Placeholders!! Part Deux

Oh placeholders, you tricky devils. I’ve been doing some deeper thinking about my newest “show don’t tell” revision technique. Maybe word-searching for placeholders isn’t just about overused words in my manuscript. As I revise, I think it might actually be bigger than just “my manuscripts aren’t visceral or immediate enough.” And bigger than “I need to show more instead of tell.”

(Sips coffee)

Words like, “looks,” “feels,” “walks to,” etc, are distancing, they take your reader out of the immediacy of the moment by not showing the reader what the character is experiencing directly. We’ve all heard that before: show don’t tell. You can actually read my first post on placeholders here:

It’s my sneaking suspicion that the placeholder doesn’t only distance your language and lengthen psychic distance (that’s just a fancy term for how close we feel as readers to the events and actions of the story) as Gardner coined in his book, The Art of Fiction. The placeholder might actually be standing in for an emotional moment within the manuscript.

Before I go on to an example, let me say this one caveat:

I recognize that when you are drafting, if you spend too much time refining language, you might turn on your inner censor. NO ONE wants that grouch to come to work with you. This inner editor can potentially stop you from writing from Robert Olen Butler’s “white-hot center,” or the unconscious where the truly great art is created. So I would say, maybe refrain from trying this tactic until a third draft. Try this when you’ve done enough drafts where you know the manuscript is almost submittable but something isn’t quite right with your work.

So let’s say, you’re at revision two or three. Let’s say your book is great but certain scenes lack emotional punch. Maybe you hear from your writer’s group or editor that he or she just can’t connect to the main character. Here’s where I think the placeholder can help you dig deep and find out what you really wanted to say in the moment.

Le Technique:

1. Make a list of placeholders.2. Go to the sentences. Go micro. What I am finding is that the sentences are really where the macro issues are hiding. To get to the big, you have to look at the small. Look to the construction of your sentences within key scenes.

3. Do you have some placeholders in one chunk of text? What is happening in that chunk of text? Could it be…a scene?

4. Now that you’ve identified a core scene, ask yourself: is the scene actually scene? Is it summary? If it’s summary and the emotional moment is not happening in real time, then ask yourself why, and consider if you’ve purposefully distanced yourself from the moment because you are protecting your characters.

If it’s summarization perhaps in the form of endless questions, backstory, or too much inner thought, this is a clue you are NOT connected to your main character and his or her conflict. My suggestion is to not only revise the placeholders to make the scene more immediate and to ensure you are showing and not telling, but to actually see if the placeholders are a clue that you’ve missed a major emotional moment in your scene.

So maybe, placeholders are the you inside the manuscript telling the you writing the damn thing that you haven’t done enough with these characters. You owe them more! This is where you can break out the toolbox you’ve built as a writer and employ: imagery, objective correlative, inner thought dialogue, etc, etc, to make the scenes reveal even more about your characters.

So how about a totally embarrassing example of crappy, telling, distanced language from my newest WIP!? Sure thing. This is a first draft and I probably shouldn’t even be thinking about placeholders, but I digress…

Here is an example in my current untitled WIP. So, my main character Penny has just gotten out of a car. The whole town has been taken over by lightning bugs.  The section that I have italicized is the section under scrutiny!!

I extended a hand and a few lightning bugs landed on my fingers. The rest protected the tree and there, where the car had hit weeks ago were two words carved into the blackened bark. Because the tree was healing, the fresh bark was lighter, a sandy color. The words stood out with the fresh bark underneath.


I backed away and joined my parents and some neighbors on the street. The lightning bugs swarmed over the words, hiding them.

“It must be from the warm weather,” Dad reasoned.

“I’m calling the news,” a neighbor said and walked back to her house. I got back into the car without looking back at that tree. Give in. Give in to what? That he was dead? That Kyle wondered why he didn’t say I love you but that he said it to me every five minutes? What was I supposed to give in to? That my mother was a drunk and my father just ignored it so he could stay in his cocoon of false happiness? I crossed my arms . Mom and Dad joined me. We continued onto the End of Summer Gala.


1. Do a placeholder search. Once you find an overabundance of one or many placeholders in one particular scene, read through that scene. Does it lack energy or emotional punch?

Okay so I’ve identified that this scene. This moment doesn’t feel very emotional. It isn’t hitting the emotional note that I want.

2. So is this scene mostly scene or is it summary?

Geez, most of it is summary now that I really look at the emotional reaction. Wow, there are like 40 questions that the characters asks herself. Ack, why am I doing that? Where is the emotion? Where is the scene? Holy Baloney. All of those questions contain absolutely no subtext. Each one is so completely on the nose that my character is not experiencing anything emotional that my reader can feel. She is telling us how to feel.  EW!

3. Go to the sentences.

“I’m calling the news,” a neighbor said and walked back to her house. I got back into the car without looking back at that tree.

In those two sentences, I have “walk” and “look” back-to-back. Sure, you need those words sometimes and occasionally look and walk, when they are verbs, are necessary. But they have no relevance in a placeholder scene. So make sure what you are editing is indeed a placeholder scene.

4. Does my character have an emotional reaction in this moment? What is that emotional reaction?

 “I’m calling the news,” a neighbor said and walked back to her house. I got back into the car without looking back at that tree.

Not only does Penny not have an emotional reaction, she just gets into the car without looking at the tree. So what is actually in scene here, is the neighbor speaking and then my main character getting back into the car. Oh yes, Rebecca, that’s so emotional. I bet as she bent her leg to get back into the car, you reader just broke into hysterical cries and wept.

Or not (cheese sandwich, VCFA).

I need to get rid of “look” and “walk” and try to find out what my character is actually feeling here. Horror? Anger? She’s just seen a tree covered in lightning bugs and when she went up to touch the lightning bugs, THEY MOVED FOR HER.

What I need to do is remove those words, find the emotion I am looking for, and bring it into scene. I also need to delete all those heinous “on the nose” questions. This way, my character can experience true horror and disbelief simultaneously with my reader.

That revising part is the hard part.

I will revise this scene and post it on the blog in a day or two. My brain is on snooze at the moment.

I’m probably missing a whole mess of important things I should be talking about but this is at least helping me to identify the consistent and overuse of language in my manuscript. I can’t help but think there is a bigger reason why we keep using words like “looks” “feels,” etc, other than lazy writing. Sometimes we’re quite convinced we’ve written a very emotional scene and are surprised to find that it’s not. Maybe this will help you. I hope it does.

Updated Placeholder list:

  • Like
  • Just
  • Smiled
  • Sighed
  • As if
  • Remember (any time a character says, “I remember the time…” and it’s not in dialogue, almost always we’ve got telling instead of showing.
  • Feel
  • Hear
  • See
  • Glance
  • Think
  • Look
  • Watch
  • “I taste,” “I smell..”
  • Notice
  • Then
  • Suddenly
  • Adverbs in general
  • Double verb “starting to” “began to”



One thought on “Placeholders!! Part Deux

  1. Oh man! I have all of these in my WIP. I’ve got some work to do. I’d better print the list of placeholders first.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *