How Not to Open a Short Story, by Philip Athans

I generally don’t like this kind of negative approach: lists of what not to do. I prefer to encourage you to do things, not discourage you from doing things, but back to the subject of short stories, I can’t help but point out some very common pitfalls that I’ve seen over and over again for years—decades, actually. So here goes, in no particular order, half a dozen things you should never do in the first page of a short story:

Too Many Ideas in a Sentence

Especially in the first sentence of your story, limit each sentence to one idea.

Example of what not to do:

I woke up that morning wondering when I would stop having visions of the future when all of a sudden a flying saucer landed on my front lawn.

Is this a story about a guy with precognitive abilities, or UFOs, or both? It could be both, but that doesn’t mean you have to list them all up front.

Example of what to do instead (from “Enchanted Village” by A.E. van Vogt):

“Explorers of a new frontier” they had been called before they left for Mars.

This is a story about a voyage to Mars. Let’s see what else happens as the story progresses.

The Newspaper Lead

It could be that practitioners of this gem took some journalism classes. A good newspaper reporter doesn’t want to “bury the lead.” But a good fiction writer needs to imbue his or her work with a sense of discovery. Don’t sum up the whole thing in the first paragraph, or your readers (like most newspaper skimmers) will leave it at that.

What not to do:

I am a robot, model ZXQ7, manufactured on Zeta-3 for industrial labor, and when I fell in love with a human woman I ended up destroying both our lives. Here’s how it happened . . .

What to do (from “Brightness Falls from the Air” by Margaret St. Clair):

Kerr used to go into the tepidarium of the identification bureau to practice singing.

Ms. St. Clair’s first paragraph goes on to describe what a tepidarium is, but only really in the context of why Kerr is there to practice singing. It’s about her character’s emotional connection to the place. No more of the plot, setting, and characters is explained in that paragraph than is necessary to get you to the next paragraph. The reader is participating in the unfolding drama, not being read a list of events.


If I read another short story that begins with a list of complaints, I’m going to write a list of complaints about it. Wait. I think I might be doing that right now.

You may be writing a story about someone who’s having a bad day, or a bad life, but no one likes a whiner, and few readers will force their way through a page of whining to get to the meat of the story.

What not to do:

Everybody was bored waiting for the king to speak. The throne room was hot, and smelled like sweat and ambivalence. Bronwyn was so sick of all this standing around she started to think about all the different ways she might kill herself. A woman next to her started crying.

What to do (from “Drunkboat” by Cordwainer Smith):

Perhaps it is the saddest, maddest, wildest story in the whole long history of space. It is true that no one else had ever done anything like it before, to travel at such a distance, and at such speeds, and by such means. The hero looked like such an ordinary man—when people looked at him for the first time. The second time, ah! That was different.

See how we know there’s going to be some sadness here, but still the first paragraph ends with a ray of hope? Though our negative example may end up with Bronwyn heroically saving the day and ushering in a new, less boring and sweaty future, how much work are you asking your reader to do to get there? At least Mr. Smith here gives us something to cling to: Our as yet unnamed “hero” is somehow special, even if it sounds as if he’s got some trouble ahead. A story about someone rising above misery is more interesting than a story about someone wallowing in it.

The One-Paragraph Plot Twist

This terrible cliché can take a number of forms, but these two seem to be the most common: Start with the summary paragraph from the Newspaper Lead then end with a “twist”:

What not to do:

I am a robot, model ZXQ7, manufactured on Zeta-3 for industrial labor, and I am in love with a human woman.

You can practically hear the soap opera organ come in at the end of that one.

The second is sort of the reverse, in which it appears something horrible is happening but then “surprise,” it’s really mundane.

What not to do:

The scratching at the door grew louder and more insistent. The hair on the back of my neck rose, and a tingle of fear ran down my spine. My hand shook as I reached for the doorknob, as though the very muscles in my body protested. Don’t let it in, my nervous system insisted. Don’t let it in! But I knew I had to see what it was, no matter the consequences, and when I tugged the door open I choked back a scream and tensed, waiting for a lunge, a bite, the tearing of flesh—but it was only the cat.

What did I do, forget I had a cat?

What to do (from “Johnny Mnemonic” by William Gibson):

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness. I’d had to turn both those twelve-gauge shells from brass stock, on a lathe, and then load them myself; I’d had to dig up an old microfiche with instructions for hand-loading cartridges; I’d had to build a lever-action press to seat the primers—all very tricky. But I knew they’d work.

Here we have a guy who’s getting ready for something intense. It’s clear he isn’t going turkey hunting. We’re also learning about the world a little, at least that you can’t just go down to the local Wal-Mart and buy shotgun shells. And all of this feels personal. Our narrator has some clear ideas about how he fits into his world, and there’s a sense that something is building—and whatever it is, it isn’t then undercut by that last-sentence pull-back.

The Script Fragment

If I had a dollar for every short story I’ve read that begins with line after line of unattributed dialog, most of which goes nowhere, I would be a wealthy man.

I’m not even sure I want to torture either of us by creating an example of what I’m talking about here. If you see this in one of your stories, stop doing that. I can say that I flipped through all of the stories in The Science Fiction Century, Edited by David G. Hartwell, and not a single one of the 45 stories in that anthology (from which my positive examples were drawn) begins with a string of unattributed dialog.

“What I mean by unattributed,” Phil said, “is a line of dialog that has no indication of who is saying it.”

In that last line, Phil said is dialog attribution You know who said that line of dialog.

The Present Tense Statement of Purpose

A close cousin of the Newspaper Lead, the Present Tense Statement of Purpose also tells you exactly what the story is about in a single sentence, which for reasons unknown is rendered in present tense even if the rest of the story isn’t.

What not to do:

In the basement of my house is the body of an alien recovered from the Roswell crash and now the FBI knows it’s there.

And now your readers feel as though they’ve missed the first half of the story. This is a fine logline, but don’t lead with that. It’s just . . . unimaginative.

What to do (from “Ginungagap” by Michael Swanwick):

Abigail checked out of Mother of Mercy and rode the translator web to Toledo Cylinder in Juno Industrial Park. Stars bloomed, dwindled, disappeared five times. It was a long trek, halfway around the sun.

Look how much we find out just in those two sentences. We meet Abigail, and come to realize she inhabits a future Earth, or more accurately a future solar system. There are names in there that touch back to reality (Toledo, Mother of Mercy) mixed with SF tech-speak (translator web). This is exciting and interesting. We’re going to get to explore a strange new future with Abigail, who has a very traditional name so can’t be too different from us, and we’re drawn in without having to be spoon fed “the point.”

And . . .

Oh, there are more. So many—too many—more. But let’s leave it there for this week, with some final words of advice:

Start strong. Start in the middle of the action. Start with compelling words and ideas, and a sense of some personal connection between a character and a place or event. You do not have to “set the scene,” and you sure as hell don’t have to tell us what’s going to happen.

Why Most Readings Suck and How to Fix It


* [Dead End Follies] Editor’s note: Gabino came back from AWP shirtless and green this week, so I asked him “Sup’ bro?” and it turned out he had a chip on his shoulder about the public readings at the event, so I thought Angrybino was too good to pass up on and so, here here he is for you in all his glory in a new exclusive piece about people who suck at readings. *

I’ve been home from AWP less than 48 hours and I’m happy to report the conference was a great experience. Besides being surrounded by books and checking out some of what Los Angeles has to offer, I had a chance to meet a lot of talented authors with whom I’ve been friends online for years and hung out with old friends from the bizarre, indie lit, and crime communities. However, the experience wasn’t perfect because there was one element that bothered me while it was happening and still bothers me now: most of the readings I went to were as interesting as watching paint dry on a muggy day.

Dull. Unimaginative. Uninteresting. Incredibly monotonous. Painfully boring.Exceedingly awful. You can use any of those and still fall short of accurately describing the mind-numbing, un-fucking-believably tedious bullshit I had to put up with. I received my reading education at the School of Bizarro (aka BizarroCon), and thus consider readings a chance to perform my words in a way that hopefully sends people running to buy my work. For me, to read is to perform. When I read, I want to take over, to become the universe of those listening to me. Sadly, the readers I witnessed were apparently trying to get me to grab the nearest sharp object and quickly jam it into my jugular as many times as possible. Maybe the MFA crowd operates differently after all, but what they’re doing is definitely not working. Luckily for boring readers everywhere, I’m a nice guy when I want to and have decided to give you all ten tips, in no particular order, on how to keep people from yawning, checking their phones, leaving, and contemplating suicide while listening to you.

  1. Be aware of the implicit contract of a reading

When you do a reading, the event is between you and the audience. Don’t forget about them. When I go to a reading, I’m giving you a chunk of my time. I’m not reading, hanging out with a friend or watching a movie; I’m there watching/listening to you. Don’t fuck around with my time. Most authors are convinced readings are all about them. They’re wrong. Readings are about everyone involved, and you should respect everyone equally. When I read, I think about everything else those folks listening to me could be doing, and I make sure they have a good time as a thank you.

  1. Time is a thing, fuckface

Five to seven minutes. That’s usually what you get. Appreciate it if you get more and hustle faster if you get less, but respect the other readers and your audience. Every time a reader is given seven minutes and ends up reading for 18 minutes, I want to put kittens in a blender, freeze the resulting pulpy mess, and then beat the reader to death with the frozen kitty innards. Your damn phone has a stopwatch. A friend in the audience can give you cues. Whatever. The point is, you need to respect time constraints. If you don’t respect everyone else’s time, I don’t respect you. Also, get to know a thing called pace. If you have seven minutes and make four-second pauses between sentences, you need to speed things up.

  1. A two-line bio will do the trick

Don’t give the MC your fucking resume, you arrogant piece of shit. Seriously. Some of the readings I went to in LA had the MC reading for three minutes just to introduce a writer. A reading takes place in the here and now, so keep past stuff to a minimum. If you blow me away, I will remember your name and Google you’re ass later. Then I can read about your pieces in The Cloud/Flower Review or the flash fiction piece you once published in some blog. I don’t need to know you edited your high school paper or that you like long walks on the beach. Let your reading do the talking.

  1. Keep intros to a minimum

This is a short story I wrote about my friend Jenny. I wrote it two years ago. We were living in a tiny apartment apartment on…” Fuck you! Get to the reading already. We’re on the clock, remember? If you waste four minutes introducing your damn story or poem or telling us about the way your novel finally came to be published, you’re basically sabotaging yourself. It’s easy: the MC introduces you, you get up, maybe you say hi and thank folks for being there, you read, you sit down. Anything outside of that is a waste of everyone’s time and you’re an asshole for doing it.

  1. A little thing called inflection

Okay, so here’s where I mess with the MFA crowd again and then get all the hate for it. I don’t care because the truth is more important than your opinion of me. Here’s the deal: apparently most MFAs have a class that teaches writers to read in the most monotonous, hushed voice possible. It’s as if modulation and natural rhythms are frowned upon. I have an accent, but I own that shit. Joe Lansdale has an accent, and he owns it and uses it. Brian Allen Carr yells until the hair in your arms stands at attention. CarltonMellick III turns into a beast. Laura Lee Bahr has a million voices. Rios de laLuz becomes la voz de la raza. Kevin Donihe erupts like a supernova every time he reads. Just like these folks, I try to read in a way that forces people to remember it, to remember me and my voice. Let your voice take off like a rocket. Let is soar and crash back down. Let it shatter like a bird made of glass against a brick wall. Let it carry your story and change with your characters. Make sure the guy in the back hears you. Make sure the lady checking her phone because the previous reader was putting her to sleep hears your voice and looks up. I don’t care where you’re from; go back to doing what you’re ancestors did around a fire a very long time ago and tell a story that captivates your audience. Scream, motherfucker!

  1. Your body is a tool; use it

Just like your voice, your body is a tool, a wonderful prop that can make your reading reach the next level. Move around. Use your arms. Let your hands tell your story alongside your voice. Standing there with your feet together like Dorothy getting ready to click her heels is just not gonna cut it. Dance around. Get on top of a seat like MP Johnson does. Walk away from the mic. If you walk up to the mic, look down at the piece of paper/cellphone in your hand and then read a story in that monotonous voice almost all readers use, you’re boring us to death even if what you’re reading is great. And if boredom is what I remember when they mention you, I won’t be buying your book.

  1. Learn to read the audience

Not every reading will be the best one of your life, so learn to read your audience. If you read a decapitation scene and no one leans forward, you got a tough crowd. If you crack a joke and it bombs, move forward quickly. Keep moving, feeling the crowd, paying attention to how they react to certain words. Some crowds will laugh at a story about a guy eating a rotting fetus, but other crowds will call the cops on you if you say fuck twice.

  1. Make eye contact

You wrote the thing, reread the thing, and then read it a few more times while editing. You don’t need to keep your eyes glued to the damn thing. Folks are looking at you, so look back at them. You’ll be surprised how much more engaged they feel when you make eye contact with your audience.

  1. Remember why you’re there

It’s okay to be nervous. It’s okay to feel a bit scared. However, treating readings like a chore is not okay. You’re there to read something you wrote because you needed to share it with others. That’s your chance to do that. If you keep that in mind, it’ll be easier to overcome your nerves.

  1. Leave no ass unkicked

Passion. That’s the word you need to focus on. Be passionate about what you’re reading. If you sound like you’d rather be at the dentist than reading your work, how the hell am I supposed to feel about you and your words? Passion doesn’t guarantee sales, but it guarantees a good impression. Fuck fear. Don’t hesitate to be funny or to cry or to show that what you wrote makes you feel vulnerable. Every reading is a war: you against yourself, against fear, against the audience’s need to check Facebook or reply to a text, and against the quality of other readers who may have put them to sleep or raised the bar. Tackle all of it with passion and abandon. Leave no ass unkicked.

Data Mining Reveals the Six Basic Emotional Arcs of Storytelling

Recommended by Randy LaBarge. From: by Emerging Technology from the arXiv; July 6, 2016.

Scientists at the Computational Story Laboratory have analyzed novels to identify the building blocks of all stories.

Back in 1995, Kurt Vonnegut gave a lecture in which he described his theory about the shapes of stories. In the process, he plotted several examples on a blackboard. “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers,” he said. “They are beautiful shapes.” The video is available on YouTube.

Vonnegut was representing in graphical form an idea that writers have explored for centuries—that stories follow emotional arcs, that these arcs can have different shapes, and that some shapes are better suited to storytelling than others.

Vonnegut mapped out several arcs in his lecture. These include the simple arc encapsulating “man falls into hole, man gets out of hole” and the more complex one of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.”

Vonnegut is not alone in attempting to categorize stories into types, although he was probably the first to do it in graphical form. Aristotle was at it over 2,000 years before him, and many others have followed in his footsteps.

However, there is little agreement on the number of different emotional arcs that arise in stories or their shape. Estimates vary from three basic patterns to more than 30. But there is little in the way of scientific evidence to favor one number over another.

Today, that changes thanks to the work of Andrew Reagan at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington and a few pals. These guys have used sentiment analysis to map the emotional arcs of over 1,700 stories and then used data-mining techniques to reveal the most common arcs. “We find a set of six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives,” they say.

Their method is straightforward. The idea behind sentiment analysis is that words have a positive or negative emotional impact. So words can be a measure of the emotional valence of the text and how it changes from moment to moment. So measuring the shape of the story arc is simply a question of assessing the emotional polarity of a story at each instant and how it changes.

Reagan and co do this by analyzing the emotional polarity of “word windows” and sliding these windows through the text to build up a picture of how the emotional valence changes. They performed this task on over 1,700 English works of fiction that had each been downloaded from the Project Gutenberg website more than 150 times.

Finally, they used a variety of data-mining techniques to tease apart the different emotional arcs present in these stories.

The results make for interesting reading. Reagan and co say that their techniques all point to the existence of six basic emotional arcs that form the building blocks of more complex stories. They are also able to identify the stories that are the best examples of each arc.

The six basic emotional arcs are these:

A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll. A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet. A fall then a rise, such as the man-in-a-hole story, discussed by Vonnegut. A rise then a fall, such as the Greek myth of Icarus. Rise-fall-rise, such as Cinderella. Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.

Finally, the team looks at the correlation between the emotional arc and the number of story downloads to see which types of arc are most popular. It turns out the most popular are stories that follow the Icarus and Oedipus arcs and stories that follow more complex arcs that use the basic building blocks in sequence. In particular, the team says the most popular are stories involving two sequential man-in-hole arcs and a Cinderella arc followed by a tragedy.

Of course, many books follow more complex arcs at more fine-grained resolution. Reagan and co’s method does not capture the changes in emotional polarity that occur on the level of paragraphs, for example. But instead, it captures the much broader emotional arcs involved in storytelling. Their story arcs are available here.

That’s interesting work that provides empirical evidence for the existence of basic story arcs for the first time. It also provides an important insight into the nature of storytelling and its appeal to the human psyche.

It also sets the scene for the more ambitious work. Reagan and co look mainly at works of fiction in English. It would be interesting to see how emotional arcs vary according to language or culture, how they have varied over time and also how factual books compare.

Vonnegut famously outlined his theory of story shapes in his master’s thesis in anthropology at the University of Chicago. It was summarily rejected, in Vonnegut’s words, “because it was so simple, and looked like too much fun.” Today he would surely be amused but unsurprised.

Ref: The Emotional Arcs of Stories Are Dominated by Six Basic Shapes

Is My Novel Offensive? by Katy Waldman


How “sensitivity readers” are changing the publishing ecosystem—and raising new questions about what makes a great book.

When Becky Albertalli published her first young adult novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, with the HarperCollins imprint Balzer and Bray in 2015, she never expected it to be controversial. She’d worked for years as a clinical psychologist specializing in gender nonconforming children and LGBTQ teens and adults.* Yet her book—about a closeted gay kid whose love notes to a classmate fall into the wrong hands—contained a moment that rubbed readers the wrong way: Simon, the sweet but clueless protagonist, muses that girls have an easier time coming out than boys, because their lesbianism strikes others as alluring. At a book signing, several people approached Albertalli to complain that the scene played too readily into a narrative they’d heard many times before. Online, commenters condemned the “fetishization of queer girls” in the book as “offensive.” Albertalli hadn’t originally given the passage a second thought: the character was obviously unworldly; elsewhere, he asserts that all Jews come from Israel. But in the latter exchange, readers pointed out, Simon’s Jewish friend immediately corrects him. The lesbian line, a snippet from the narrator’s interior monologue, receives no such rebuttal.

Albertalli felt crushed that her book had alienated members of the exact community she had hoped to reach. When she began to craft her second novel, The Upside of Unrequited,about twin sisters navigating the shoals of high school romance, she was determined not to make the same mistake. And so before her manuscript went to print, she reached out to a group of “sensitivity readers.” These advising angels—part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors—are new additions to the book publishing ecosystem. Either hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group.

On the site Writing in the Margins, which launched in 2012, the author Justina Ireland articulates the goal of this new fleet of experts: to point out the “internalized bias and negatively charged language” that can arise when writers create “outside of [their] experiences.” In April of last year, Ireland built a public database where freelance sensitivity readers can list their name, contact information, and “expertise.” These areas of special knowledge are generally rooted in identity (“queer woman,” “bisexual mixed race,” “East Asian, “Muslim”) as well as in personal histories of mental illness, abuse and neglect, poverty, disability, or chronic pain.

Albertalli totaled 12 sensitivity reads for her second novel on LGBTQ, black, Korean American, anxiety, obesity, and Jewish representation issues.

As a push for diversity in fiction reshapes the publishing landscape, the emergence of sensitivity readers seems almost inevitable. A flowering sense of social conscience, not to mention a strong market incentive, is elevating stories that richly reflect the variety of human experience. America—specifically young America—is currently more diverse than ever. As writers attempt to reflect these realities in their fiction, they often must step outside of their intimate knowledge. And in a cultural climate newly attuned to the complexities of representation, many authors face anxiety at the prospect of backlash, especially when social media leaves both book sales and literary reputations more vulnerable than ever to criticism. Enter the sensitivity reader: one more line of defense against writers’ tone-deaf, unthinking mistakes.

In one draft, Albertalli—who totaled 12 sensitivity reads for her second novel on LGBTQ, black, Korean American, anxiety, obesity, and Jewish representation issues, among others—had described a character’s older sibling, a black college student, as a “bro,” the kind of frat boy she’d gone to school with in Connecticut. “In my head, he was part of that culture,” she says. But the two women of color reading the manuscript whipped out their red pens. “Without consulting each other, they were both independently like, ‘Nope. That’s not a thing,’ ” Albertalli recalls. Historically black colleges have a wildly different conception of Greek life, with fraternity members resembling superstar athletes more than dudes doing keg stands. “So, yeah,” Albertalli (who characterizes herself as “white, chubby, Jewish, anxious”) finished sheepishly, “I definitely had to rethink that character.”

Removing the “frat boy” brushwork from Albertalli’s draft turned out to be a simple fix. But sensitivity reading often raises more delicate tonal questions. There are issues of framing to consider: Is the book about the girl struggling with her weight too much about a girl, well, struggling with her weight? Does a character’s reference to his “shrink” denigrate therapy? The author Nic Stone, who is currently penning a novel about a girl with bipolar disorder (and who herself served as a sensitivity reader on race issues for Jodi Picoult), stressed that her sensitivity readers “completely changed the scope” of her book. She’d realized, she said, “in my attempts to de-stigmatize the illness by getting as much of its manifestations on the page [as I could], I’d wound up making the book more about the illness than about the girl living with it.”

Some publishing houses provide their own sensitivity readers, particularly in genres—such as young adult literature—where the industry feels protective of its audience. Stacy Whitman, who helms the middle-grade imprint of Lee & Low Books, explained that on most manuscripts her team consults a plexus of “cultural experts” they’ve discovered through “networking and research.” The responses flow back to the author “as part of the editorial process,” and each reader earns a modest honorarium. (The site Writing in the Margins recommends $250 per manuscript as a starting fee.) By the time Whitman started at Lee & Low in 2010, she told me, seeking input from reviewers with firsthand knowledge of minority traditions and experiences had already become standard practice at the company.

The sensitivity reader is one more line of defense against writers’ tone-deaf, unthinking mistakes.

Authors and publishers may send off manuscripts for sensitivity reads at different stages in the writing and editing process. Early on, according to Albertalli, a writer might seek out feedback on her broader concept; as the project advances, particular phrases or details come under inspection. Albertalli cites the Nazi-Jewish refugee love story in one 2014 romance novel as an example of a premise that she believes should have been swiftly kiboshed. Lower-level gaucheries can be weeded out later. The timing “is tricky,” she said. “You don’t want to submit your draft too late and find out that your entire concept is problematic, but if you solicit the reading too early, you risk publishing a book full of microaggressions.”

Sensitivity readers, Ireland insists on her website, “are NOT a guarantee against making a mistake.” The vetters are individuals—they cannot comprehensively sum up the meaning of a group identity for a curious author. One Iraqi woman might be charmed by allusions to a character’s “almond-shaped eyes”; her friend might find the phrase clichéd and exoticizing. There’s danger, too, that majority writers might grow too comfortable outsourcing the task of representation to advisers from marginalized groups. (“I’ve written a book. You fix it,” this boogeyman scribbler declares.) Indeed, for the readers themselves, it can be grueling work. Angel Cruz, who advises on Filipino culture, the diaspora, and Catholicism, described sensitivity reading as “emotional/mental labor.” As the first line of defense against writers’ unexamined prejudice, she said, “you do take one for the team” in absorbing visceral blows that can land close to home. Freelance sensitivity reader Elizabeth Roderick, who concentrates on bipolar disorder, PTSD, and psychosis—“I’m here to show the world that I’m not, in fact, wearing a tinfoil hat,” she joked—takes aim at language that paints mentally ill characters “as violent, completely unbalanced, and with evil motives.”

Roderick has had a largely positive experience as a sensitivity reader. But authors, she said, can “sometimes get slightly defensive.” Evaluating one manuscript about a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia who escaped from an institution and went on a murder spree, she felt that this was not only cliché; it wasn’t a good representation of what schizophrenic people are like. “The character didn’t ring true or deep to me,” Roderick said. She recommended changes to both the sick woman and the diagnosis. The author protested: “If the story didn’t have an antagonist, it wouldn’t be very interesting.”

* * *

It’s not hard to imagine why sensitivity readers could potentially put authors in a difficult position. After all, where would we be if these experts had subjected our occasionally outrageous and irredeemable canonMoby Dick or Lolita or any other classic, old, anachronistic book—to their scrutiny? Plenty of fiction—Portnoy’s Complaint, or Martin Amis’ Money—is defined in part by a narrator’s fevered misogyny. Novels like Huckleberry Finn derive some of their intrigue and complexity from the imperfections of their social vision. In Portnoy, for instance, Philip Roth wanted the objectifying gaze of his protagonist—which by default becomes our gaze, since we apprehend the world through him—to make us uncomfortable. Perhaps he even wanted us to use the dubious precepts expressed in the novel to clarify our own beliefs.

Some sensitivity readers draw distinctions between offensive descriptions and offensive descriptions that appear to enjoy the blessing of the author. If Lolita had been written from Dolores’ point of view, Ireland said, “it might be useful to have an advocate of children’s rights, a childhood sexual assault survivor, or a psychologist read the manuscript and give critique”; but since it was told from the perspective of a pedophile—not regarded as a marginalized group—that wasn’t necessary. Still, it’s a messy project for one reader to suss out authorial intent. While sensitivity remains a positive value in most literature, and perhaps one of the greatest priorities for young adult literature, enforcing it at the expense of other merits, including invention, humor, or shock, might come at a cost. Cultural sensitivities fluctuate over time. What will the readers of the future make of ours?

Even these readers acknowledge the risks of over-policing artists if the practice were to be taken to the extreme. “Of course that’s a danger,” Roderick said. “Art is a mode of free expression, and if you put constraints on it, it can become stilted and contrived.” The hassle and potential discomfort of soliciting such feedback could theoretically have a chilling effect on writers working up the courage to venture outside themselves. “If authors are frightened of offending members of a diverse group, and having to deal with the horrible outrage that can ensue in those situations,” she said, “then they’re definitely going to shy away from writing diverse characters.”

But the fact remains that stories about straight, able-bodied (not to mention attractive, financially secure) teenagers far outnumber the alternatives. Though authors from all backgrounds use sensitivity readers, the stomach-churning image of a white person wafted down the path to literary achievement by invisible minorities remains. That’s one reason that many of the same stakeholders eager to standardize sensitivity readings as an industry norm are also fervent supporters of “own voices” work. (Named for a hashtag created by YA author Corinne Duyvis, this label applies to literature that both concerns and is produced by members of sidelined populations.) The idea behind sensitivity reading is not to strong-arm novelists or force their imaginations into preapproved play zones, Stone explained; it’s to smooth the process of representing otherness. An “authentic” book, she said, “isn’t the same as [a politically] correct” one. In her opinion, the goals of sensitivity reading actually align with those of good art—to create a layered and truthful portrait, whether or not it ruffles some sensibilities. Who could object, she suggests, to a procession of To Kill a Mockingbirds that evince a bit more alertness to the nuances of minority experience?

In Albertalli’s case, a sensitivity reader’s note ultimately produced a bright spot in her novel. The Upside of Unrequited features a queer teenager named Cassie who happens to have two mothers. While the reader, a bisexual woman, assured Albertalli that her treatment of the character hadn’t hit any sour notes, she saw an opening for an interesting confrontation—a challenge to one of society’s more maddening myths about gay parents. On her advice, Albertalli had a student named Evan, “this really douche-y guy,” suggest to Cassie that her family had raised her to be queer. When he makes the comment, he’s met by awkward silence; it’s clear that the other characters firmly disapprove. Albertalli was happy to orchestrate the teachable moment. And in the end, she realized it wasn’t just a socially conscious improvement but a narrative one: Personally, she said, “I loved that moment in the book.”

*Correction, Feb. 8, 2017: This piece originally misstated that Becky Albertalli worked with gender-fluid teens in her therapy practice. She worked with gender nonconforming kids and LGBTQ teens and adults. (Return.)

The Nazi-Holocaust Survivor Romance Novel You Weren’t Waiting For, By Katherine Locke


August 7, 2015

A few weeks ago in New York City, Romance Writers of America held their annual conference. The agenda included the RITA awards, the equivalent of the Oscars of the romance writing world, and one of those nominees, for “Best Inspirational Romance” and “Best First Novel,” was a book called “For Such a Time” by Kate Breslin.

“For Such a Time” is a retelling of the biblical book of Esther, but in name only. In reality, it is the story of a Jewish woman (appropriately named Hadassah but hiding under the name Stella)rescued from Dachau by a Nazi commander who is convinced she’s not actually Jewish merely raised by Jews. He takes her to Theresienstadt where, after passing through the gates that famously read “Work Makes You Free,” they “fall in love.” Along with a magically appearing Bible, the main characters decide to set Jews free, which redeems the Nazi commander, but Stella’s arc is only complete when she converts to Christianity.

In short, Breslin’s award-nominated novel co-opts a Jewish text, except the part where Esther’s faith and Jewish identity were her strength, to erase Jewish stories in a genocide where the largest single group of victims were Jews. And it does so to push the author’s narrow agenda regarding her own religious beliefs.

The book, in truth, is an outlier in the genre. There are many excellent historical romance novels with Jewish protagonists (check out the #jhrom hashtag on Twitter for recommendations). Though the national organization has been quiet, romance writers of all subgenres and sales ranks have been vocal about this book and how offensive it is. For once, the organization isn’t broken. Does it have its problems? Sure. But not broken.

But the way we treat the Holocaust in fiction is. Because too often, we side-step the eyewitness accounts, and rely instead on fictional treatments. Fiction is, after all, easier to read because its characters aren’t real. The trouble is, instead of acknowledging that we’re reading Holocaust fiction, we’re treating the Holocaust as fiction. That distinction is critical.

Romantic Times, a major romance industry review site, made this book a Top Pick. Library Journal gave it a star, marking it as a stand-out book. Reviewers at both sites failed to identify a problem with a Nazi-prisoner “romance” or with a story in which the Jewish character converts to Christianity to find “redemption.”

No one considered that the female character’s life at the hands of the male character’s might make it impossible for her to consent. No one considered that this might not be romance but rape. No one considered that after thousands of years of forced conversions, Jewish people might find a novel romanticizing conversion to be problematic.

“For Such a Time” did not win either of its respective categories, thank God. Nearly two weeks after the RITAs, this story gained traction on Twitter and in its aftermath open letters were written, blog pieces were posted and people raged on Twitter. But where do we go from here?

I asked on Twitter where non-Jewish people learned about the Holocaust as I can’t remember. As Jews, we’re raised knowing about the Holocaust often before we can read, almost always before we start school. Most people who responded said that they learned about it through books (“Number the Stars,” “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” “Daniel’s Story,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “The Book Thief”) in Language Arts or English class. Some said they had survivors come to speak to their class and that was life changing for them. Other said their parents told them in late elementary school.

I worry that the teaching of Holocaust literature in English/Language Arts, next to fiction instead of history classes, subconsciously fictionalizes the narrative. And I worry about what happens when we have no more survivors to speak about what happened to them.

It is absolutely vital that we teach children—and adults—about the Holocaust, but if we’re doing so solely through fiction, alongside fiction, how do we separate it from fiction? How do we say that Stella/Hadassah of Breslin’s book is a real woman and her life was not a romance? How do we say that Aric of her book isn’t a romance hero but a war criminal who should stand trial?

How do we tell and honor the stories the victims of the Holocaust cannot tell?

Katherine Locke lives and writes romance and young adult fiction in a small town outside of Philadelphia. She can be found online at and @bibliogato on Twitter.

How to Critique

From: PNWA
The purpose of a critique is to assist the author in gaining new insight into their own work as early as possible in the writing process.
Rules For When You Give A Critique 
  • ALWAYS start with a positive, no matter how simple.  If you say something negative, the author may not hear the critique that follows
  • ALWAYS use the first person, the ‘eye’ (‘I’).  For example, compare these two comments.  “I couldn’t follow the scene.” versus “Your scene doesn’t flow right.”
All you know is your own experience so be careful to speak only from YOUR experience.
Identify What Worked
  • “I liked…”
  • “I could see, hear, taste, smell, feel, sense…”
  • “What I saw, heard…” lets the author know what they communicated
  • “I was drawn in by….”  lets  the author know what hooks worked.
Identify What Didn’t Work
  • Note: language is critical – always speak in first person
  • “I was bumped out of the story by…” (Compare this comment with – “A problem with your story is…”)
  • “An image that didn’t work for me was…”
Possible Bumps
Below are list of the most common reasons readers fall out of a story.
  • Alliteration
  • Repeated words
  • Repeated sentence structure
  • Repeated images
  • Clichés
  • Weak or passive verbs
  • Errors of fact or disbelieve
  • Unnecessary tag lines
  • Telling, not showing – She was pretty(telling) vs. She had wide blue eyes, a dimpled smile and wavy brown hair that spilled over her shoulders.
  • Too many adjectives – She walked slowly and leisurely through the park vs. she sauntered through the park
  • Orchestration problems – Orchestration problems crop up most often in fight scenes and sex scenes and refers to problems with stage direction.  Your hero can’t slug the villain in the face if your villain hasn’t entered the room yet.  And passionate kisses don’t happen if your lovers aren’t in close physical proximity.
  • Continuity – Continuity problems are glitches in the details.  Your character had blue eyes in chapter one, but now in the middle of the story, she has brown eyes.  Or your protagonist parks his Dodge Charger and later drives home in a pickup truck for no apparent reason.
  • Animated independent body parts – Body parts shouldn’t be the subject of a sentence.  For example, her eyes flew across the room. Really?  I don’t think so unless perhaps you’re writing horror.  Instead make the person the subject.  She looked across the room.
The Author’s Role
  • Do not preface your work. Each character and scene must stand on its own.
  • Do not defend.  Do not explain. You may know that their question is dealt with on another page; that’s fine, but you wanted to hear the question in case you didn’t.
  • You may pose a question to focus the critique either before or after the reading.
  • At the end of the critique try to sum up the key facts you heard to see if that checks with what the group was trying to communicate.
To find critique partners, talk to other people at PNWA meetings.  We will also have meeting space available by genre at the conference to meet other authors in your genre to critique each others’ work and/or practice pitching.

How to Use These 7 Pixar Story Hacks On Your Screenplay, by Shanee Edwards

By: Shanee Edwards, from

Pixar storyboard artist, Emma Coats, once tweeted 22 rules that Pixar movies always try to follow.  With the release of Finding Dory 13 years after Finding Nemo, the rules still apply and are helpful to any writer struggling with building a story from the ground up. Following these seven rules in particular will guide your relatable protagonist though a clear story and in turn, help you write a great script.

No. 1 — Admire a character more for trying than succeeding

The protagonist in Finding Dory is of course, Dory, the adorable blue tang fish who suffers from short-term memory loss. This is Dory’s main character flaw but also the key to her character’s growth. Even though forgetful Dory struggles to remember what’s happening from moment to moment, she constantly displays her good intentions and positive attitude.

The fact that we see these qualities rebound over and over makes Dory even more admirable because she doesn’t give up. As an audience, we are delighted to see how this mental flaw ends up helping Dory. It allows her to literally forget her hardships and continue to refocus on finding her family. Give your character a flaw that doesn’t allow him or her to succeed in every situation. You’ll add more heft and heart to your script, and the audience will be more invested in the story.

No. 2 — Put Act 3 before Act 2 

Say what? Not in sequence, but in priority. If you don’t have Act 3 figured out, you’ll never get through Act 2 — which is undoubtedly the most difficult act to complete. If you don’t have a hint about your ending ahead of time, writing becomes impossible.

In the first act (Spoiler Alert!), Dory sets out to find her parents. Because this is a children’s film, it’s clear that Dory will need to be reunited with her parents in the third act and give the film a happy ending. The story is the journey of how she gets there. If the writers (Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson) hadn’t stopped to consider Dory’s reunion with her parents, they would have spent months if not years in the Act 2 weeds. Set aside some time to figure out your ending — even if it’s just an image or one line of dialog. As long as you have direction, you won’t get lost at sea.

No. 3 — Make lists.

Of jokes, and scenes and dialog. Just let your mind go and brainstorm the possibilities, and then get rid of the first few that come to mind. The list of 22 suggests crossing out the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th ideas. Use the more creative ones that come when you push yourself to keep going.

Let’s imagine how Pixar writers must have done this for Dory, who must travel on land several times throughout the film. How can Dory get around? In a fish tank, in a cup, or maybe even a bowl? Those just wouldn’t be as interesting to audiences as what Pixar came up with. So how did they get there? Crossing off the obvious.

As a result, we see Dory in many different types of water-filled containers — a travel-style water bottle and even a coffee pot. Hoping from geyser to geyser in a public fountain was my favorite!

No. 4 — Use your feelings as a guide for your character’s. 

Does your character’s emotional state feel authentic to you? If not, think about how you would feel in the same situation. It’s bit difficult to imagine what it would be like to be a forgetful fish, but we can all relate to feeling disconnected from the ones we love at some point in our lives. The need to belong is a universal one and a powerful motivator – for both good and bad. If you can’t connect to your protagonist in a universal way, it’s time to re-think the building blocks of character and come up with something that touches you in an emotional way.

No. 5 — Measure the stakes.

And we’re not talking filet mignon. We want to know what’s at stake for your character? Give us a reason to root for him or her. What happens if he or she doesn’t succeed?

For most of us, reuniting with one’s family is a high-stakes problem. But for Dory, it’s likely she’ll forget about her parents and her problem, lessening the stakes. The writers give Dory friends like Nemo and Marlin to keep her on track, but Dory’s memory problem undercuts the stakes a bit in this Pixar film. This is a situation where the writers had to “make it work” since the character’s memory problem was well-established in the first film. Find a way to make what’s at stake for your character his or her whole world, and the audience will be rooting for your protagonist to the end.

No. 6 — Don’t use a coincidence to solve your story problem. 

Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. Dory coincidentally has dreams and talks in her sleep that help her fish friends put together the clues of where her family might be. But it is only through her hard work and befriending others that she manages to find her way back to her loved ones. Use whatever you need to get the story rolling, but only your strong-willed protagonist can solve her own problem.

No. 7 — Value all your work, even if it gets cut.

If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later if you need it. Don’t get hung up on feeling like you wasted your time with a scene. This might cloud your judgement when it comes time to cut. Think of every minute writing — even if you’re just staring at a blank page — as valuable.

Sometimes the creative process is a long and winding road, but it is the only path. In the original script for Finding Dory, many of the marine animals, including Bailey, the beluga whale, remained in captivity. The 2013 documentary film Blackfish focused on marine animals in captivity, so Pixar decided they should change the ending of Finding Dory to include a wildlife release. Though the original ending was lost, the writers were able to use the original work as a launching pad, making it easier to revise. Writing and cutting is all part of the creative process.

How to write backstory but not bog down your book


Telling character backstory is sometimes necessary to show why your character has a specific motivation or mindset. Yet it’s important to learn how to write backstory that will not bog your novel down in constant harking back to prior events that occurred before the present time of your narrative. Read 5 tips for using backstory better:

  1. Choose what to explain using backstory and what to leave a mystery.
  2. Only use backstory for characters to explain behaviour and plot developments.
  3. Find how to write backstory without leaving your story’s present time.
  4. Know when to tell backstory and when to show it.
  5. Use narrative devices such as a prologue or beginning in medias res to get backstory out the way.

Let’s unpack each of these points. First, what is backstory exactly?

Defining Backstory

In fiction, backstory refers to the events that precede the narrative frame of the story itself. In a novel that shows bitter rivalry between sisters to ascend a kingdom’s throne, for example, the backstory could describe the origins of this strife in their father’s favouritism (this is the premise of Shakespeare’s King Lear).

The Oxford Dictionary defines backstory simply: it is ‘a history or background created for a fictional character’. Because backstory shows cause and effect it makes a story richer and more fascinating. Yet too much hopping back and forth to explain origins can become tiresome.

Choosing what to include as backstory wisely is key.

1. Choose what to explain as backstory and what to leave a mystery

Not every detail about every character’s past has to be explained. Using backstory effectively means using it for a purpose. You can use backstory to:

  • Explain your characters’ psychologies; the origins of their behaviour and the forces influencing their decisions
  • Increase suspense: Past events that precede and influence your narrative can create expectations of future developments
  • Strengthen the reader’s emotional connection to your characters – their private histories can foster empathy and understanding

J.K. Rowling uses backstory effectively in her Harry Potter series, as a prime example. Rowling gradually reveals more and more about Harry’s late parents. This leads the reader to care and empathise with Harry. The details about his parents that emerge over time create affect and a fuller sense of the enormity of his loss. These details lead readers to invest emotionally in Harry’s quest to conquer their killer.

Like Rowling, choose details for backstory that increase affect and investment in story outcomes. It helps to ask questions about your character’s past life. If a character has a troubled past with addiction, for example, show the defining event that led them to either spiral down or seek help and get on the path to recovery.

2: Only use backstory for characters to explain behaviour and plot developments

E.M. Forster said ‘only connect’. This is essential when it comes to writing backstory. Make sure that any incident that occurs before the main narrative events of your story is relevant and illustrative. If your character has quit their job before the story starts, it only makes sense to mention this in passing or devote a flashback scene to this event if it is significant. Does it create a specific fear or motivation that will prove important to your character’s choices and development? If not, rather focus on details that do.

For example,  if your character meets the romantic partner of their dreams and self-sabotages, the reader wants to know what motivates this behaviour.

Sometimes we fill first drafts with backstory because of a lack of story direction. We’re simply not sure where we want the story to go. This is why creating a plot outline helps. This is a scenario where backstory could be helpful. You don’t need to write a flashback to reveal this information:

3: Find how to write backstory without leaving your story’s present time

Your story can get bogged down quickly when you constantly leap back in time to show formative moments for characters. You don’t need to tell every bit of backstory using flashbacks. For the example above (a character who self-sabotages at the first sign of potential romance), you can also share backstory in present time narration.

For example, your character might;

  • Open up to their love interest in a pivotal scene where they reveal mutual uncertainties or explain troubling preceding actions to each other
  • Speak to a close friend about relationship fears, bringing up a past event that explains their hesitance

Sharing backstory via dialogue and conversation is a useful way to avoid too many dizzying flights back and forward in narrative time.

Another way to make sure your backstory isn’t too disruptive is to simply tell backstory rather than show it when appropriate:

4. Know when to tell backstory and when to show it

You may have read or been told ‘show, don’t tell’ many times. This advice is useful on one hand. Showing the reader a scene and immersing the reader in your characters’ experience makes your fictional world more vivid and real. Yet sometimes, telling is very necessary. It’s easier to cover important backstory without having to resort to a flashback if you simply put it in passing narration.

Here’s an example:

Frostbitten days like this took her back to the year she turned fifteen, when her mom had been in and out of hospital all winter and snowmen lined the neighbourhood, watching and waiting for something simultaneously inevitable and impossible.

In a single paragraph, you can tell something pivotal and affecting about your character’s past that contextualizes their present, without taking your novel out of its current time-frame.

5. Use narrative devices such as a prologue or beginning in medias res

Some backstory explains specific character actions or motivations. Other backstory explains the narrative trajectory of your novel as a whole.

For the latter type of backstory, a succinct prologue is an effective option for recounting what came before the main events of your story. A prologue can give a brief history that will help avoid messy retelling that interrupts the core action of your story.

Alternatively, you can begin your story in medias res (in the middle of the action). Trust that the reader can withstand a little uncertainty as you gradually reveal how your main characters got to this state of affairs.

How to Write a Thrilling Action Scene, by Jessi Rita Hoffman

May 8, 2016


Whether you write YA, romance, fantasy, or actual thrillers, there are times in any novel where an action scene is called for. These scenes can be among the hardest to write. What runs like an exciting movie in your imagination can end up clunking along on the page, causing even your own eyes to glaze over. And we all know dull action scenes are the kiss of death for any story.

So what goes wrong in action-scene writing? What can you do to avoid the pitfalls, and how do you tone up a limping action scene ?

In this article, I’ll share the common errors I’ve observed writers make in my work as a book editor and writing coach. Surprisingly, it’s usually not what is missing in an action scene that’s the problem—it’s what is there that needs to be removed.

Why? Because an action scene needs to pop. It cannot tolerate clutter of any kind. Other sorts of scenes are more forgiving, but action scenes must speed across the page with the pace of the action they describe. For that, there can’t be interference. Even a few minor flaws are enough to weigh down the writing and spoil the tension. Typically, the problem with action scenes is not lack of imagination. It’s lack of translation—translation of the writer’s vision to the page.

Here’s the awkward first draft of an action scene written by one of my clients, an aspiring novelist:

With a deafening roar, the tan MRAP armored personnel carrier, the lead vehicle in Alicia’s convoy, launches at least thirty feet into the air, disappearing for a moment in a cloud of smoke and dust. The forty-ton truck and the men inside make almost a full revolution before the truck slams back down on its side onto the gravelly road. The pressure wave rocks her vehicle as the sound of the exploding IED hits her ears.

A whoosh, a blast, followed by heat and flame—rocket-propelled grenades hit the fuel tanker in front of her. Jagged shards of aluminum fly everywhere. The fuel and gasoline are burning, flowing in the ditch to the left of her armored truck in her direction.

She feels the heat radiating onto her pale face through the glass, nearly singing her shoulder-length, light-brown hair. Her low-grade headache from the morning has returned. It’s now a searing pain.

A scream from behind. “We’re hit, Alicia, we’re hit! Oh my God!”

They have to get out of the kill zone.

“Get us out of here, George! Now!”

“I’m trying.”

“Trying won’t cut it. Just do it!”

“I can’t! We’re too close!” His voice is panicked. “I can’t move!”

Here’s how the scene read after it was critiqued and revised:

With a roar, the jeep at the head of the convoy launches into the air in a burst of smoke and dust. It makes a full revolution, slams down on its side. The pressure wave rocks Alicia’s truck as the sound of the exploding bomb hits her ears.

A whoosh, a blast—rocket-propelled grenades hit the tanker in front of her. Shards of flying aluminum. Gasoline burning … flowing into the ditch, rolling in her direction. She feels the heat radiate through the glass.

A scream from behind. “We’re hit! We’re hit!”

They have to get out of the kill zone.

“Get us out of here, George!”

“We’re too close! I can’t move!”

What did the writer do that makes the revised scene so much more gripping? To determine that, let’s identify the problems in the original version of the scene:

Cliché expressions, cliché situations. With a deafening roar is a cliché expression that everyone’s read a million times before. Better to come up with a different way of describing the sound, or else just say “with a roar.” Keep in mind that cliché events in an action scene are even more boring than cliché expressions. If the incidents that make up your action are things we’ve often read in stories or seen in movies, it’s going to come off as copy-cat instead of the exciting event you mean for it to be. Car chases, for example, are routinely cliché, unless there’s something about your car chase that makes it fresh and different.

Distracting details. Beginning writers often mistakenly believe that the more sensory description they can stuff into a scene, the better. But description can either increase or decrease tension in an action scene. Only give details that the person whose point of view the scene is written from would notice or care about, or that we, as readers, need to know to understand what’s happening. Tan (describing the exploding vehicle), to her left (describing the ditch), and gravelly (describing the road) are tension-weakening details. They take the reader’s attention away from what matters. The color of the vehicle, which side the ditch is on, and the condition of the road have no bearing on the action, and the protagonist doesn’t care about these things. Neither do the readers.

Too much attention on pain. Beginning authors often write about the pain of the main character in an action scene. This weakens the tension because readers don’t really care if the hero’s back is aching or even if the wound in his leg is bleeding. They want to know if he’s going to get away from the zombie who’s chasing him. Put attention on the hero’s sore back, and the scene turns maudlin and unbelievable. In real life, no person being chased by a predator would be thinking about his pain. With the adrenaline coursing through him, he wouldn’t even feel pain. Furthermore, bringing up the protagonist’s pain in an action scene has the effect of making the hero sound whiney and weak. In this writing, the line about Alicia’s headache has to go.

Confusing jargon. While a smattering of tech talk can give the feel of real to dialog, overdoing it will make you lose your reader. Imagine if Grey’s Anatomy had conferring doctors using all the medical jargon real-life MDs use in their professional conversations: we’d never grasp the plot line. When you do use jargon, limit it, and make it part of the dialog. Avoid acronyms the reader isn’t likely to understand. In this writing sample, the narrator uses the acronyms MRAP and IED, and we start to feel lost in the scene. Since this isn’t dialog, there’s no excuse to use words that aren’t perfectly clear to the reader.

Hedge words. Sometimes, in an effort to sound accurate, new writers pad scenes with what I call “hedge words”—hesitation words that qualify and limit a statement—thereby diluting its power. At least and almost function in the writing sample as hedge words. They weaken the power of the image the author intends to create. Makes a full rotation is stronger writing than almost makes a full rotation. Write boldly, and don’t hedge or hesitate in your descriptions.

Analytical words. Another mistake new authors can make in the name of accuracy is to use analytical words, such as unnecessary numbers. In this example, thirty feet and forty-ton are examples of analytical words that add nothing of value to the scene and pollute it with what sounds too much like a math lesson. Saying the vehicle launches into the air and makes a full rotation before coming back to earth is enough to create the picture of a heavy truck being shoved upwards with humongous force. It isn’t necessary to pad that description by adding the number of feet the truck rose or the number of tons the truck weighed. We get the picture without that, and the numbers only dilute the visceral, immediate quality of the image.

Stating the obvious. Phrases that state the obvious have no place in any scene, but particularly not in an action scene where they slow down the excitement and slacken the momentum. If the truck is somersaulting in the air, obviously the men inside the truck are also somersaulting—no need to say the truck and the men inside—just say the truck. If the truck disappears in the air in a cloud of smoke and dust before falling back to Earth, no need to say it disappears for a moment. Of course it’s for a moment—no reader is going to wonder if the truck disappeared for an hour or two. Such mistakes may seem small, harmless things—a couple of extraneous phrases—but when you combine them with all the other tiny errors we are identifying, they’re enough to ruin a scene. They make the difference between amateur-sounding writing and professional-level prose.

Redundancy. Be careful not to tell us what you already told us. Further on in this story, the writer describes bullets pinging off the side of the jeep. A paragraph later he talks about the pinging bullets again. The first time he said it, that created tension. The second time, it creates tedium. Only say a thing once. We get it the first time. (This goes for words as well as for actions. Shards of aluminum rather than jagged shards of aluminum, because we already know that shards are jagged. Slams down on its side rather than slams back down on its side because we know without being told that the truck is returning to the ground.)

Clutter words. Extraneous words (I call them “clutter words”) spoil a scene’s tension and slow the pace of the action. The words you use need to move at the same clipped pace as the action you’re describing. Don’t use four or five words when you could use one or two. Don’t write “We’re too close!” His voice is panicked. “I can’t move!” when you could write “We’re too close! I can’t move!” he screamed. In fact, do you even need he screamed? We can tell by the context that he’s probably screaming those words. Match the speed of the words you write to the speed of the scene’s action. Keep the wording clipped and sharp, like the moves your characters are making. If you can choose between a three-syllable- and a one-syllable word, choose the one-syllable, because it sounds faster.

Lengthy dialog. When tension is high, talk is minimal. People (and your characters) focus on the emergency at hand, not on having a conversation. They speak in short words, clipped sentences, often devoid of grammar. Write the dialog as real people would speak it, not as you’d write a term paper for English class. In the revised version of this scene, talk is sparse. The terseness of the conversation increases its urgency and drama.

Point-of-view violations. A scene should only be written from one character’s perspective. Don’t switch from what your character is seeing, feeling, or thinking to the viewpoint, emotions, or thoughts of another person. This is a rule for scenes in general, but in action scenes, it’s particularly important. Switching back and forth between multiple points of view can make the action confusing for the reader. Pretty soon we can’t tell what’s happening to whom. Point-of-view violations can also make the writing sound silly. Here we’re told that Alicia feels the heat radiating on her pale face—but she’s not looking at her own face, so how would she know it appears pale? The heat almost singes her shoulder-length, light-brown hair, but she isn’t thinking about her hair at a time like this and certainly isn’t noticing its color and length. The writer has switched away from Alicia’s point of view and is showing us what might be observed by another character, looking at her. That’s a point-of-view violation. It’s also an example of Point #2: distracting the reader with details that don’t support the focus of the scene. When we read this line it makes us smirk, because it’s so inappropriate.

Sideways-moving action. The action must rise or escalate in intensity, not move horizontally, or the scene loses its tension. If your character is trying to shoot down an approaching attacker, you probably shouldn’t be writing about the casings harmlessly dropping out of the back of her gun or the smoke you already told us about continuing to billow in the distance. The situation must get more difficult for the hero as the scene progresses or you risk boring your reader. In this writing sample, there isn’t much sideways-moving action, but in the work of many budding authors, it’s an error I often encounter, hence the mention.

The good news is that if you write an action scene and afterwards prune out all the flaws we’ve talked about, what remains will either stand out as exciting, or you’ll see at a glance where more tension and challenge are needed. If the latter is the case, you must merely let your imagination pile on more problems and complications for the protagonist, in an escalating order of intensity, and the scene will satisfy.

Once the sluggish flaws and distractions are removed from action-scene writing, all that remains is the story itself. The thrilling, pure, unencumbered story. And that’s what readers come to you for.

What difficulties have you stumbled over in writing an action scene? What did you do that made the scene read better?


Jessi Rita Hoffman is a developmental editor and story coach who helps authors clarify and elevate their material. She is a former publishing house editor in chief and an optioned screenwriter. Her clients have produced manuscripts that have garnered agents, book deals, literary awards, and bestseller status.



Editing Your Book: What Else?

In addition to the steps outlined by K. M. Weiland in “Your NaNo Novel Is a Hot Mess! How to Edit Your Book”, here are more things you can do to help make your book or story publication ready!

  • Review each chapter and section for consistent and appropriate POV
  • Fact check:
    • place names
    • historical events
    • people’s names
    • telephone numbers
    • Geographic features key to the story
    • fictional character names (Hester Prynne vs Hester Prine)
  • Check dates
    • within the storyline
    • with contemporaneous events, as needed
  • Run spelling and grammar checker!
  • Review for punctuation
  • Review for capitalization
  • Review for filter words that separate your reader from the story (notice, realize, thought, had)
    • “She decided to tell Gladys that …” à “She told Gladys …”
    • “He noticed the wind blowing through her hair.” à “The wind blew through her hair.”
    • “He had gone…” à “He went…”
  • Review for weak words (then, that, down, be, turn)
    • “He set his keys down on the table.”
  • Review for your specific watch words (flop, plop; as; particularly)

Using Technology: Run “Search and Destroy” Macros

Filter Words


Weak Words


Watch Words