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The Write Way

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Avoiding the Overuse of Epithets



Avoiding the Overuse of Epithets
*originally published in the January 2021 edition of Hear Ye, Hufflepuff*

This month's advice concerns eschewing pronouns in favor of the overuse of epithets.

Now, first off, let's define our terms. An epithet is an adjective or descriptive phrase expressing a quality or characteristic of the person or thing mentioned. For example, if talking about Harry Potter, an epithet might be, "The green-eyed boy blinked in confusion." A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun. The most common pronouns are: I, you, he, she, it, we, they. If we take the previous sentence, but use a pronoun, we get: "He blinked in confusion."

So, what does it mean to overuse epithets?

A common problem writers face happens when two or more characters in a scene share the same pronouns is thinking that using those pronouns repeatedly will confuse readers. For example, if a group consisted of Harry, Ron, Neville, and Dean, writers feel nervous about repeating "he" throughout their conversation or interaction. This is a valid fear, but it's one that can be overcome with confidence in your writing. If a conversation is flowing, it's important to avoid breaking it up too much. This is done by striking a balance between pronouns, epithets, and the characters' names. In most cases, overusing pronouns isn't much of a risk as you might think. If in doubt, you can use the character's name to indicate who is speaking, or have the person addressing them use their name instead. But most readers are smarter than you think! 😉 It's likely that they'll be able to follow things if your writing leads them. The epithetical reminders usually aren't necessary.

With that said, many writers do tend to overuse epithets. This presents itself in various ways, but the one I've seen most often is with phrases indicating characters' hair color. For example, if Harry and Ron were speaking, you might see something like:

"I agree," Harry said, "we should tell Hermione."
"I'm glad you see my point," Ron said with a smug smile.
"But still," the black-haired boy said uncertainly, "I hope she won't be mad..."
"You worry too much!" the redhead said, rolling his eyes.

The epithets in this example probably jarred you out of the conversation, right? They tend to do that! So, rather than using epithets (which are more often than not clunky and distracting), I recommend using characters' names, pronouns, or forgoing a dialogue tag at all.

"I agree," Harry said, "we should tell Hermione."
"I'm glad you see my point," Ron said with a smug smile.
"But still," Harry said uncertainly, "I hope she won't be mad..."
Ron rolled his eyes.
"You worry too much!"

See how that flows better? (Or, I hope it does!)

The trick to choosing whether or not to use an epithet is to reread your writing and see if you are confused. If you don't quite know who's speaking or to whom a scene is referring, you may need to repeat a character's name or use an epithet. And using epithets sparingly isn't necessarily bad. But trying to avoid phrases that are kitschy or distracting (those hair color ones above!) is important. And avoiding repeating them is even more important. There are only so many times someone can read "the green-eyed boy" or "the black-haired boy" before they start to lose their mind!

So keep it fresh. Keep it sparse. And don't be afraid to use pronouns or names. Epithets can be tricky, and too often they're a slippery slope. If you aren't sure if yours are a distraction, play it safe and leave them out.

As always, ask if you have questions! Good luck and happy writing!

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I am always super conscious of this to like a painful degree hah. Probably because the majority of my writing evolves from dialogue. Finding that balance between the epithets, pronouns, and names can be challenging for sure. But I feel like once you are aware of this, it's one of those things, you cannot unsee! I would love to hear your opinion (if you feel like sharing it, of course) on whether or not there are issues with splitting up dialogue between actions and other descriptors, not necessarily epithets. Because my dialogue tags (is that what the words bracketing the dialogue are called? I dunno lol) are probably like dreadfully long, and/or wholly unnecessary. I was just curious if, in your professional opinion 😃, there were any big "no, no's," with that as well. Great post Emily! Thanks for sharing (again, I think I read this in the common room too, but I don't know that I properly left you a comment or anything)💖 

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