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Wednesday, August 28, 2013


I THINK THE GOAL OF BELIEVABILITY isn’t too hard for a writer to attain as long as he's put in his hours and has honed his craft. Most readers will suspend their disbelief for the sake of a great story. Our job is to divert them so well, that they enter our reality completely and keep turning our pages.

As an editor with over twenty years' experience, I’ve found that anything that disturbs my involvement in a story is often a technical, ‘lack of depth’, or ‘writer manipulation’ problem. Technical problems disrupt flow. They’re easy to fix, once you understand they’re an issue. I’ve already posted about a few of them (action, anachronisms, use of adverbs), but I’ve listed a few more here. Broken flow may be triggered by:

o   anachronisms
o   awkward dialogue
o   clichés
o   expository lumps
o   heavy dialects
o   incompatible or vague word choices
o   mixed or dead metaphors
o   overuse of exclamation marks, italics, profanity, or obscenity
o   point of view shifts, without the proper formatting to indicate them
o   poor punctuation, grammar, or spelling errors
o   poor formatting

‘Lack of Depth’ problems are often more endemic, but can usually be fixed by the writer thinking more deeply about character, action/plot, dialogue, and/or style. The following are ‘lack of depth’ issues created by shallowness (or extremes) in character and plot. These can include:

o   dull openings that lack a ‘hook’
o   character stereotypes (clichés)
o   unsympathetic or 'Mary Sue' protagonists
o   lack of character motivation
o   lack of character risk (low stakes)
o   shying away from difficult scenes and/or cutting them too short, too soon
o   solving the protagonist's problems too easily
o   neglect – forgetting to offer the reader answers by the end
o   neglect – failure to tie up loose ends by the end
o   convenient dialogue to fill in the reader ('As you know, Bob...')
o   frames (a story within a story)
o   info-dumps
o   little foundation for the premise or lack of proper set-up for key scenes
o   logic faults
o   predictable plot twists or outcome
o   too many characters, or too much complexity in the action

Writer manipulation shows up when a writer:

o   is so enamored of his research, that he goes overboard on detail (forcing the reader to listen)
o   fills in the reader with common knowledge that the reader already knows
o   indulges in purple prose
o   indulges in soapbox prose
o   indulges in too much mood (which is usually depressing and offers little in the way of action to make it worthwhile).

In short, readers will believe almost any tale you spin, as long as you avoid the above and give them a smooth and exciting read. I'll address many of these points in future ABC posts.

Stay tuned.


  1. Oooohhhhhh damn it. This is a very timely post as I revise a short story that was long on research, and which I need to cut to length before submitting. Though I have tried to make all the scenes pop with conflict either explicit or implied, I have to admit many fringes of detail are creeping in from the research, not from the characters driving the scenes. It's really hard to see, sometimes, what details make the story sing and which just slow it down.
    The market I'm targeting first though, actually makes this a bit easier to determine, since it explicitly asks that for the time period, issues of interesectionality be explored -- that is, how the main character(s) is(are) marginalized but also how they have some power inthe era/society they live in. That forced me to look at different contexts for the setting (Winnipeg General Strike) and how ethnicity and politics affected people of different ethinic backgrounds. So each scene needed historical context, but also personal details that affected the tension in the scene. Not sure I succeeded in all cases, but having to evaluate whether information was germane to the story I was trying to tell helped me cut a lot out.

  2. Knowing 'how much' is a tough one. I think as long as you don't go into an 'info' dump which stops the prose in its tracks, sprinkling historical or research details adds a lot of authenticity to your work. Sometimes, we're too close to it to really be objective. That's when another pair of eyes can help, but even then, everyone has their own biases. What I may think is too much might be fine for another reader or editor. If you've practiced the craft for some time and have allowed for critical feedback (from experienced sources), you can likely trust your instincts. The fact that you're concerned about it tells me a lot. People who make the mistake of putting in too much research detail often have no idea they've gone overboard.

  3. Great post, Susan. Most of these issues are things we learn the hard way, after years of rejection and countless hours of writing classes.

    Writer manipulation is probably the most difficult aspect to control. First, because stories are themselves manipulations with a goal to entertain, or inform, or cause the reader to reflect, or feel a certain way.

    Having said that, I think it all boils down to: don't forget that you, the writer, are not the audience. Always look at what you write from the reader's perspective.

    And of course, that's so much easier said than done.

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  5. Well said, John! (I just deleted a comment that pretty much repeated what you said about entertaining and informing the reader... it's too early, I was up late. I need coffee!)

  6. The "soapbox prose" is a good one to watch out for. Every writer has deeply-held beliefs, which will show in some way in what he/she writes. But the proselytizing/evangelizing/hard selling is too much and turns even readers sympathetic to the reader's cause right off.
    One piece of writing advice I like is to make the villain "right." That is, that the antagonist who embodies something you as a writer may hate should have a credible, convincing rationale for doing what he/she does. That's hard to do, but I've found that every time I work on that side of the story, the rest of the interactions get so much more interesting.

  7. Soapbox prose is the awkward cousin of theme. I suspect that whatever we're trying to say is better accomplished when we don't try so hard to say it. Michael R. Fletcher (author of 88) also says something along the lines of what you do, about making the villain 'right'. Every villain is his own hero, has his own justifications for doing what he does. What you mention doing with your antagonist, when he does something you hate, makes for an interesting mental exercise. And it adds to character believability.