident, for those who live in America, that healthcare costs can outweigh the cost of an apartment, but if I’m not American, this is really confusing, and it’s confusing anyway because Kaylee must have access to all this information, which means her thoughts just don’t make sense, and why does she think, or expect us to think, or tell us to think that Tobolovsky might feel sorry and give her a break? If she’s injured, she surely won’t be able to pay the rent for that month or likely the next. It’s just baffling.

There is something here, though; we have the idea that Kaylee is a self-pitying, underachiever, who likes to make excuses for herself and not take responsibility, which has the makings of a great character if she’s made to overcome obstacles. That’s why I provided my version.

Kaylee opened her studio apartment’s window.

Okay, that’s the same opener, basically.

There, she sat, peeking out into the monotony of the world.

Ah, see, I gave her a reason to open the window and sit rather than perch; she’s looking out at the monotony of the world. Now, she sounds like a tortured soul. Besides, we know how people sit; there’s no real reason to go into it, and while there is a time for perch, now is not that time.

Her feet dangled carelessly.

That sentence further implies her angst.

While she didn’t like heights—the mere thought churned her stomach—she was on the second floor and protected by the fire escape.

I kept the fact that she didn’t like heights, and kept that confusing feeling of her odd behavior along with the fact that she doesn’t like heights; angst plus strife makes for a great read. Furthermore, the structure of the sentence flows much more naturally. We also know how she feels physically when she’s up too high, but we also know she’s fine due to the fire escape, and not the senseless idea of not being too high; if you’re afraid of heights, sitting on the second story window sill is terrifying!

A sudden pounding drew her attention.

I wrote this in this fashion to slap the reader from a rather tranquil, if confusing, scene to something alarming. You have the mental image that she spun her head to face the door in surprise, right?

“Kaylee, I know you’re in there! You’re three weeks late on the rent! How many times we gotta’ go through this?” Mrs. Tobolovsky made her regular effort to collect, yelling and pounding, in the hopes of avoiding an eviction. “Hey!” She screamed, and followed up with another set of fists to the door. “I’m tellin’ you, you get your head straight, or you’re outta’ here!”

I changed this whole dialogue block because the original was stock and somehow confusing. We were told Kaylee had been given three weeks on the rent, but not that she was overdue. Also, the reader knows Tobolovsky doesn’t want to evict. Now, I made the distinction. Furthermore, I didn’t leave it up to the reader to assume this happened before, I straight said it, and, on top of all that, tenants can’t usually get evicted for being three weeks late on the rent, and it takes a month’s notice to evict, so I changed the dialogue for a realistic feel, not to mention that the intermittent pounding sounds far more menacing than the original version of this dialogue.

Yeah, my head straight, Kaylee thought.

In keeping with the idea of giving oneself a concussions, I actually gave a reasonable lead in to this idea with Tobolovsky’s dialogue.

Rather than paying, she felt sorry for herself, her situation, and figured she was better off with a concussion than having her head straight.

Here, I explained it all. We still don’t know why Kaylee doesn’t pay, which adds a touch of mystery. Is she a broke student? Has she recently been laid off? Does she have a kid? We don’t know, but we are curious, and especially because she’s considering knocking herself out rather than forking over the dough.

Unfortunately, a concussion came with more than a headache, it came with bills, and if she didn’t have rent money, she didn’t have hospital money.

Again, explained, and all without implications. The reader now knows by way of an assertion: Kaylee has no money and while getting knocked out sounds worthwhile, she does know it isn’t useful.

When comparing the two versions, it becomes quite clear that the original version doesn’t even know where it’s going; the writer doesn’t know what she wants her readers to think, feel, or know. That’s okay, though, most writers are like this; writers provide a sequential account of events. Editors turn those accounts into a story.

Now, I want to provide some original examples of when would, could, and should are great.

“Hey, Bill, you busy,” John asked.

“Nope. What’s up, John?”

“Well,” John hesitated, rubbing his chin. “I need to go to the hardware store and pick up a new ladder, so I was hoping you would like to come along.”

Bill smiled and looked away. “I would love to help you out, bud, but my pick up truck’s in the shop. Otherwise, I could help you.”

This is a very real conversation. Now, in a more lively context, the words I would are usually written as I’d, but I didn’t want to pull focus from the use of would. At any rate, two friends discussing a project can certainly come across like that, and one friend certainly wants to help the other, and one friend certainly doesn’t want to pressure the other, so the words would show deliberation, and they are followed up by an excuse or a reason, so it isn’t weak writing in this case; it’s a real situation, however, we also know that neither John nor Bill are jerks; jerks don’t give a reason or excuse, so they won’t use would or could in dialogue, or at least, not this dialogue.

Let’s take a look in prose.

John would’ve gone outside, but the hordes of zombies were still shuffling around the neighborhood.

What do we know? There are zombies. John is scared of them. He wants to go out, but he won’t. He has an excuse not to go out; there are zombies.

This is a perfect way to convey to the reader that John wants something, but he doesn’t have what it takes to get the job done, and it’s very relatable, but we also expect, if John is the protagonist, he will get over his fear in order to grow as a character, and get the job done, and therein lies the problem; if would, could, and should keep following John around, we’re always going to feel that he’s deliberating!

Let’s see what happens when we play with words.

John didn’t want to go outside. Hordes of zombies were still shuffling around the neighborhood.

In this case, there’s nothing implied. We don’t think John wants to go out at all, zombies or no zombies; we know John doesn’t want to go out. We’re then shown that there are zombies still roaming around, but we have a totally different John. The first John wanted to go out, but was scared. This second John just doesn’t want to go out, then we find out why; he’s so scared, he isn’t even considering going outside.

Would changed absolutely everything, so there is a time to use it, but the writer/editor has to know what they want to portray.

Let’s look at one more example.

John didn’t go outside. Hordes of zombies were still shuffling around the neighborhood.

In this case, it is implied that John wants to go outside, and then we find out why he doesn’t go, but we’re led to believe that he will venture outdoors at some point, so we’re expecting something to happen, but what? We don’t know, so this creates a degree of tension, expectation.

In the end, I won’t say that there’s a right or wrong way to do something; I’ll leave that conclusion up to you, but I will say that there is a time and a place to use certain words, that every word has a special impact on storytelling, and that it is extremely important for a writer/editor to read the work as a reader, because the reader is not in our mind, and we must convey to them what to think, feel, and know.

Thank you.

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