Writing Critique: 5 To-Don’ts and 5 To-Do’s

Writing critique is a super important part of growing as a storyteller… when it’s good feedback, presented constructively.

Here’s a general summary of critique do’s and don’t’s, drawn directly from interactions I’ve witnessed among fiction writers. These are an advance FYI of good etiquette if you’ve never done critique before. But they’re also signposts of valid things to avoid or embrace in others, if you’re in a situation that makes you wonder.

I wish you healthy, non-psychotic creative relationships every darn day of your writing life.

Don’t…

Don’t pick one area of writing craft and try to distill everything down to that.

In an early group, I witnessed an amazingly cinematic novel opening get cut down to only action beats by a fellow critiquer. It had scale, dimensionality, a perfect progression from scene-setting authorial narrative to character perspective, and mood… but hey, shouldn’t it be all action! And lo, two pages became half a page.

As a new writer, I thought perhaps the critiquer was responding to the writer’s choice of genre, which was a crime story. But then I saw the same critiquer do the same thing with several other genres. No one element of fiction technique is more important than another. It’s the balance that makes or breaks reader interest.

Don’t comment on the writer’s personal details: Background, experience, personality, affiliations. To be clear, just don’t comment on the writer. Ever.

As an erstwhile small-group mentor, I’ve had to protect the circle of free thinking from an outsider’s inappropriate personal commentary. It doesn’t matter what religion or political affiliation the writer is. It doesn’t matter how good or bad they are, either. What matters is acting as a team against the problems and challenges.

Being inappropriate towards other writers is a sure way to prove one isn’t part of the team. It undermines the psychological space. We can’t enter creative flow when there’s a judge with a hammer looming over every experiment we’d like to attempt.

Especially if that hammer takes personal aim.

Don’t try to avoid the give-and-take.

Some writers come to me as an editor because they either don’t want to receive general writing critique, or they don’t want to take the time to give it. In the first instance, I agree there are pitfalls and it’s important to pick your critique group or partnership carefully.

But in the second case… nah, there’s no excuse for that laziness. It’s not a sidetrack or a time-waster to learn how to perceive craft in a situation where the words are fresher to you than your own. This is how you learn to understand and apply an editor’s remarks.

Don’t take it as commentary on you personally.

You may want to hear how clever and creative you are, but this is not the right scenario. Go home and ask your lover, or maybe your cat right before feeding time.

Writing critique is about developing skillsets, not measuring innate talents and inclinations. What’s more, praise of innate talents (like being smart) is more likely to cripple your success. Check out this New York Magazine piece, and poll your overachieving and underachieving friends.

Don’t debate the feedback.

There isn’t time in a critique circle to argue back. If you have to explain what you really intended, then you didn’t write it clearly enough the first time. It’s fine to ask a question for clarification of feedback, but seriously uncool to take more of a person’s volunteered time by turning it into an extended meta event.

Do…

Do treat the writing as separate from the writer.

The writer is not the problem, the writing is. When we’re shorthanding our English, it’s easy to speak of one as the same as the other. But it’s important not to. Both people are on the same side, facing the challenge of creative improvement together. It’s you and me against the writing challenges.

Do use positive framing for all suggestions.

Yes, I really mean all. In some ways, “writing critique” should really be renamed “writing encouragement.” We need to hear many times more positive than negative statements in order to avoid discouragement — something like four positives for every negative just to balance it at all. But it’s possible to find yourself facing a piece of writing where pulling out positives is difficult to impossible. Oh, yes. If you haven’t seen one of those, you will.

Stepping away from the concept of “corrections” and into a mindset of positive opportunities means you never have to say something good about stuff that isn’t. (This also goes back to that thing about work versus talent.) It puts it all on the same level — good writing and bad writing.

My personal goal in content editing is for the writer never to know my good writing/bad writing opinion matrix. That’s my own private mental space for pleasure reading, not for critiquing and editing. Of course, I’ll factor it in if I need to inform someone that I’m not the best person to respond to their project. But the goal is to build technique, not agree about everything.

Do use mostly “what if” questions and suggestions.

“What if you tried something like this?”

“In this section, I see a lot of description, but not as many other scene elements. What if you turned this phrase and this one into dialogue? What if this were an action beat instead of something your character observes?”

“This is great writing, but my mind’s eye is having trouble tracking where your character is going in this scene. What if you tried arranging it into motivations and reactions like this?”

“I feel like this scene ends before the action really pulls me into the next thing. What if there’s just a glimpse of…?”

This is absolutely key to getting to a place where an editor will benefit you. If you dedicate time to thinking through how to apply craft, you’ll be well on your way to bridging the vast and maddening gap between the abstract theory of fiction and its praxis.

Do choose your writing critique groups and/or partners wisely.

There are groups out there that are just awful. Some are dedicated more to toxic whining about how the world is too stupid to perceive their creative genius. (Hint: They’re not so original, they’re so entitled.)

Some are online groups established with good rules of play regarding conduct and reciprocity. Some can be found through writers’ guilds, which is a great way to find support within your preferred genre.

Sometimes, you just meet another writer and there’s a click of perspective that creates a good team out of nowhere.

Do be the critique partner you wish you could find.

That’s the surest way to attract someone like-minded about the writing journey. At the same time, don’t be afraid to step away from those who aren’t willing to engage in an egalitarian way. If they don’t engage equally, if they don’t pick up the example of kindly feedback, or even if there just isn’t a good click in thinking, maybe you haven’t found your long-term critique partner(s). Yet.

Keep looking. They’re out there.

Exchanging writing critique is essential to your journey.

Until you’ve done this, hiring an editor is just too expensive for the amount of application that’ll make sense. The wallet cost and the frustration cost aren’t worth it.

You don’t need so much advice. There’s more you can do for yourself.

Stringing Words Into Sentences

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Voice comes from honesty.

The hardest thing about starting to write is finding your honesty. Not just telling the truth as you see it on the surface of your mind, where we lie to ourselves.

Honesty becomes a way of life on the page eventually. The easiest way to get there is to trigger emotions so strong and immediate that you have to say exactly what you feel deep down.

For a lot of people, that involves a detox from institutionalized writing. Five-paragraph essays. Being forced to write about the weather or how great your mom was on a sheet of pre-printed lines. Being forced to engage with basic literacy before you were developmentally ready (maybe your motor coordination wasn’t there yet, or your reading comprehension had a schedule of its own that said Oh yeah, well eff you to the institutional timeline). Or being corralled into limited, educational-agenda-based forms of expression that had nothing to do with what really interested you.

That’s why Pat Schneider’s breakout creative writing technique begins with detoxing from various aspects of our early lives. Her exercises tap into our experiences of injustice, shame, and disappointment, and perform strategic lifesaving surgery by excising those inner barriers onto a page. First, courage. You have to get rid of the fears about exposure that you didn’t even know you were dealing with.

You can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.

Clear expression and topical engagement come from feedback.

One reason I’ve heard for hiring an editor (or for seeking feedback in general) from a few different people is this: People will read total crap, so their feedback may not mean anything.

Oh, thank goodness. That’s a fantastic starting place. But you’ll need to come back to it when you get your first negative review, okay? Also, good luck with that!

Feedback doesn’t teach creative writing technique in the technical sense. Practice teaches technique. But feedback teaches you about being interesting and being resonant.

People will ignore you when you’re not interesting and not honest.

People will read you when you’re connecting with what matters to them in a way that rings true.

And finally, it teaches you where you’re not communicating clearly, because someone will pipe up and say, “I have no idea what you mean by this! I’m confused!” Beta readers and critique groups or partners are excellent for pinpointing the places where we didn’t say what we thought we said.

I’ve found blogging is also great that way, because then you get to try again in the comments. You can even start an argument about it, which is definitely not allowed in critique groups, at least the better ones. There might be some cage-fighter crit groups out there.*

I don’t know. But I do know you can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.

Strong writing comes from personal literacy.

I touched on this in my initial post here. A lot of people who are just fixated on the shiny aura of “writing a novel” are also very unimaginative. For starters, they can’t imagine a “serious” (ping me on my “serious writing” rant sometime) writing form other than the novel exists. For another, they’re much too busy imagining having their name splashed on the cover of a novel to imagine a good story. But when do we get to the cover with my name on it!? Are we there yet???

The truth is, many people don’t read well. I have in past chalked it down to impatience, based on the lack of reading my reply emails coherently. These days, I also suspect a general literacy problem in the Now We’re Seriously Adulting population of people who are past their twenties.

As children, and teens, and trailing into young adulthood, we’re encouraged to read stories of wonder. But there’s an agenda. Wonder is only allowed when it Promotes Literacy In Children. Once that task is completed, we drop the habit of seeking out thoughts and expressions that amaze us. It’s not “useful.” It “wastes time.” We start skimming everything. We lose imagination.

Constraining ourselves to a grownup sense of wonder, atmosphere and importance is another invisible wall that prevents honesty. It kills voice. Seeking out your favorite themes in other forms and places will help you realize what you really need (not just imagine you want) to communicate, and how many ways there are to communicate it.

You can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.

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FOOTNOTES

*We’ll talk about critique etiquette another time. Short version: The number one rule is to say “thank you” and move on without further comment, taking what works for you and leaving the rest.

For a deeper look: Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and With Others.

Stringing Sentences Into Paragraphs

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5 Active Scene Elements,
Plus One Other Thing (Okay, Two)

Once you’ve got your sense of honesty, a little organization goes a long way to helping readers along. You can look at the technicalities of experiential expression as about six empty boxes we can fill in, but that won’t matter if you don’t put things in them that matter to someone else.

Fiction creates a mental picture. Mere words have to compensate for all those things that occur wordlessly in the real world. But the toolkit isn’t very big. And of the few things we use, they divide fairly easily into internal and external components of experience.

The thing that doesn’t go over well with contemporary adult audiences is giving internal details from a non-viewpoint character’s perspective. But that’s entirely dependent on the readership. The younger the intended audience, the more narrative, the more overt explanations, and the more we include the perspectives of non-viewpoint characters, because kids don’t read implication. It’s a brain development thing. Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux illustrates this very well.

Even teen (especially early teen) brains don’t understand how to interpret facial expressions, and we cue them overtly on interpersonal interactions a lot more at that reading level. That may be partly why adults eschew it and react like the reading material is too basic or flat. It doesn’t leave enough room for the fully-fledged imagination.

Here are those five active scene elements. They’re considered active because they’re the tools we use to advance the character’s perspective and desires onward through the story.

The 5 active elements of fiction prose

1. Description

It helps to start any new moment with a brief description. Just a few general reference points will do, like a sweep with a movie camera. Otherwise, when your characters begin speaking and doing things, they’ll be doing them with no surrounding setting or atmosphere.

Description is the special darling, because if you give it from the character’s viewpoint, as indirect internal monologue, it’s internal. If you give it using narrative summary (the author’s voice), it’s external. That makes it a great tool for controlling the “zoom” on the story lens. The author’s voice is more distant, and the character’s thinking is more intimate. Transitioning between the two controls the emotional scale and intensity.

2. Dialogue

It also helps, according to acclaimed author Nancy Kress, to include some dialogue as promptly as possible. In a workshop of hers that I attended several years back, she mentioned that her work began to get a lot more requests from publication editors when she did this. If you read her current fiction, which is amazingly skilled, her use of dialogue drops you right into the moment and anchors you to the character.

What if your character is alone? Kress outwits that problem beautifully in the opening of After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall. 

Dialogue is external. This is important. Implication and nuance in dialogue often require that we combine it with an internal technique, so we can see intent, and also the contrast between what’s said and the real thoughts behind it. This is because most of our meaning isn’t conveyed through syntax. It’s given through vocal inflection and body language, and those are lost when words go into print.

Do we have to tell the reader how the character spoke or what gestures they made? That can be useful with non-viewpoint characters, but nonverbal semantics are perceived subjectively, not factually. They have the most impact when shown from the viewpoint character’s perception, which may not be accurate.

3. Action

Action is external, rather obviously. It pairs well with dialogue or internal monologue, because those tend to express the character’s goals. Of course, we immediately want to see those goals acted upon, once we know them.

This is the part where everyone says to kill all the adverbs. Why? Because adverbs tell you how a thing was, not just what it was or did. They’re a summary tool.

Yes, that means you can quite properly adverbialize in narrative summary. You can also do it anytime the emotional tension or intensity is low, because generally we summarize that more and intense action receives more detail.

4. Internal monologue

This means the viewpoint character’s thoughts, so naturally, internal monologue is internal. There are two ways to express it: Exactly as the character thinks it (directly) in more of a silent-dialogue style, or by paraphrasing in more of a narrative style (indirectly).

5. Visceral emotion

This is the one you don’t want to use often, or there’ll be accusations of giving your characters some kind of dysentery. This is the maximum-intensity, “the adrenaline punched him in the gut” stuff. It’s really hard to do without resorting to cliches, and even harder to do without inventing really weird physiological analogies. It works best when used very, very rarely.

And a 6th: Narrative summary

Narrative summary is when the author talks for a bit (sometimes called authorial voice or authorial narrative), just to get you on to the next part, or to skim over something relatively boring but necessary. It doesn’t sound like the character’s vocabulary, but the author’s, and doesn’t suffer the restrictions of the character’s viewpoint. It’s a pariah in basic fiction instruction because, quite simply, it’s telling. It’s passive rather than active.

The Hunger Games trilogy is high in narrative summary compared to an adult novel, keeping in mind that Suzanne Collins had a lot of prior experience writing for even younger children. The author understands the psychology of communicating with kids. The distance of using authorial voice to step back from the character experience can shelter children and teens from the intense emotional impact the same story would have if told mostly with active scene elements. Alternately, that distance can be closed by telling the story in first-person point of view, which will also be narration-heavy.

And in terms of adult fiction, why write a whole scene to make one tiny point of detail? Actually, you shouldn’t. Scenes have a specific purpose in the story, and that’s not it. Sometimes telling is the right choice to get past the parts that don’t need more depth.

Very occasionally, authorial narrative can successfully be used to break point of view and carry the reader to a side event with another character, without changing scenes. As a writer from a time when authorial voice was more accepted, John LeCarre continues to achieve this very well in his later work, for example Single & Single. 

Narrative as rough drafting tool

Many people draft their first run at a story with a lot of narrative summary. They’re telling the story to themselves. That’s a great way to get it all down and figure out what happens and why. Later on, it’s fine to go back and replace the summary with active scene elements where they communicate the emotional experience more effectively.

The red-headed stepchild: Flashbacks

The advice out there about flashbacks is weird. This is because, when embedded within an ongoing scene, it tends to subsist in an odd limbo between internal monologue and narrative summary, and because it’s so easy to end up in extensive narrative summary rather than using flashback as indirect internal monologue.

If a flashback has to go long, then it’s not a flashback, it’s achronological plotting. Again see Single & Single

The short and simple is, if you learn to understand internal monologue and narrative summary, you won’t have a problem writing flashbacks. There’s nothing special, scary or mysterious about them. You likely have seen them done right and wrong, but if it’s hard to peg why, this way of looking at the elements of fiction prose may help clarify that.

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FOOTNOTES

For a deeper look:
Randy Ingermanson/Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies
Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer

Reading for reading’s sake:
Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux
Nancy Kress, After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
John LeCarre, Single & Single

Organizing Paragraphs in Fiction

Let’s regroup. No, literally. Let’s take our active scene elements, which describe the viewpoint character’s internal and external experiences, and group them another way.

Motivation and Reaction

For newer writers, this is best learned in self-editing. You should ignore it in your first draft and just finish getting ideas down. This technicality will be here waiting, as technicalities do.

The more you work on self-editing this, the easier it gets. With enough practice, you can skip a whole round of drafting because these things start to be what pours from your fingertips. But learning it involves the analysis side of the brain, and switching to analysis cuts off creativity. So it’s better to wait until one day it surprises you by happening without your conscious attention.

“Practice, practice, practice!” Yeah fine whatever okay. Practice it is.

Organizing paragraphs in fiction

This is different than writing a five-paragraph report in school. Way different. For one thing, we don’t even use first, secondly, thirdly, and definitely not in conclusion. We’re constantly told in fiction that we’re not supposed to summarize, after all that grade-school practice summarizing.

And it’s bizarre trying to set out in linear fashion all the things that would actually happen at once. Actions, dialogue, thoughts, observations. The paragraphs of the story may have any or all of these. But how should they flow?

According to a slightly abstract logic. We want to focus in on cause and effect.

There needs to be a give-and-take between the viewpoint character and the surrounding environment, whether that means other characters, or the setting, or some obstacle. With each give, the character is trying to advance another step towards whatever s/he wants in this scene. With each take, the character is dealing with the fact that the world isn’t going to just play along.

Ignore plot talk. Ignore character talk. They don’t separate out in the work. You know this from reading books. When you do this instead, plot and character are organically meshed as they should be.

Motivations

Let’s call the times the world takes a turn, motivators or motivations, because Dwight Swain said it years ago and it’s since become jargon. The obvious motivators are external observations, dialogues, and events. A set of motivators gets grouped in a paragraph together.

  • Dialogue: what another character says
  • Description: What the viewpoint character sees, hears, smells, etc. Things happening in the environment. What other characters do, objects that move (landslide, giant machine, ocean waves, etc).

Less obviously, the character’s own thoughts could motivate him/her.

  • Interior monologue: The thoughts that occur to change the character’s plans and ideas.

Reactions

Let’s call the times the character gives back in return, reactions. Makes good sense. A set of reactions gets grouped in a paragraph together.

  • Dialogue: what the viewpoint character says
  • Description: what the viewpoint character chooses to observe as a result of how his/her awareness has just been influenced
  • Action: What the viewpoint character does
  • Interior monologue: What the viewpoint character thinks.

Organization within each paragraph

What order do we actually put them in? Is it random? No, not really. We’re trying to convey realistic human experience, so reactions happen in the order of reflex (action or blurted dialogue), then speech (dialogue), then more extended consideration (internal monologue, description). The same will be true of any non-viewpoint characters, except that we don’t get access to their internal experience.

Grouping paragraphs together to create flow

Something happens. The villain casts a foul taunt at our hero. The rogue wave rises above the struggling ship. Captain Emo lies awake at night under the grip of a haunting thought. Whatever happens, that’s a paragraph.

Next, the viewpoint character should react. Our hero replies with both rapier and wit. The ship’s captain lunges for the radio. Captain Emo realizes his existential gloom is the philosophical harmonization he’s always longed for. And that’s another paragraph.

New paragraph! Another thing happens. It might be in response to however the viewpoint character reacted. The villain responds to our hero’s wit and swordplay with clumsiness and sputtering. Captain Emo’s despair rises again as he realizes that joy in his own gloom is not a harmonization, but a paradox.

Or it could be unrelated to the viewpoint character’s reaction. As the rogue wave begins to tip the ship, a straining cable breaks.

For this reason, Swain discussed paragraphs as pairs that form a unit: Motivation, then viewpoint character’s reaction. In his classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer [affiliate link], he talks about motivation-reaction units.

To summary or not to summary

Small amounts of narrative summary might act as connective tissue. It can fill in essential fringe details that really don’t need the full depth of active scene elements. But the alternating pattern, filled with active elements, is what drives the scene. In addition to (or in spite of) whatever the viewpoint character wanted when he walked in the door of this scene, it provides insight into how that’s going for him, step by step, and what’s foiling or assisting him at each moment.

There’s also a bigger picture to the scene that helps us figure out whether those pairs of paragraphs are in a good order through the scene overall. We’ll get there next time, Gadget.

For now, hopefully you can see why it’s more important to write many things (build creativity) than to spend too much time revising (shutting down creativity through analysis). Stay creative or die!

Stringing Paragraphs Into Scenes

SIDE NOTE: LINKS TO AMAZON USE AN AFFILIATE CODE. WHEN YOU CLICK THROUGH, I GET A FEW CENTS FOR REFERRAL, WHICH HELPS ME KEEP DOING THIS. THANKS.

Once we know how to make things happen in a scene, the next question is, how do I self-edit those things into scenes that flow from one to the next? What makes it feel like something’s happening? Well, just like it works well to think of pairs of paragraphs, it works well to think of pairs of scenes that are essentially bigger units of motivation and reaction.

Pause button. You can write quiet, literary, pastoral, or sweet fiction using this sense of scene arc. The problem is the cheerleader language everyone uses. Make it exciting! Hook the reader! Stay engaging! Blah blah blah!

What does that even mean, dude.

Mood and emotion are interesting to a certain kind of reader, as long as there’s an ultimate, good reason for them. So don’t worry about turning your quiet family drama into a military thriller. The essence of the story’s components is not automatically invalidated by somebody else’s descriptive terms for it. All these structural components of story are like empty boxes, and you can put in whatever you want.

Scene: Goal, Conflict, Disaster

Goal refers to what your viewpoint character wants at this exact moment. What they want in the larger picture may or may not be in view, although immediate goals should be connected around a larger problem.

If our hero is a waitress in a tedious job full of thankless patrons, maybe she just wants to go home, put on her cape, and make a real difference in this town. If our hero is a wealthy businessman in his private jet, maybe he’s pining to emotionally abuse a naive college student. (Sorry, not sorry, Shades.) Either way, you can set that up through the active scene elements of internal monologue, dialogue, action and description.

Thinking about what a character wants on the inside is hard at first. Because our minds are cluttered with surface lies and highly evolved techniques for hiding ourselves. So, be literate. Read the starts of lots of books and mull over when you first feel connected to the character and how you know where they’re headed next. Try not to ruin your love of reading through analysis. Just notice gently and enjoy.

Do you think the opening of a book will generally start with a motivation or a reaction? What do you notice in your reading?

Conflict refers to all the things that interfere with what the viewpoint character is doing in this scene. All you need to know about this is how to arrange your thoughts into motivations and reactions. Motivations require the character to react further in order to proceed. That’s all. The end.

Disaster means “cliffhanger,” which means making the motivation half of a motivation-reaction pair of paragraphs too big (big can mean intense, or action-filled, or complicated, or full of implication) to conquer with one reaction. It’s usually a good idea to also include the character’s immediate reaction, at least the internals, because that promises further steps will be taken. Play with how much to include, and see whether trusted readers say it feels cut off too soon.

Sequel: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision

Reaction: Most of the character’s reaction to the disaster — or rather, what they causally do next as a sensible response — goes at the start of the next scene. If it’s not there, if we switch to a different point in time or a different viewpoint character, that’s when reader interest may fall off. However, those things are totally possible with good segue techniques. My top recommendation for learning that is to binge-watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The segues are exaggerated (because it’s campy), snappy, and they drag you along.

Dilemma: This is where some things happen, like conversations or side events, that make the viewpoint character question his/her direction and consider options. It’s where people tend to devolve to a lot of internal monologue as the character argues with him/herself internally. So this is a good space for subplots to affect the main story, and for making sure the active scene elements stay in decent balance so the mind’s eye doesn’t get narrowed right down out of the storyworld.

Decision: This really just means writing a reaction that promises the direction of the next scene. That direction can be the main character’s, or a plot direction with a different minor character (see again Buffy segues). It promises what the goal of the next scene will be.

There’s more, but less, about hooks and cliffhangers

These are the most heinous names for how scenes connect, especially in terms of how scenes end. They force writers away from the beautiful variety in tone and intensity that can occur to bring things forward in a story. Really, what you want to do is just make a promise of what comes next. It could be a quiet promise or a loud one, obvious or implied. All that matters is that you don’t try to hide it from the reader in order to surprise them. This is not the time for that.

There’s lots of advice about how to hook readers: Raise a question. Start the action with a bang. Be interesting! This gimmick, that gimmick. Sheesh, no pressure at all.

Okay, stop stop stop.

Here’s why voice is so important: your voice, when it is true, IS the promise. The look forward could involve something externally mundane, even, but that doesn’t matter. It just matters that you connect emotionally to the person reading.

That’s caught, not taught. You have to get past the lies on the surface of your mind and all the years of hiding your feelings.

“Practice, practice, practice!” Yeah whatever fine okay. OW.

Practicing truth is painful, because we hide ourselves all the time. Those muscles are couch potatoes.

And look! Here’s boot camp. When it felt like I’d started to be honest, turned out I was wrong. I’d only started to stop lying. So just wait! There’s more, you incorrigible liar. And when you find it, you’re going to love it.

Eventually, my voice became my safe place, and I became happiest when using it. Isn’t that kinda revolutionary?

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FOOTNOTES

For a deeper look:

Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer
Randy Ingermanson/Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies

Stringing Scenes Into Story

SIDE NOTE: LINKS TO AMAZON USE AN AFFILIATE CODE. WHEN YOU CLICK THROUGH, I GET A FEW CENTS FOR REFERRAL, WHICH HELPS ME KEEP DOING THIS. THANKS.

Story structure is what makes a practiced storyteller stand out from a strong prose artist. This, not prose quality (unless it’s really really bad), is what causes North American audiences to decide whether you’re publishable and readable.

It’s also the thing I have to help people with the most. The most often, and often the biggest mess.

When the familiar commercial structure isn’t apparent to the North American reader, you’ll tend to get feedback that the work is weak or not compelling. That means the feel of it –what to care about next, what to anticipate — is too difficult for the reader to discern. The pattern is also keyed to our expectations of how long to care about or put up with a given phase of the viewpoint character’s existence.

The many ways to learn story structure

If you’re okay with a bit of a road map to reference, some planning and outlining can really speed up the journey. There are even loudmouths who yell about this on the internet and pretty much call you stupid if you don’t. I guess it helps them sell their story structuring products.

Pay no heed to the man behind the curtain. There are many ways to get there.

If you write many things, and then write some more — most likely shorter things than novels — then structure, too, will start to happen for you. That’s how Stephen King became an “intuitive” writer who supposedly wanders off into an ether and finds ideas. By writing many, many things as a teenager, sending them to short story publication editors, and eventually — a long time later — beginning to receive personal rejections that offered advice.

So when he talks about a hidden world of ideas to be discovered in On Writing, he’s talking about the difference between the analytical mind, with its judgments and evaluations, which builds ideas through pre-selection, and the open-ended, suspended disbelief of the creative mind, which stumbles onto them through associative leaps.

He put in the time and built his creative mind. The technicalities of writing became a form of muscle memory. Because he’d always done it this way, he never had to become free to wander off into the ether and just find his ideas. But it takes longer to learn by feel.

Story structure is how the larger journey goes together.

King’s career approach worked well, back in an era when print could build a working career solid enough to lead to novels, and novels had editors who would fix any lack of structural understanding. We had kind of a dead era for short story in between the “death of print” and “rise of indie,” and now that digital publishing has gotten more sophisticated and accessible, more things are being revived and created again. Forms are always in flux when their distribution media are.

The short form is a great way to learn the ebb and flow of a storyline, whether you seek publication or put things up on a site like Wattpad (first, get to know the nature of the audience there if you want fruitful community engagement).

What’s this story structure? There are about eight major moments in the viewpoint character’s journey. Once you know what their names mean, you can try them out as simply as writing a paragraph or two for each.

For short story purposes, here’s what these eight key moments refer to. I’m describing them essentially in terms of the alternating paragraph patterns that cause a scene to move forward.

If you’d like to have these points for reference or scribbling on, here’s a PDF. Right-click and download.

1. Hook

A brief bit of situation-setting. The viewpoint character’s name, circumstances and surroundings.

You have two options: Write it as a reaction to something that just happened before the page began, or write a motivator and then a reaction.

It’s subtly harder to set the scene and explain what the character’s reacting to when you open with a reaction. Trying to set up description efficiently in the midst of internal elements takes a bit of practice, and there’s a temptation to use narrative summary to flashback the motivator that isn’t there.

If you know those problems, though, you can avoid them.

2. Inciting incident

The thing that draws the viewpoint character into an unfolding action. I say “thing” in order to deliberately be as vague as possible. It can be anything you want. Quiet and subtle, big and full of action and villainy.

3. First turn

The point beyond which the viewpoint character can’t back out of the conflict anymore. Screenwriting puts it strictly one-quarter of the way into the story, written forms allow it to flex more.

4. First pinch point

“Pinch point” is terminology that comes out of screenwriting. At 3/8s of the way through a standard Hollywood script, the antagonistic force will assert itself in a way that reveals its true threat to the main character.

For short story purposes, this could be a motivation paragraph that really sparks off the viewpoint character’s reaction.

5. Midpoint revelation

In the middle, key new information is revealed that moves the viewpoint character forward. That could include facing a personal demon.

Okay, that was like reading a newspaper horoscope or a fortune cookie.

A lot of things can happen here. But it is a turning point where the main character faces something triumphs, and moves (knowingly or unknowingly) toward another threat. You get to decide what that means to you.

6. Second pinch point

…Same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse. Mostly the point is that Our Hero’s efforts haven’t really fazed whatever he’s up against so far. It gives the audience the chance to glimpse how the new information of the midpoint and the antagonistic force (man, beast, nature, society or self) are going to interact.

7. Second turn

This is a key moment that moves the story into its final act. Here, the viewpoint character finally strikes a blow. Or the enemy gets fatally distracted so the hero gets a chance to start saving the day. A major disaster makes it seem like all is lost, only to provide the exact means Our Hero needs to begin executing a triumph. The main thing is this:

After this point, it’s all wrap-up. No new information or plot threads are planted. Everything that occurs must have been previously alluded to or set up.

From here, the third act proceeds to conclude the conflict, fulfill any remaining promises made to the reader earlier, and answer any questions raised.

In a short story, that could literally be just three things.

8. Denouement

This is a bit of conclusion to make it feel like an ending. Any final reveal happens here. It can be whatever suits your story. In short story, it’s often a sudden twist of perspective. Sometimes it’s a real mind-blower than makes you rethink everything set up throughout. Larry Niven is a master at this, and well worth reading.

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For a deeper look:

Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer
Hague and Vogler, The Hero’s 2 Journeys
K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel (Disclosure: I edited this book, but receive no royalties from its sales.)

How Do I Get Started Writing More Things?

SIDE NOTE: LINKS TO AMAZON USE AN AFFILIATE CODE. WHEN YOU CLICK THROUGH, I GET A FEW CENTS FOR REFERRAL, WHICH HELPS ME KEEP DOING THIS. THANKS.

Even this much advice is confusing.

Why do all the elements of fiction writing seem to conflict? How do they work together? To write many smaller things, do we have to choose between them? Try to cram them all in? It’s so much noise.

The answer is simply not to force technicalities upon an emotional experience. Follow the emotion, and the exceptions to the “rules” will be the right ones.

See? Did you really need even this much?

Fiction technique comes in layers that harmonize, rather than types of moment that constitute conflicting advice. Ignoring for the moment that this looks suspiciously like something mathematical, and therefore evil, consider this:

How story elements harmonize
How story elements harmonize

Think of the green wave as motivations and reactions. The blue wave is goals, conflicts, resulting problems (disasters), reactions, dilemmas, decisions. The red wave is scenes and sequels. And the navy wave is the major moments of the macro structure.

See how there are repeated points when they come together? Think of those as scene endings, chapter endings, and the conclusion of major sections of plot.

If you just write motivations and reactions, and let their events and feelings and consequences — the content you put in the empty boxes — accumulate some combined force, they’ll create larger moments that force the viewpoint character to change or die (metaphorically, as in an emotional or social extinction event, or literally). The big navy wave is not so much something that needs engineering as it is the pendulum of forced transformation, set in motion by smaller moments.

All you need to seek is the smaller moments.

In short story, these transformations can be reveals: twists that uncover new conflict and growing context until a conclusion is reached. Depending on its length, short story won’t be so much about goal, conflict, disaster, or scene and sequel, as moving through sharp moments of transformation. If it’s a bit longer, those scene tools may come in handy as prompts for what direction the motivations and reactions could take.

But it’s better to leave all that aside.

Don’t tell yourself what you’re going to write.

Think of how mystical Stephen King gets in his strategy to guard the creative mind from analytical intrusion. He talks in On Writing as if there are multiverses and creativity can somehow peer through the cracks and find pre-existent ideas and images. This is a metaphor for denying the analytical side of the mind access to the psychological “room” in which creating happens.

In Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider simply advises not to tell yourself that you’re going to write a novel. Or anything in particular. Just write. If we’re thinking “novel,” we’re thinking about all these technicalities and hemming in the process with (over) analysis. If we’re thinking prose poem, we could miss a larger story.

Those are formats, and format is very much second to content.

Use the tools available as prompts, not rules.

If it’s time to come up with a goal at the start of the scene, that’s a prompt. It’s a leaping-off place from which the mind may wander. It’s not an imperative you have to track and enumerate, unless you want to start there and then write from an outline as a prompt. (An outline is just a series of writing prompts arranged in a widely-recognized pattern of psychological, circumstantial and emotional progression.)

Conflict is a prompt. It’s a word that allows us to be mindful of the broad, very generalized nature of what happens next. Friction might be a better word, because that conflict can be very subtle. We’re interested in conversations where the speakers fray each other, in lines of action where the outcome is in question. The human mind is captivated by the feeling of potential threat and sated by the resolution of that potential.

But if you’re sitting back analyzing these things, you’re probably missing the raw core of pure feeling. Pure hatred, pure shame, pure love, pure joy. Submerging into a moment and capturing an image that makes you feel is the main thing.

To find that moment, you can take Schneider’s advice and just write — as she urges, as fast as you can, without lifting the pencil from the paper (or perhaps fingers from the keyboard). Know the feeling and the image that sparks it all, and lay things down as quickly as possible in order to outrun the intrusion of analysis.

When you do this many times over, you’ll become able to see what the character wants, or whether that’s missing from the picture. You’ll be able to see what the friction (conflict) is — overt or latent. The disastrous consequences that propel things forward will rise out of the mist like pre-existent moments lost in the ether between universes.

What do you feel deep down?

What happens next?