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I am really struggling to try and cut out repetitive use of the word 'her' and 'she' in action scenes while still trying to keep them short and sharp.

I have read other posts here discussing this issue, but I am still not getting it right. When I try to change things to 'show not tell' and eliminate the overused 'her'/'she', I am losing the fast flow needed for action. Can anyone give me any ideas of alternative ways to cut out the duplicate 'her' 'she'?? Here is a sample of the issue in an action scene: (Thank you!)

'Run, don't stop!'

A day ago, she was worried about pregnancy and guitar lessons. Now she was fleeing for her. Life was an unexpected cruel bitch! Ripping pain in her stomach made her falter; she felt the warmth of blood running down her legs. Abby plunged through the undergrowth. Branches were tearing her skin. She fell and tasted blood; her mouth was filling with it. She heard rustling and lunged to her feet, but could not pinpoint the direction of the sound, gazed wildly about, disorientated. The forest was still, as though waiting to witness an act of cruelty. The sound grew louder, a frenzied rustling like something large was getting dragged through the undergrowth.

Instinctively, Abby knew something terrible was happening. Some old, unspeakable horror slithered over her skin. She was being watched, hunted, smelt, by a predator she could not see; but felt a warning of the presence in every cell of her body.

'This is it. This is the day I die!'

Her eyes fell on a pale shape obscured among the shadows. A swollen face, lips thick, opened. Brown eyes stared from sunken sockets. Lifeless. Half of the neck was missing. The swollen corpse was a girl. Limbs twisted unnaturally, horribly. A sound tore up from deep in Abby's guts, between a scream and a sob. She backed away. Tripped as her foot snared on something cold. She fell face down, dazed, did not need to look up to know what she had tripped on. A portion of the corps that had been separated from the rest of the body? Another corps?

She kept her eyes screwed shut; started crawling along the forest floor, the direction did not matter, just away from the horror she had witnessed.

Could this be real? Maybe the PTSD got the better of her.

Abby opened her eyes and got to her feet, gazed around. Screamed. Fell to her knees. She tried to call for help, but all that came out was a hoarse terrified whimper.

I am struggling with the show not tell as you can see as well as the she / her repetitions.

Thank you in advance for any suggestions. 🙏

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    One technique, although it's not common, is to use sentence fragments with the present participle. For instance, rather than saying her eyes fell on a pale shape say eyes falling on a pale shape. If the sentences are short and choppy anyway, sentence fragments, where there is no pronoun at all, can reinforce that atmosphere. You just need to be careful when using it to make sure it's appropriate to the surrounding context. I'm pretty sure that Roger Zelazny used a similar dream-like language, with fewer pronouns, in some of his narrative. – Jason Bassford Jul 12 '20 at 20:04
  • Thank you. Thats a great idea. I will research how I might add it. Much appreciation for your help! – Alicia Jul 12 '20 at 20:23
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    Can I just say that this is terrifying and well-written – Tasch Jul 15 '20 at 23:10
  • Thank you for your kind complement Tasch 🙏 – Alicia Jul 16 '20 at 16:16
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One stylistic device is to use sentence fragments using the present participle. Although sentence fragments are not normally accepted in formal writing, they are frequently used in fiction. You just want to be sure that you use them deliberately, knowing what you're doing, rather than using them by mistake.

For instance, I'll paraphrase one of the paragraphs used in the question, highlighting the changes:

Eyes falling on a pale shape obscured among the shadows. A swollen face, lips thick, opened. Brown eyes stared from sunken sockets. Lifeless. Half of the neck was missing. The swollen corpse was a girl. Limbs twisted unnaturally, horribly. A sound tore up from deep in Abby’s guts, between a scream and a sob. Backing away. Tripping as her foot snared on something cold. Falling face down, dazed, not needing to look up to know what she had tripped on. A portion of the corps that had been separated from the rest of the body? Another corps?

Since the surrounding style is already short and choppy, and sentence fragments already used, this style is a good fit. I didn't eliminate every pronoun, but most of them.

Whether it's appropriate, or where it becomes too much artifice at the expense of simply trying to eliminate pronouns (which many people do continue to use), is subjective. I wouldn't personally recommend using it throughout the entire narrative, but in those parts where a series (or almost blur) of visual impressions is being conveyed.

One author I know of who did something like this—using sentence fragments—was Roger Zelazny. It was used as a kind of stream of consciousness in long descriptions of observations that had a kind of dream-like quality to them.

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  • Thank you for this great advise. I really appreciate your help to steer my direction. Thank you! I am grateful for your time and knowledge. Cheers. – Alicia Jul 12 '20 at 22:03
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Good question, I have to say. In a lot of these cases I'd advocate switching between third, first and even second person narrative for fast-paced single character sections (not formally switching, but just inserting first or second person sentences here and there to denote thoughts without actually using 'She thought...'. This ties in pretty well with @JasonBassford's answer about using the present tense a bit more - it becomes more subtle if you avoid the 'ing' form of verbs, like 'The forest is still' rather than 'was still'.

However please note that this does constitute a quite major adjustment to the writing style; I did try it on the sample you provided but ditched the results as it would probably be quite inconsistent with the rest of the narrative. Is the question something that you want to apply throughout the action scenes in the whole narrative?

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  • Thank you Spencer Barnes. That is a fantastic idea!! And I can see it would actually increase the pace and reader involvement in action scenes. Yes it is for certain scenes throughout, but I am definitely willing to make the change throughout as I can see the improvement it would make. If you still have a copy, I would love to see the re-write you mentioned. Thank you for this awesome suggestion and for your time helping me. I am grateful. – Alicia Jul 16 '20 at 16:10
  • @Alicia glad to be of service. No, I'm afraid my attempt at re-writing your section was just in the draft of my answer, and I wasn't at all happy with how it ended up. In this particular example/section I think you'd go sparingly on the use of second person as the character's thoughts aren't much of the 'telling herself something', and it quickly got confusing. Really excellently written piece you've done already there, though. PLMK here when it's finished/published, I'll be interested to read the whole thing! – Spencer Barnes Jul 20 '20 at 8:05

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