How To Write Better Fan Fiction: 184 quick and easy hints to improve writing

(Click here to browse 70 topics on my main site ranging from exotic kaleidoscope designs to the strange world of lucid dreaming or click on writing to return to the main How to Write Better Fan Fiction page.)

This modified version of my general writing book, Amateur to Amateur: A Non-expert's Guide to Expert Writing, is intended to assist fan fiction authors to write better stories. No part of it may be reproduced without my permission.

  This text is intended to be read from this web page. Transferring it to another location may delete important formatting, like spacing, font control and italics, which are critical to understanding what was written. If you wish a WORD 97 version of this text with black font on a white background, please email me with your request and I will be happy to send you one.

Amateur to Amateur:

A Non-expert's Guide to Expert Writing

(Adapted for Writing Fan Fiction)


Wayne Schmidt

24 June 2000




I had three seconds to take his money.

He didn't know he was my next target as he wandered innocently among the bookstore's shelves toward my favorite corner. My hunting ground.

The store manager had obligingly arranged the displays so this spot was out of sight of the cashier and the front window. Someone could be murdered here and not found for hours.

My target bent at the waist to read a title. His wallet bulged richly in the pocket of his jeans.

I was close now.

He pulled the book from the shelf.

Careful! Not too close.

He opened the book.

Would he sense my presence?

He'd take three seconds to read the first sentence.

My three seconds.

He smiled and reached for his wallet.

I'd done it.

In three seconds I'd taken his money.

I wrote that book.


  That book is this book. The passage you just read uses a powerful writing technique called misdirection to surprise and entertain. That and one hundred and eighty-three other tricks of the writer's craft are presented in this guide designed specifically for anyone writing fan fiction for the Internet.

  What separates this text from others? I wrote it while learning how to write my first fan fiction novel. Notes and questions recorded during those years preserved the point of view of someone completely new to the craft of writing. In addition to providing numerous guidelines for effective writing, this text also addresses questions unique to first-time writers such as, "How often should the word and be used?" or "How many howevers are found in best-selling novels?" There are no hard and fast rules for these sorts of questions. Yet all new writers struggle with uncertainties about whether they use too many of this or that particular word or writing device. This manual gives specific numerical answers to many such questions based on how often top-selling contemporary authors use them. With these numbers a writer can determine if he or she has any habits that are likely to grate on a reader's ear.

  This guide combines information from seventeen writing manuals and analyses of five novels by award-winning, best-selling authors universally recognized as masters at their craft: Stephen King's The Dark Tower, (suspense/fantasy), John Grisham's The Chamber (suspense), Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (science fiction), Ed McBain's Mischief (mystery), and Connie Willis's Dooms Day Book (science fiction).

  Each of the book's seven chapters is written as a collection of short, easily understood, numbered suggestions. These are followed by appendices providing a unique approach to building a personalized thesaurus, a list of the most common beats (see Hint 97), a list of sounds and a suggested reading list.

  This book is written informally in the first person from me (the author) to you (the reader). We're going to be together for quite a few hours so why should we dance around with phrases like it is said and one should.

  If you're wondering if you want to take up writing fan fiction consider this, writing is the world's best hobby. It's inexpensive, interesting, unaffected by weather, and bestows more prestige than any other activity.


"So, Joe. What'd ya do last week?"


"Oh yeah?" Yawn.




"So, Joe. What'd ya do last week?"

"I finished a sixty-five thousand word science fiction novel where mineral eating aliens infest the Earth and devour our planet."

"You wrote a book! You're kidding! When can I read it?"


Need I say more? Let's get started.


Jump to formating hints.

Jump to general writing hints. NEW!!! A new hint!

Jump to punctuation hints. Don't skip over this! It's more about using spacing to add drama to your writing than where to place a comma.

Jump to character hints.

Jump to specific writing hints.

Jump to adding comic relief to you story.

Jump to rewriting hints.

Jump to a list of common beats. See hint 97.

Jump to lists of ways to show common emotions.

Jump to an activity-level ordered thesaurus.

Jump to lists of ways to show common actions.

Jump to a list of different sounds.

Jump to a suggested reading list. This list also explains what can be learned from each example.

Jump to the bibliography.




This chapter presents the basic format used for fan fiction on the net. Since what you write will most likely stay on your own web pages, feel free to use any format you prefer. If you're going to archive your stories on other sites these guidelines will help.


1. LIMIT LINES TO 65 CHARACTERS WIDE. Computer monitors are so wide that tracking from one side to the other can strain a reader's eyes and patience. Using a narrower format will make your stories more reader-freindly. Also, many archives use narrow windows for displaying fan fiction. Lines longer than 65 characters may extend beyond the page forcing readers to scroll back and forth.

2. SKIP A LINE BETWEEN PARAGRAPHS. It makes reading your stories easier. The debate is on-going as to whether this means the first line doesn't have to be indented.

3. USE LEFT JUSTIFICATION ONLY. Justifying both edges of print looks nice but it makes it harder for readers to track from one line to the next.

4. USE BOOKMARKS FOR LONG STORIES. They help readers jump quickly to the area where they left off.

5. USE DISCLAIMERS. Some organizations are very aggressive about protecting their literary property. If you are writing fan fiction based on an established series, like Star Trek or The X-Files, make sure you have a disclaimer that states who owns the rights to that series and that only the characters and storyline particular to your story belong to you.

Here is an example:

Star Trek is owned by Paramount Pictures, a division of Viacom. All the copyrights associated with Star Trek belong to them. Only the ideas contained within this story are the property of the author. No profit is being earned by the writer of this story.

6. RATE YOUR STORY. Give the G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, or Adult (X) rating for your story right up front. This is a courtesy so you don't alienate your readers once they've started into your story.

7. USE "SLASH" WARNINGS. In addition to posting ratings, if your story contains SLASH (same-sex pairings) warn readers up front that this is the case even if the story is otherwise rated as mild as G.

8. PROHIBIT YOUNG READERS FROM READING "R" AND ABOVE RATED OR "SLASH" STORIES. This is for your own protection. Parents of young readers have sued fan fiction writers who failed to do this. It's also a good idea to make readers use at least one link after the warning to get to these sorts of stories. This shows that they sought out the story rather than came across it accidentally.

9. USE "THE END". Skip four lines and type The End in the center of the last page of your novel. This prevents readers from asking themselves if there's anything more to read. Questions like that weaken the ending's emotional impact.




 NEW!!! A new hint!

10a. Avoid switching back and forth between units. If you are describing a scene, avoid jumping back and forth between feet, yards, meters, and inches. It forces the reader to focus on converting the varying units to recognizable distances. Select one, yards for example, and use it consistently.

  The following suggestions address a variety of subjects on the process and efficiency of learning how to write and writing itself.

10b. THINK! Strive to put yourself in the reader's position to understand what a particular hint is trying to accomplish. This enables you to use them more effectively and develop your own techniques.

11. READ BEST SELLERS IN YOUR FIELD. Whether you consciously study them for writing techniques or not, you'll absorb a lot of useful information. Appendix E lists a few good titles and what techniques they demonstrate.

12. READ BEST SELLERS OUTSIDE OF YOUR FIELD. Like cross training in sports, studying other types of fiction will strengthen your chosen area. See Appendix E.

13. READ TEXTS. There are hundreds of excellent writing texts. Read as many as possible. A subject that's obtuse in one book will be clear in the next. Newly published texts are best because their recommendations reflect the latest trends.

14. USE A WORD PROCESSOR. They have better spell-checking and grammar-checking capabilities than web page construction wizards. Once your story's polished up on the word processor, paste it into your website.

15. WRITE A LOT. Writing is like long distance running, it takes a lot of practice. So write! Write! Write!

  A good pattern to follow is to read a text on how to write a novel, read a current best seller, and then write a novel of your own or rewrite one you've already finished. This sequence provides knowledge, example, and experience. Repeat these three steps a couple of times and you'll soon be writing great novels.

  What should you write about? Whatever subject you know best. If your not familiar with something, study it, do it (if practical and legal), then write about it. 

16. READ OTHER AUTHOR'S FANFICTION. It's usually terrible but it will help you to see how mistakes ruin a story. Also, if you don't read theirs, how can you expect them to read yours? If you do read someone else's work, send them an email with positive comments about it. Remember, even if you hated it they put a lot of work into writing the story so be considerate in your comments. 

17. DON'T COPY ANOTHER AUTHOR'S STYLE. Using stylistic devices borrowed from another author always sounds forced. It's better to concentrate your attention on what you want to say and express it in a way that feels natural to you.

18. DON'T PLAGIARIZE. Never take someone else's words or ideas and pass them off as your own. That's plagiarism and illegal. If you're quoting someone's work be sure to acknowledge the source.

19. CARRY A NOTEBOOK. Use it to record ideas for dialog, plots, or scenes. Many times ideas come out of the blue and flit away just as suddenly. Write them down immediately. You may get a great idea only to forget it a minute later in the crush of daily life.

20. IF YOU TRY WRITING A NOVEL, FIGURE ON IT TAKING SEVEN HUNDRED HOURS. That includes time for a 5000 word chapter-by-chapter outline (see Hint 73), an 80,000 word draft, which even a two-finger typist can pound out at 500 words per hour, and three rewrites. Second novels take half as long.

21. WRITE IN THE MORNING. Most writers do their best and most productive work in the morning after a good night's sleep. If your work schedule permits, try it.

22. WRITE EVERY DAY. Even if it's a token effort. Breaks of even a few days result in a mental lethargy difficult to overcome. A good pace is to write one-thousand words a day. Do more if you want but discipline yourself to this minimum.

23. LIVE HEALTHY. Productivity and creativity are strongly affected by lifestyle. Good sleeping, eating, and exercising habits increase productivity and creativity. It's true that some great writers were drunks but they would have been even greater had they been sober so don't emulate their poor examples.

24. RITUALS HELP. Wearing a special writing hat, setting aside a specific place to work, and rewarding yourself every time a chapter's completed help maintain motivation and satisfaction. Think up your own rituals and they'll pay surprising dividends.

25. IF SOMEONE READS YOUR FAN FICTION, RECIPROCATE. Reading one of their stories in return, if they have any, is courteous. and may also encourage them to return and read more of yours.

If someone has read your work and sends you a strongly negative critique that reads more like a personal attack than constructive criticism (sometimes called "flaming"), don't respond in kind. It'll only tell them they got to you, which is what they wanted in the first place. Either ignore them or politely, but not haughtily, thank them and ask what specifically they would change if it were their story. If your take the second tack you might get a useful answer.

26. RESEARCH. Some research is necessary for every story. Keep in mind that the goal of research is to give your story the feel of realism. Don't use research to lecture the reader about a subject.

  If you're not sure where to begin you research try writing the STORY first. Leave blanks where you feel you want to insert background. Once the draft is complete use these blank areas to focus your research.

27. WRITER'S BLOCK. If you ever freeze up and can't think of a single word to write you're suffering from writer's block. How you attack it depends on how you view yourself as a writer. If you write for just for the fun of it, the simplest solution do is stop. Put the story away for a day, or a year, until you want to write and new ideas start coming. If you consider yourself a professional there are many ways to overcome this malady.

  The best way to beat writer's block is to prevent it. Stop writing each day in the middle of a sentence. This accomplishes three things: it provides a leg up on the next day's work, it encourages new ideas as you think about how to finish the sentence, and it drives you crazy because you left something undone. The last point is the most effective. By the time you begin your next writing session your skin will be crawling with eagerness to finish that sentence.

  If writer's block hits anyway, try writing something else for awhile. A variation on this is to write one-thousand made-up words or gibberish. Your subconscious will decide writing something real is preferable to such an tiresome task. Try writing something you'd never imagine like profanity or a sexually explicit scene. Shock treatments like this are effective but don't let copies of it get loose or you'll get talked about. If your interest is profanity or sex, try writing something boring like a detailed description of changing a flat tire. Some other ideas are: write a detailed description of your last dream, the last time something angered you, or the revenge you'd like to inflict on the cause of that anger. Lastly, go someplace new or do something you've never done before. Exposing your subconscious to new experiences shocks it into being creative.

28. USE WORD LISTS TO BREAK MINI-BLOCKS. A mini-block is where you're writing stalls because you can't think of the right word or phrase. An easy way to break such a block is to refer to one of the lists at the end of this text or create similar lists of your own ahead of time.

29. IF YOU ARE WRITING A NOVEL, YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARD IT WILL EVOLVE. The first four chapters of a first novel incite exuberance from the excitement that accompanies the beginning of any big job. A quarter of the way through this excitement gives way to euphoria with the realization you're going to succeed. You hit the half-way mark and fatigue sets in. The slow business of grinding out eighty thousand words weighs heavy. The rush of newness is gone. You wonder if you'll ever finish.

  Hang in there. You will.

  During the last quarter of the novel excitement builds again as the light at the end of the tunnel brightens. The last two chapters pour out of your fingers in a painful rush. When the last word is typed you feel like a mountain climber with his foot on Everest's peak. Masterpiece or not, you've written a novel. Less than one out of every thousand people succeed in writing a book so, CONGRATULATIONS! Take yourself out to dinner! Buy a new toy!

  You deserve it.





  Don't skip this chapter! There are several punctuation tips that can greatly increase the dramatic impact of your writing. I'm not talking about commas or semicolons but line skips, italics, and point-of-view punctuation. Learn these tricks. They'll sharpen up your stories.

  However, having said that I also have to state the punctuation is a complex field worthy of extended study. When you have time, get a good text and dive in. Until then the simplified rules in this chapter cover most of what you need to know. For a detailed treatment see The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White or The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer.


30. SKIP A LINE TO INDICATE TIME HAS PASSED. If you have someone drive in silence for an hour, an extra blank line gives your reader a sense of elapsed time. After the skip, start the next paragraph with an interesting transition statement to let the reader know how long the break lasted and any other information the reader needs. Avoid anything trite.

  An hour later they reached the town.

This is trite and dull.

  An hour's desperate skidding over I-15's rain-slicked surface brought Jacksonville's outskirts flashing past the car's windows.

This is better because it expresses action and conveys specific information.


31. SKIP A LINE FOR DRAMATIC EMPHASIS. This focuses attention on the last sentence before the line skip and is especially effective if the final statement is short, pithy, and unexpected. Be careful not to use this technique more than twice or the reader will start thinking about it as a stylistic device instead of being captured by the drama of the moment. Be careful about using this technique if your format already places a line skip between every paragraph.

32. CENTERED "+++" SIGNALS A POINT OF VIEW CHANGE. Use three centered "+" marks or dots with a skipped line above and below the marks to tell the reader there's been a change in the point of view within a chapter.

33. COMMAS. Use commas to: separate names or titles from the rest of the sentence; separate degrees or titles from each other; after yes, no or however, at the beginning of a sentence; set off a mild exclamation (Oh,); or whenever you need to control the rhythm of the sentence.

  Using too many commas can irritate a reader. Top authors average six commas for every two-hundred and fifty words.

34. "..." MEANS A VOICE TRAIL-OFF. Use three dots to express a speaker's voice trailing off or waiting for an answer. 

  "You know I love you, Beatrice. And I do want to marry you. It's just that, well..."


35. "-" MEANS AN INTERRUPTION. Use a dash to express an interrupted conversation. 

  "But, Marty-"

  "I said that's enough!"


36. STRENGTHS OF PUNCTUATIONS. Periods, semicolons, and commas force the reader to pause. The punctuation used determines the length of the pause. Periods create the longest pauses, semicolons the second longest, and commas the shortest.

37. AVOID COLONS AND SEMICOLONS. In the five novels researched for this guide, colons and semicolons were only used four times and in each case the sentence could have been broken into two sentences with no ill effect. Because the average American reader isn't an expert on punctuation, many look at colons and semicolons as a sign the writer is showing off.

  If you have the irresistible urge to use either the colon or semicolon follow these rules:


Use a colon to precede a list.

  He needed three tools: a hammer, screwdriver and pliers.


Use a semicolon between two, complete, related sentences which you want to join into one sentence.


  He shouted he was going to jump off the bridge; exclamations like that made him feel everyone was watching him.


This sentence can be legally written two other ways:


  He shouted he was going to jump off the bridge because exclamations like that made him feel everyone was watching him.


  He shouted he was going to jump off the bridge. Exclamations like that made him feel everyone was watching him.


Which one should be used? The one that sounds best to you.


38. AVOID USING DASHES, ITALICS, ETC. Dashes, words enclosed in parenthesis or with all their letters capitalized, italics, and exclamation points remind the reader he's reading a story instead of living an adventure. It's better to write words that give the effect you want without these crutches. Use these highlighting techniques when needed but go easy. Top writers average one of these emphasizing devices every 800 words.

  There are times when using italics is mandatory. Always italicize the names of ships, book and magazine titles, foreign words, and foreign titles. Words representing sounds as they happen may also be italicized.


  The elevator pinged its readiness.


39. DIALOG PUNCTUATION. Use the following guides for punctuating dialog:


  "--------," John said, "-------."

  "--------," John said.

  John said, "-----."


  "--------?" John asked.

  "--------," John asked, "------?"

  John asked, "----------?"


  Of these forms, the first is used fifty-five percent of the time, the second forty-five percent of the time, and the third almost never. The first question form is used in seventy-five percent of all questions; the second takes up the remaining twenty-five percent. The third question form is rarely seen.





  Interesting characters with rich backgrounds are essential for a successful novel. The following guidelines will help you populate your story with people that jump out of the story and grab your reader by the throat.



  a. Decide the character's purpose.

  b. Determine what main characteristics he needs to accomplish
  this purpose.

  c. Add personal and external conflicts for depth.

  d. Add attitudes and values.

  e. Make up specific details to flesh out the character (write a


41. WRITE BIOGRAPHIES. Each character in you story needs a biography that defines who they are. Identify critical events in their lives and how these affected them. Define their ethnic, cultural, socio-economic status, and attitudes. Give them friends and prize possessions. Main characters should have biographies at least a thousand words long. Minor characters only need a couple of lines. Make up ten times more information than you'll use in the book. This makes your characters come alive in your mind and provides insights as to how they'll act in specific situations.

  Write biographies even if your story is based on existing characters in established series like Star Trek. It'll help you firm up your concept of the characters.

  Remember that characters consist of three parts: physical, psychological and sociological. All of these effect each other. A character's antisocial behavior may be the result of some physical flaw.

42. GO TO A MALL FOR CHARACTERS. An excellent location to get ideas for characters is an indoor mall on Friday evenings. No place else offers a wider cross section of people.

43. GROUPS NEED PURPOSE. Whether it's two little old ladies or an angry mob, every group that plays a significant role in a novel needs a purpose that brought them together, a conflict to keep them in tension, contrasting qualities, and the ability to affect each other. Without these attributes a group is a one dimensional entity that'll bore the reader.

44. REVIEW BIOGRAPHIES REGULARLY. Constant review of each character's biography keeps the details of their lives fresh in your mind. This enables you to write their actions and conversations spontaneously.

45. GIVE EACH CHARACTER HIS OWN VOICE. You should be able hear a difference in the way each character talks. Techniques used to create unique voices are: have one character use a lot of contractions while another uses few; one talks in short, simple sentences and the other speaks in long, complex sentences; one character likes short words whereas the second prefers long ones.

46. POSSESSIONS HELP DEFINE CHARACTERS. A person's house, car, hobbies, toys, and friends define him. A well waxed Mercedes implies a successful, fastidious personality. An old, rusted Chevy inspires images of a slob or someone trapped in poverty. Mentioning a character's possessions enables you to describe him without explicitly stating what the reader can see for himself.

47. PRESENT CHARACTERS SLOWLY. In the real world we get to know people slowly, bit by bit. Introduce characters the same way. Let the reader discover the character as your story unfolds. One effective way to disclose something about a character is have people talk about him before he makes his first appearance. This creates anticipation.

48. DON'T USE STEREOTYPES. Stereotypes (the prostitute with a heart of gold) and antistereotypes (a football player who knits). are too predictable to be interesting characters. Another stereotype common to pulp science fiction is the bright young thing blasting into space.

49. GIVE HEROES FAULTS AND VILLAINS VIRTUES. It's hard for readers to identify with a perfect person so give your hero a forgivable or lovable fault. The flip side is also true. A villain is more believable if he has an endearing quality. This allows the reader to feel both satisfaction and sympathy when the villain is vanquished. One exception to this is the purely evil entity used in some horror stories.

50. MAKE VILLAINS STRONG. Villains must be powerful, implacable, and complex or they won't be sufficiently threatening to create suspense.

51. AVOID PASSIVE MAIN CHARACTERS. Readers want to identify with strong personalities so your main characters need to be forceful enough to make things happen, not just react to events around them. They should reach decisions and express them in a few, short words. Good characters are alive with great passions and strong emotions and they act on these feelings.

52. AVOID SELFISH AND ALTRUISTIC HEROES. Heroes shouldn't act totally on their own behalves, unless they're the only ones threatened. It makes them look self-centered. They shouldn't act purely altruistically either. That makes him seem too good to be true. Both cases create characters the reader will not take to heart. Combining some of each of these characteristics will make your hero seem more real.

52. VOLUNTEER OR DRAFT HEROES. If a character's going to do something brave that costs him significantly, have him volunteer so he appears noble. If he's going to profit from his actions have him be drafted or trapped into it to avoid making him appear self-serving.

54. MONSTERS ARE PRODUCTS OF THEIR ENVIRONMENTS. For science fiction and horror stories a monster's appearance and psychology should be consistent with the evolutionary pressures of his natural surroundings. When creating a monster let the environment that bore him shape what he looks like and how he acts.

55. USE AS FEW CHARACTERS AS POSSIBLE. One of the hardest things readers have to do is to keep track of a story's characters. Use too many any you'll lose the reader. A story needs at least two main characters: a villain and a hero. It's a good idea to give the hero a second main character to act as a side kick so he can talk to someone. Add a sprinkling of minor characters to develop the story but keep the total head count down.

56. CHARACTER NAMES. Give each character a name that starts with a different letter of the alphabet. This helps the reader keep them separate. A useful technique for this is to write the alphabet vertically down a sheet of paper and create a last name starting with each letter. Repeat this process for first names. If you run out of letters you've got too many characters.

  Varying name lengths also helps the reader differentiate between characters.

  Use a variety of ethnicities but remember that ethnicity plays a big part in determining how a reader expects a character to act. Sticking too close to an ethnic stereotype can make a character dull. On the other hand, using a stereotypical type for a minor character can eliminate a lot of dull description.

  Gentle sounding first names make a character more sympathetic. Harsh last names make it easier for the reader to dislike a character. Long, complicated, or hyphenated names suggest intellectualism and self-importance. Short, one-syllable names like James Bond imply strength and virility.

  Make names look interesting. The easiest way to do this is to use an unusual spelling for a common name.

  Telephone books are an excellent source of names. Mix first and last names to avoid getting sued because you used someone's name for an ax murderer. All of the above also applies to the names of things and places.

57. AVOID LAST NAMES ENDING IN "s." The possessive, Jones' or Jones's, depending on which authority you follow, looks odd to many readers and can be confusing if you're talking about a possession of more than one Jones.

58. SHOW CHARACTER'S INNER FEELINGS. Characters shouldn't just state what happened but also show how they felt about it.

59. MAKE CHARACTERS GROW. Real people evolve with time and so should main characters. Their experiences during your story will change them. Show these changes in your by having them act and think differently at the end of the story than they did in the beginning. If the story's is part of a series that continues with the same characters, update their biographies as the series progresses.

60. GIVE CHARACTERS UNEXPECTED TRAITS. Characters are more interesting if they have an unexpected talent, such as a coward who's a crack shot with a revolver. Exaggerating a certain ability, physical characteristic, or habit is also effective.

61. KEEP YOUR PERSONALITY OUT OF YOUR CHARACTER'S. Don't let your own personality take over the personality designed for a character. It's easy for this to happen while writing long passages of dialog. You get so engrossed in what's going on you're pulled into the action. Before long your character starts talking like you instead of himself. One exception is a character modeled after yourself.

62. GIVE CHARACTERS CONFLICTING EMOTIONS. Inner turmoil makes characters more human and interesting.

63. VILLAINS DO WHAT THEY THINK IS JUST. When portraying the villain's point of view, make it clear he believes what he's going is right. This gives him conviction and credibility.

64. GIVE HEROS DOUBTS. Readers won't identify with a character who knows how and what to do in every circumstance. No one's that good. Giving your hero a few doubts makes him more appealing, believable and increases suspense.

65. ONE WAY TO PORTRAY AN AGGRESSIVE CHARACTER. You can show a character is aggressive by having him corner a timid character with an endless stream of yes or no questions. Fire them off faster than the cornered character can respond. Have the aggressive character cut the timid character off before he's completed his answer. Mercilessly repeat questions. Make the cornered character back up, stammer, fidget and look around for escape.






  A big part of good writing is performing a lot of little tricks correctly. This chapter presents ninety-three such tricks guaranteed to brighten anyone's work.

  The chapter contains many specific recommendations for how often certain words or techniques should be used. These numbers are the averages used by the best selling authors named in the Introduction and are meant as guidelines. Don't attempt to have exactly this number on each page of your novel. For example, I suggest and be used three times every 250 words. Some passages in your story may have no ands. Others may have ten. Use and whenever it's needed. But, if you're averaging fifteen every 250 words, you need to know you're following a pattern successful writers avoid.

  Bullets sixty-six through seventy-eight focus on general suggestions. From seventy-nine on, they cover specific mechanical issues.


66. TARGET YOUR AUDIENCE. Decide the age, gender, and what your readers expect from your story. Keep these details in mind at all times so action and dialog caters to their desires. Do this even if you're writing for yourself. What do you want out of the story? Why are you writing it? Unless this initial objective is kept clearly in mind your story will alienate the readers you wanted to reach.

  Targeting your audience also means selecting your book's the genre: mystery, science fiction, etc. Be careful of mixed genre books. They tend to confuse readers. A special case of this is incorporating sexually explicit scenes in a story. If your book is written as a sex story... fine. If it's a mystery or political thriller the excitement of a sex scene can be so great that it overpowers and washes away much of what your reader remembers about what else has happened in the story.

67. DEFINE YOUR THEME. Write one sentence stating the goal, theme, or idea you want your novel to express. It may be as simple as:

  This book will be a scary story to entertain people.

or as complicated as:

  I want to create a novel that demonstrates the counter productivity of prejudice in modern society.


68. STATE YOUR PLOT. Write a bare-bones statement of your plot. If the theme is:

  Don't trust monsters.

the plot might be:

  Boy meets monster. Boy befriends monster. Monster eats boy.

  Effective stories have strong, easily grasped plots pitting contrasting elements like love and hate, rags to riches, or justice versus injustice against each other. What's a strong plot? Anything that appeals to intense emotions.

  Girl and boy meet and like each other.

This is pathetically weak.

  Girl and boy love each other to the point of self-destruction.

This is a strong plot, at least Shakespeare thought so when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. Stick to simple, strong plots like he did and you'll be in good company.


69. KEEP THE PLOT SIMPLE. Complicated plots drown readers in a sea of detail. Decide what the main conflict is, add one or two subplots for depth, and leave it at that.

70. DON'T PUT ALL YOUR IDEAS IN ONE BOOK. It'll make the novel seem busy and forced.

71. WRITE A VERY SHORT OUTLINE FOR THE STORY. Compose one-line sentences that state the main event in each chapter. List these sentences on a single page to form a short outline. This format makes it easy to see the flow of your story and makes gaps in the story-line stand out.

  A story can also be graphed, which is particularly good for keeping the times when events take place in proper chronology. The form of the graph can be anything that provides a clear picture of story's elements.

72. DEFINE THE STORY'S DETAILS. Use the short outline to decide the details of your story such as where it takes place, when occurs, how many characters are needed and what type of characters they should be. Write the character biographies. Get a map of the area or make one up if your story occurs in a fictitious place. Research the facts that'll make your story believable.

73. WRITE A DETAILED CHAPTER-BY-CHAPTER OUTLINE. This outline should take at least one page per chapter. Explain what happens in the chapter, where it takes place, name the characters, decide when it takes place and record ideas for scenes and dialog. Most importantly, state what effect you want the chapter to have on the reader (let's say horror), how you're going to create this effect (have a sympathetic person get eaten by a slobbering monster) and state why you want to do this (so the reader knows this monster is dangerous). Write this outline when you're most excited about your story idea.

  Once you've started a story, outlines are perfect for recording ideas for dialog or action that come to you while writing earlier chapters. Let's say you're writing chapter five when a humorous bit of dialog occurs to you that's perfect for a scene in chapter fifteen. By flipping forward in the outline to jot the dialog down you can check to make sure it fits and eliminate the hazard of loosing it among other notes in your writer's notebook.

  Outlines are lifesavers when something forces you to stop writing for an extended time. A quick reading of the outline enables you back to get up to speed with minimal effort.

  Some writers prefer to just go-for-it and write a story in one free rush. Don't. The headache of going back to straighten out accidental name changes, time shifts, and out-of-order events is a nightmare. It can take longer to correct these problems than it took to write the entire draft.

  Chapter-by-chapter outlines are guides, not masters. Use them to avoid unconscious drifts away from the intended story line. But, if a good idea presents itself while you're writing, feel free to pursue it.

74. WRITE NON-STOP. Write the first draft of your story as continuously as possible. This insures you get maximum continuity and captures your keenest excitement in the developing story. Don't worry about punctuation or spelling. Just write!

  This doesn't mean write sloppily. A poorly written draft may force you to abandon whole chapters during rewriting or accept a poor passage bandaged to mediocrity. Make the draft as good as you can without interrupting the natural flood of ideas that accompanies original writing. Focus on what you want to say and how you want to say it.

75. CAPTURE THE READER'S INTEREST IMMEDIATELY. Hook your reader's attention with the first sentence or at least by the end of the first paragraph. Delay longer and you risk having him or her getting bored and looking for someone else's story to read.

  The opening hook shouldn't be a one-liner that immediately fades into insignificance after the third sentence. You need to establish tension, pull at the reader's curiosity and hold their attention long enough to make him start scrolling deeper into the story.

  Once you've gotten a reader to start scrolling don't make the fatal error of stalling the action by dropping into a retrospective of how the characters got where they are. People want to know what's happening now, not what happened before. One clue that an author's made this mistake is the presence of a lot of had's showing up in the second 500 words of the story. If the story needs supporting background, feed it to the reader in small bits scattered throughout the initial chapters.

76. WRITE STORIES THAT EXCITE YOU. Writing even a short story is a long task. An exciting idea helps keep you going.

77. LIMIT GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. In spite of the escalation of graphic violence in motion pictures, more readers will be offended by it's presence than enjoy it. More importantly, graphic violence establishes an emotional high that's impossible to maintain. Normal passages following such a scene seem boring.

78. BEWARE OF MID-BOOK DOLDRUMS. If you're writing a novel, halfway through it many writers get tired and write accordingly. Prepare for this in advance and concentrate on maintaining an increasing sense of suspense and expectation throughout the book. Put a plot twist, a shocking character disclosure, or let the reader discover some interesting new fact in every chapter, especially those in the middle of the book. Don't let the reader say to himself, "This looks like a good place to stop for the night." He may do so and never look at your story again.

79. END HALF OF YOUR CHAPTERS WITH CLIFFHANGERS. A chapter's end is the natural place for the reader to stop reading. The strongest technique to make him want to read "just one more page" is to end it with a cliffhanger. Unfortunately, ending each chapter like that gets predictable. Top authors of mystery, action and suspense stories end half of their chapters with cliffhangers. Be careful to avoid getting into the pattern of alternating plain endings with cliffhangers. Vary the pattern so your reader never knows what's coming next.

  It's not necessary to resolve a cliffhanger in the beginning of the next chapter. Let the hero swing in the wind for a chapter while the story addresses some other business. It's an effective way to maintain suspense. If the cliffhanger involves an action sequence then you should complete the action in the beginning of the next chapter or you'll lose the action's momentum.

80. ACTION SEQUENCES RESULT IN CHANGE. Action sequences should end with a change taking place so the reader thinks the action resulted in progress. You can accomplish this by introducing a new character, moving the characters to a new location, changing the weather, destroying something, or having something come into being.

81. THE ORDINARY IS IMPORTANT. Commonplace details are as important as unusual details in maintaining interest. Without something normal to compare it to, the extraordinary has no reference to show how extraordinary it is.

82. SUSPENSE IS NOT THE SAME AS ACTION. Suspense is anticipation of action and only works if the reader identifies with or has sympathy for the victim. Create victims your reader loves and tease the reader with disaster hanging over the character's head as long as possible.

83. SHORT SENTENCES SUGGEST SUSPENSE AND ACTION. You can hint that a crisis is approaching by gradually shortening sentence lengths, using shorter words and making references to death or threats. Action sequences also benefit from short sentences and words.

  The opposite is true for portraying an increasing level of intimacy between two characters. In this case, gradually lengthen the duration of each character's uninterrupted discourse. Increasing the amount two characters agree with each other has a similar effect.

  If you're writing a story with military personnel, be careful not to use too many yes, sirs or aye, sirs as one line sentences; they tend to make the passage read choppy and very quickly become repetitious. They are particularly bad in battle scenes because the break up the rapid flow of action.

84. SHOW, DON'T TELL. It's more effective and interesting to use action and dialog to present facts than having a narrator talk about them. Don't say a monster is hideous; describe its appearance and let the reader see for himself that it's hideous. Also, when describing something, use active rather than passive descriptions.

Passive: The house's red paint was peeling.

Active: A breeze fluttered threads of red paint hanging from the
  house's sides.


85. BE DEFINITE. The key is to avoid using not.


  He did not forget. --- He remembered.

  She didn't like it. ---- She disliked it.

  He displayed anger. -- He was mad.


86. KEEP IT SHORT. Don't clutter sentences with words that contribute unnecessary information.


  Bronklin smashed the brass knuckles into Jeff's face covered with studs.

This sounds like Jeff's face is covered with studs. Moving the studs closer to the brass knuckles clarifies the picture.

  Bronklin smashed the brass knuckles covered with studs into Jeff's face.

Eliminating words that slow the impact of the description also helps to maintain the action.

  Bronklin smashed the sharply studded brass knuckles into Jeff's face.


88. NUMBERS. Don't spell out yearly dates, addresses, or serial numbers. One exception is in dialog where monthly dates and ages of people are stated.


  It happened in 1996.

  The address read 48 East Dover.

  The 56th Battalion was wiped out.

  "He'll be seventy-five on March fifth".


  Some editors require that numbers 100 and higher in dialog must be written as numerals. 

89. USE THE CORRECT WORD. English abounds with pairs of words that seem to be interchangeable but actually have different meanings. The most common error is using can, which implies ability, for may, which implies permission. Writers are expected to use words precisely. Chapter four of the third edition of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White has an extensive list of misused words.

90. WRITE IN THE ACTIVE VOICE. Avoid the passive voice. It can't carry a high level of action.


  Passive: The octopus was wrestled by Clyde.

  Active: Clyde wrestled the octopus.


91. USE CONSISTENT LEVELS OF ACTION. Don't have a character do something at two different speeds in the same sentence.

  George slowly levered himself out of the chair and stormed out of the room.

  Levered implies exhaustion. Stormed suggests boundless energy. Sentences like these confuse readers.

92. CONTROL THE PACE IN ACTION SEQUENCES. Don't use your highest action verbs in the beginning of passages containing a lot of action. It gives you no room to accelerate the pace of events. Start at half speed and build to a crescendo of action at the climax.

93. AVOID INTERRUPTING CLAUSES IN SENTENCES. People don't talk that way.

  The greatest church, in my opinion, is the cathedral of Notre Dame.

It's better to write the sentence so it reads more smoothly.

  I think the cathedral of Notre Dame is the greatest church.


94. AVOID ADJECTIVES AND ADVERBS. We live in fast-paced times where action is valued over description. Use action phases to describe instead of adjectives which just tell. However, bright adjectives and adverbs are used by top authors so don't be afraid of them when you feel they're needed. These authors average one adjective for every four nouns and one adverb for every three verbs.

95. EVERY EVENT SHOULD HAVE A REASON. Anytime something happens let the reader know why it happened and show the effect of it's happening.

96. USE SAID. Don't use a lot of words for said like exclaimed, argued, or complained and use said as little as possible. If Mary and John are the only people in a scene use Mary said and John said only at the beginning of the dialog. Readers are smart enough to track whose saying what from then on. Top authors average one said per 250 words of dialog between two people. If more than two people are present you need to use a said on almost every line to be clear who's talking unless it's obvious who'll be talking next from what was said previously. Don't worry about repetition with said. It's not really read by the reader, only acknowledged. It's so dull a word the reader gets the point without being aware of it. Asked is the preferred word for questions.

97. USE BEATS. An alternative way of indicating who's talking is to use a beat. This is a short phase that shows someone doing something before or after he talks. Alternate expressions for this concept are Actions or Character Action. Three classical beats are: He turned, He stood up, and He looked at her. Some writing texts describe these particular beats as cliché beats because they've been used so much. However, simple, time-honored beats like these make up ninety-five percent of the beats used by top authors. New and innovative beats are few and far between. Beats are used an average of one time for every eight lines of dialog between two people. Twice this number is used in dialogs with more than two people.

  Beats should be two to six words long and written so they don't interrupt the flow of dialog. Besides identifying who's talking, beats remind the reader that the dialog is taking place between real people and not disembodied voices. Beats can be used to express emotions by having someone wring his hands before answering a question (nervous, uncertain). When a beat is injected between one character's question and another's answer, they evoke a sense of time spent thinking before the question is answered. Beats also help remind the reader where the dialog is taking place. Finally, beats represent nonverbal communication that can be used to reveal a character's personality to the reader or another character.

  It's critical that the beats assigned to different characters are written so that the characters interact. On person throws a ball, the other catches it. On stomps his foot, another comments about the probable cause for his anger. This is called the interactive subtext.

  Beats are also a great way to avoid talking heads dialog. That's where you have a long succession of statements by different characters without any reference to what they are doing, where they are, or how they react to what's being said. They might as well be disembodied mouths babbling away in a dark room.

  Good sources of beats are 1940s black and white movies. Try the Maltese Falcon. Humphery Bogart was a master of this art. Another good source is Raymond Chandler's mystery novel The Big Sleep. For a list of beats used by top authors and the frequency each is used, see Appendix A.

98. LONG PARAGRAPHS RELAX READERS. A long paragraph after an action or suspense-filled passage is useful to let the reader catch his breath. Twelve lines is long enough, any longer and you may bore your reader.

99. AVOID WORDS ENDING IN -LY. Don't use adverbs ending in -ly to tell the reader how a character said something.

  "Oh my God!" he said excitedly.

  What the person said and context should make it clear he was excited. In this example what was said and the exclamation point make it clear the character is excited. Excitedly is redundant. Top authors use one -ly modifier in this manner only once every 3000 words.

  A tricky twist to this is that it's all right to use an adverb attached to said when the adverb honestly modifies the attribute and isn't describing the character. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein uses -ly modifiers with almost every attribute and gets away with it by carefully avoiding redundancy.

  Gregor said aggressively, "you aren't Demitri."

  This would be a correct use of an adverb if nothing that preceded Gregor's statement indicated he would talk aggressively.

  Adjectives ending in -ly used during dialog or descriptions show up an average of twice in every 250 words of dialog.

100. USE PRONOUNS. Don't use character's names every time in dialog. Throw in a pronoun here and there for variety. When you do mention a character, always refer to him in the same way. Don't make your reader wonder who you're talking about because you've changed the character's name so often the reader's lost track. If you refer to a character in a different way make sure you've let the reader know who you're talking about. But, don't bend over backward to come up with many different ways to refer to a character in an effort to avoid repetition. Don't go overboard on pronouns or repetition will become a problem. Top writers average three pronouns to every time they use a character's name when two characters are involved.

 101. AVOID -ING WORDS. Don't use a lot of words ending in -ing, especially at the beginning of sentences. Few things will label someone as an amateur faster. You may be an amateur but you don't want your stories to read like you are. It can also lead to characters doing impossible things.

  Turning, he walked to the door.

  No one can turn around and walk at the same time. Top authors average three -ing words every 250 words and seldom at the beginning of a sentence. An exception is short the passage describing frenzied activity. These may have half a dozen -ing words in two sentences.

102. LIMIT THE NUMBER OF POINTS OF VIEW. Write each chapter in your novel from one character's point of view. This means the reader knows only what that character sees, hears, feels, tastes, and thinks. The reader observes other characters but can't see into their minds. Avoid changing viewpoint from one character to another in mid-chapter. It confuses the reader. Most important, let the reader know who the point-of-view character is as early in each chapter as possible.

  It's good to use different points of view as the novel progresses as long as one character is the point-of-view character in most of the chapters. A variety of viewpoints allows more flexibility in getting the story to the reader but keep the head-count down so the reader doesn't get confused shifting between a lot of characters. If the point-of-view character isn't the main character, have the point-of-view character refer to the main character or respond to something the main character did to help the reader remember who the hero is.

  Using several points of view is called a limited third person viewpoint and is usually considered the best. An omniscient viewpoint is one where the narrator flits god-like from scene to scene explaining action to the reader from everyone's point of view. Writing a novel in first person, through the eyes of a single character as if the he were talking to the reader, confines you to describing only what that character sees. This is limiting and you have to avoid using I too often.

  Never write from the limited first-person point of view. This would be a novel where the "I" character changes several times. It is extremely confusing even when the reader is prepared for it.

103. BE SPECIFIC. Say cocker spaniel, not dog. It makes the image you're trying to create more concrete. But don't push it. Once the dog's been identified as a cocker, refer to it as a dog in the future. Constantly using the full name, especially if it's a long complicated one like a Volvo S1800 Sports Sedan, is repetitious.

  There's a hazard in being too specific: overwriting. Adding too much detail with too much specificity results in a story bogged down with description.

104. USE REAL LANDMARKS FOR REALISM. Use the names of actual highways and towns to increases the sense of reality in traveling scenes. Have major actions take place in fictitious towns. This way some civic leader can't sue you because you used his town as the site for an environmental disaster that damaged its real-life tourist industry. For the same reason avoid using the names of real-life personalities

105. USE VERBS WITH PUNCH. Dynamic, action-packed verbs like dart instead of run brighten your writing. For every activity there is a range of verbs which describe that action with different levels of intensity. In the case of running, hurtle would be a high action verb, run a middle action and dull verb, and walk slower and duller still. Search for the one word that captures the degree of activity you want to convey.

  Verbs for any activity can be ordered into a spectrum from the slowest to the fastest. An example of such an Activity Level Ordered Thesaurus for the verb run is given in Appendix B. Such lists are useful to find the one interesting verb that expresses the exact level of action desired.

106. DON'T ENCUMBER VERBS. Avoid had's, have's, and their ilk but don't be afraid to use them to clarify when something took place. Top authors use had once in every 500 words of narration. It's almost never used in dialog.

107. USE CONTRACTIONS AND SHORT SENTENCES. Write dialog the way people really talk with contractions and simple, short sentences. Have characters interrupt and misunderstand each other. Let them answer questions before they're asked if it's clear what was going to be asked. A character who's not paying attention may randomly repeat words the speaker says to fake attention. Let characters finish someone else's sentences. Have them hedge, change the subject, lie and dodge questions.

  One way to prepare to write dialog is to pretend you're one of the characters and hold a conversation with another character. You can do this while you're driving to work. (If you're in a car pool you may want to do it silently.) Repeat the dialog several times until it flows smoothly.

108. AVOID HEAVY ACCENTS. The occasional missing, wrong, or misspelled word is enough to identify an accent. Coloring a character's conversation with too much accent makes the reader focus on how a character is saying something instead of what he's saying.

109. AVOID REPETITION. Except for said, don't repeat words, phrases, or techniques. Not only is it boring, it reminds the reader there's a writer in the background. Having a drunk stagger and slur his speech is repetitious; just use one or the other. Accidental rhyme, where two words that sound alike are used close enough together to attract the reader's attention, is also a form of repetition. Accidental rhyme also shows up when two adjacent sentences have the same rhythm.

  Purposeful repetition can be used to present a character the reader is supposed to hate. If a character constantly repeats the same phrase the reader will become annoyed with them. A repeated irrational phrase also effectively identifies a mentally disturbed person.

 110. GIVE IMPORTANT ELEMENTS THE MOST TIME. Use more time to develop important scenes and characters than minor scenes and characters. This shows the reader what he needs to remember. If you spend a lot of time on something you're obligated to have it play a major role in the story or the reader is left with unfulfilled expectations. This comes under the heading of being honest with your reader.

  If your goal is misdirection, keep the reader in contact with the object of the misdirection but only peripherally and make sure that the source of contact makes sense. If it's too contrived, the reader may guess the coming surprise.

111. VARY PARAGRAPH LENGTHS. A chapter full of paragraphs all the same length is boring. Mix up the lengths of your paragraphs to help maintain reader interest. Paragraphs in best-selling books average from one to thirteen lines long. Top authors average seven lines in narrative paragraphs, two in dialog. Short, one line paragraphs are useful for dramatic emphasis. Narrative paragraphs longer than thirteen lines stall action. Even if it's packed with action, a very long paragraph can be difficult for a reader to swallow. It makes readers feel like they're trying to make a long speach without taking a breath.

  Be careful not to pack too many short, pithy, one or two line paragraphs into a passage. It makes it read choppy and uneven. Save the short paragraphs for those special moments when you need a little extra punch.

  Also, avoid multi-character paragraphs where one of them talks; it can confuse your reader as to who is talking.

  Long paragraphs can shift back a forth between dialog and action, but they read choppy. It's best to compose paragraphs so that there is one section of dialog and one of action.

112. VARY CHAPTER LENGTHS. Chapters in effective stories vary from one to fourteen pages long with an average of nine. Short chapters employed during periods of tension increase the reader's sense of suspense or action. One or two page chapters are used to emphasize a single scene that has a major impact on the story.

113. SIDE SCENES ADD INTEREST. Include short scenes outside of the flow of the main story to present interesting information about a place or character. Scenes like this add texture and depth to a novel as well as dramatic or comic relief. These scenes can be imbedded within a main scene.

  In real life nothing is simple, isolated, or unchanging. Side scenes are a convenient way to show how something important to the plot is connected to the rest of your story's world without a major interruption to the action.

114. EMPLOY ALL THE SENSES. Use sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch to pull the reader into your story as long as they don't distract attention away from the action. Someone walking into a busy kitchen might smell the rich aroma of hot bread. The same character bursting into the same kitchen in pursuit of a killer wouldn't.

  Ninety-five percent of a typical novel's sensory information is visual. The remaining five percent is used to accentuate scenes that have significant importance to the story.

  Successful authors average one sense-evoking description every 500 words. Using more than this, unless they are intended to focus attention on one particular element of the passage, results in the story sounding too busy with detail.

115. AVOID CLICHES. These are over-used expressions like:

  It's raining cats and dogs.

  Cliches can also show up in plots such as the cavalry charging to the rescue, a surprise witness solving a murder case, or the villain having a sudden change-of-heart and sacrificing himself to save the hero. Avoid these at all costs.

116. DON'T USE THE RIDICULOUS. Plato never said, "Gee Whiz!" and aliens or foreigners are unlikely to use American slang.

117. DON'T USE INVENTED OR UNUSUAL WORDS. They start the reader thinking about the odd word instead of the story.

118. DON'T OPEN SENTENCES WITH HOWEVER. Avoid however's, therefore's, moreover's, etc. in the front of sentences. They break up the smooth flow of reading. I didn't find a single use of any of these words in the five novels examined. One exception might be a pompous character who repeatedly uses such words to qualify or expand something he's just said. This would be an annoying pattern so don't use it with a character that's supposed to evoke sympathy.

119. DON'T END SENTENCES WITH PREPOSITIONS OR VERBS. It can make readers feel like they've been left hanging in space.

120. USE FLASHBACKS SPARINGLY. They add texture and depth but stop the action.

121. USE FORESHADOWING. A powerful technique to get your reader to wonder about what's going to happen is to tease him with a hint long before the event occurs. This can be done by having a character make an ominous statement or by referring to a potential disaster. Foreshadowing should only be used once or it becomes an obvious device.

122. SHOCK YOUR READER FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT. An effective technique to surprise a reader is to end a bland paragraph with a short, dramatic sentence. The bland passage lulls him into a state of unsuspecting which heightens the impact of the ending. Don't make the bland part too long or the reader may skip ahead and miss the punch line. Ten lines is the maximum. This technique is equally effective for generating humor. Don't use this more than twice in novel-length stories and keep them spaced far apart.

123. DON'T TALK ABOUT EMOTIONS IN THE ABSTRACT. Don't talk about love, greed, etc. in generalities. It bores most people. This may sound shallow but it's true. Present these subjects only as one specific character loving or envying another specific character.

124. KEEP NARRATIVE PASSAGES SHORT. Avoid narrative passages over ten lines long that explain something to the reader. This stalls the action. It's more interesting to present information in small lumps of dialog or action as the story develops.

  Don't force two characters to discuss a subject just to present information to the reader. This is narration in thin disguise. It doesn't read like real conversation.

  This doesn't mean narration is bad. It's a space-efficient tool for presenting bulk facts and useful for indicating the passage of time in just a few words. It can also avoid redundancy by describing a series of repetitious scenes which would otherwise bore the reader.

  Don't misunderstand this bullet to mean you should avoid narration in favor of dialog. A novel should have as much action-packed narration as possible. Just be careful about expository narration

125. LIMIT DESCRIPTIONS TO WHAT'S NEEDED. Give only as much description as is needed to support the scene otherwise the reader will be misled into believing that the thing being described is more important than it actually is.

126. CHARACTERS CAN'T TALK AND MAKE NOISES. Don't have a character chuckle, laugh, snicker, etc. what he said. It can't be done.

  "You're kidding," John chuckled.

It is all right to have him chuckle before he talks.

  John chuckled. "You're kidding."


127. COMPARE AND CONTRAST. Comparing and contrasting people or things to other people and things sharpens the reader's images of them. This makes the images more concrete and pulls the reader deeper into the story.

128. DON'T USE QUALIFIERS. Avoid qualifiers like just, even, like, although, also, besides, almost, if, but, too, unless, sort of, etc., if they weaken what's being said and can introduce a note of ambiguity. Consider the following examples:

..............."I just called to say 'Hi'."

..............."I called to say 'Hi'."

The first case sounds less active and less definite. Also, just can imply recently or only in this case. Such ambiguity weakens the statement.


............. "Although Bob's a great quarterback, he's also a class 'A' jerk."

.............."Bob's a great quarterback and a class 'A' jerk."

The second case reads more active and sounds less like a professor lecturing a class of students. However, in this case I admit that the first version may be more appropriate if the intent is to emphasize contrast between Bob's athletic prowess and his personality.


......... "Unless you want to look like a fool, don't wear long pants to wade in the pond."

......... "If you wear long pants to wade in the pond you will look like a fool."

The second version sounds more definite.


Having made this suggestion, let me qualify it by saying that there are always situations where using them is appropriate, such as for a character you wish to portray as being indefinite or because you simply prefer the way it sounds. In the final analysis you are writing for yourself so you should write the way it sounds best to you.

By the way, the top writers I surveyed averaged one qualifier every 500 words.


129. LIMIT AND. The best authors average three and's per 250 words of narration and three for every 500 words of dialog.


  John pushed through the door, dragged himself across the room and flopped onto bed. 

Top authors only average three sentences like this every 500 words. These sentences are rarely seen in dialog.

131. AVOID INFINITIVES. Use infinitives like to run, to jump, to see, sparingly. Successful authors use them an average of three times per 250 words. The average is the same for narration and dialog.

132. DON'T RESTATE A CHARACTER'S ACTIONS. Don't reiterate an action that echoes a previously stated action.

  His eyes wide, John leaned forward in amazement.

Wide eyes and leaning forward both evoke a sense of amazement with the proper context. Only one is needed. Explicitly stating that John was amazed is telling instead of showing

133. AVOID PHRASES LIKE IN A FEW MINUTES. Transition statements like this are a boring way to tell a reader that a character paused before carrying out some action. The best authors only use phrases or beats like this once in every 1000 words of dialog. It's better to engage the character in some sort of minor activity that implies the passage of time. Similarly, don't have a character sit and wait. People don't just wait. They tap their feet, read magazines, or chew gum.

134. AVOID HAD HAD'S. There's nothing wrong with using had had, were were, or that that but they are awkward to read. Top authors average one of these per novel.

135. USE MORE DIALOG THAN NARRATION. Successful writers average three lines of dialog for every line of narration, but this figure varies greatly from author to author. Some use equal amounts of dialog and narration. Others average five times as much dialog as narration. Shoot for a three-to-one ratio and you'll be in the right ball park.

136. AVERAGE TWO LINES OF DIALOG AT A TIME. The average length one person talks in dialog is two lines. Avoid long passages where one character runs on and on. In normal conversation someone always interrupts an attempt at a long discourse. Exceptions would be a character giving a speech to an audience or a supervisor chewing out an employee.

  Also, make sure that the dialog you use is interesting. One way to add interest is to have the characters talk indirectly.

Direct: "Please leave the room."

Indirect: "Isn't there someplace else you need to be?"


137. AVOID WAS, WERE, ARE, AND IS. Was, were, are and is are dull and lifeless. Top authors limit themselves to an average of four of these per 250 words. Ninety-five percent of the time when one of these words was used, it was was. Your writing will be more lively if you find bright alternatives to these dead verbs.

138. USE INTERNAL MONOLOGUE SPARINGLY. Internal monologue is where a character talks or thinks to himself. Only one of the best selling authors surveyed used internal monologue and then just once every 500 words. Context should identify it as a thought. Don't put internal monologue into parenthesis and don't use the attribute he thought. Avoid having your character mumble or talk under his breath to sneak in a piece of internal monologue. Although occasionally used by some authors, it's considered a cliched technique.

  The best place for internal monologue is at the beginning of a dialog to establish the mind set of a character. The character's interior voice should be the same as his exterior voice. Interior monologue is effective in short, separate, one-line paragraphs to emphasize an important thought (although some editors prefer it at the end of a paragraph). Italics can be used for additional emphasis but keep it short and don't use it more than once every 800 words or it looses it's surprise effect.

  Internal monologue is useful to present a character with two levels of thought. What the character says is what he wants the other character to believe. His internal monolog tells the reader what he really thinks.

  Avoid long passages of internal monologue. Normal people don't think like that and it sounds like exposition.

139. APPEAL TO YOUR READER'S VISUAL EAR. The gross appearance of sentences influence a reader's emotions. Decreasing the length of each line of down the monitor focuses attention on the last word and increases drama. Doing the opposite suggests increasing complexity or a snowballing effect growing out of a simple act.

  Only use this technique once in a story because it's easily remembered and screams repetition.

 140. INSPIRE THE READER'S EMOTIONS. The highest goal writers aspire to is to make the reader experience an emotion strong enough to make his heart pound with excitement or drive him to laughter. Novels that succeed at this are cherished by their readers.

  Anger, in the form of righteous indignation, is the easiest emotion to evoke. Do it by victimizing a sympathetic character through an injustice or giving a hero some weakness then have the villain kick him there. Connie Willis's novel Dooms Day Book demonstrates several effective ways to inspire anger.

  Suspense is created by having danger hang over a character with whom the reader identifies.

  Scare a reader and he'll respect your story, make him mad and he'll tell his friends about it, BUT... make him laugh and he'll nominate you to an awards site. This doesn't mean you have to write a novel filled with comedy. All it takes to capture your reader's heart is to make him or her laugh out loud once or twice during the story. Chapter Six explains techniques for making your reader, and yourself, laugh at something you've written.

  The hardest emotion to inspire is fear. The current generation of readers grew up on a diet of movies containing endless scenes of horrific monsters committing unspeakable acts on innocent victims. As a culture we are inured to this sort of thing. Think back to the last time in your adult life you read something that evoked fear. Examine what you felt carefully. The odds are it was really suspense, anger, or righteous indignation. My recommendation is to avoid trying to invoke fear. It's an impossible task in the modern world.

141. END SENTENCES WITH THE MOST IMPORTANT WORD. The best place for the word you want to emphasize is at the end of a sentence. Like a king's advisors, the one he remembers is the one he hears last.

  We leave tomorrow for Needleton.

  We leave for Needleton tomorrow.

  The first sentence leaves the reader with the sense that the most important issue is that the destination is Needleton. The second sentence places more emphasis on when they were leaving.

  The first word of a sentence is the second strongest place for a word to be emphasized.

  Use these techniques with caution. Trying to employ them too rigorously can result in awkward sentences that take on a passive flavor.

142. DESCRIBE SCENES THROUGH CHARACTER EMOTIONS. Don't always describe scenes as they are. Describe them through the attitudes and emotions of the point-of-view character.

143. DON'T CHANGE TONE IN MID-SENTENCE. Avoid sentences where one part is written in a stiff, formal pattern and another informally. Forcing your reader to shift of gears like this is irritating.

144. AVOID FORMAL LANGUAGE. Don't use stiff, formal language. It sounds like you're trying to show off. Studies have shown that people read with optimum comprehension and pleasure when the writing is at a seventh-grade level. This was true whether the readers were high school dropouts or college graduates.

  One exception to avoiding an overly-formal style would be the dialog of a character you want the reader to dislike.

 145. CHANGE READER'S DISTANCE FROM ACTION SLOWLY. Avoid sudden changes in how close you place the reader to the action.

  The man stepped into the storm. (distant)

  He leaned into the howling wind. (closer)

  The storm blew gritty sand under John's collar. (very close)

  The man walked down the road. (distant)

  The first three lines transition into each other giving the reader time to adjust. The sudden shift from the third line to the fourth is irritating. This is a subtle effect and, as with writing sentences with a mixture of formal and informal phases, the reader may not even be aware of why he's irritated.


  The smell of the ocean greeted him.

  A smell can't greet anyone. This is an area where you can take a lot of literary license. If you enjoy the sound of phrases like the one above, use it. But some readers will think it's odd.

  The angry crags reached for the sky.

  The problem here is that an unnatural personification (can crags really be angry?) is used to tell instead of show. It is also inaccurate because the reader's concept of an angry crag may be different than yours.

  The mountain's shattered crags thrust upward into the blue-black sky.

  This paints a more vivid picture, which is less likely to be misinterpreted by the reader. Additional description would be needed to evoke a sense of anger but once done the overall effect would create a richer emotional impact in the reader.

  One of the most common places for unnatural personification to show up is with eyes. Avoid having them jump, fall out, leap up, climb upward or anything else that implies that they have separated themselves from the character's head and taken on a life of there own. I'll admit that most fan fiction readers won't be bothered by this, but editors and archivists interested in quality writing will nail you for it. Eye's can weep, leer, gaze, blink, look, stare, glower, glare, burn and even blaze, just keep them in their sockets.

147. DON'T USE FLOWERY LANGUAGE. Resist the urge to use flowery language to present a scene unless it's part of a particular characterization. Normal people don't talk like that.

148. DON'T LET GEOGRAPHY LOSE YOUR READER. If you're describing a complex series of movements, like a character walking through a maze, make sure your description of the maze is clear enough so that the reader doesn't get lost, even if the character does. Also, if you begin a new chapter with a sudden shift in characters or location, the first sentence of that chapter should quickly and clearly tell the reader who's present and where they are. Don't make your reader pause and ask what's going on. Doing so breaks the spell of his or her living in the story.

149. MISDIRECT, BUT DON'T LIE. Use misdirection to set your reader up for a surprise, but never lie. Take the opening scene in the Introduction of this book. I used context to imply a theft was about to take place to misdirect your expectations away from the real subject of the book. It wasn't a lie because I didn't say I was going to steal the man's money, only take it. A example of lying to the reader can be found in poor mystery novels where the hero solves the case by introducing new evidence at the very end of the story. The reader feels cheated. A contrasting example would be an Agatha Christie story where the key to the puzzle is clearly shown to the reader early in the story and exposed for what it is at the end. This is playing fair with the reader and the effect is astounding. Not only is the reader surprised at the solution, he's amazed with the realization he had the key all the time and yet failed to recognize it.

150. KEEP VILLAINS HIDDEN AS LONG AS POSSIBLE. Seeing a monster is not as frightening as seeing the edge of it's shadow. The longer you can keep your villains hidden the longer you'll maintain a high level of suspense. The movie Jaws is an outstanding example of this technique. Even though it was obvious that the monster was a shark, keeping it out of sight until the last scenes greatly increased the sense of horror.

151. USE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CONFLICT. A story is a character resolving conflict. The conflict can be a physical, moral, political, emotional, or economic. It can be man against man, man against nature, aliens against machines, or science against evil. The combinations are endless. Look for unusual conflicts to brighten your story.

152. SURPRISE ENDINGS MUST BE FORESHADOWED. A surprise ending that satisfies is a gift all readers cherish. To make such endings work and be honest with your reader, the source of the surprise must be established early in the story. A perfect example of this is the last scene in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. The entire book sets the reader up for the surprise yet no one ever expects it.

153. TIE UP ALL LOOSE ENDS. Make sure all loose ends are tied up at the end of your story. Your reader has invested a lot of time reading it and he's going to feel cheated if he doesn't get all of the answers he wants. Some stories end with the characters wandering off surrounded by danger. The reader purposely left to wonder about their fate. Master writers can get away with this... barely. The problem is that even done to perfection the reader is still deprived of that warm glow of a well-rounded solution.

  One exception is the series book. Here readers want the resolution to the story's problem but also expect a hint of things to come. A tease at the end of the novel offers them the promise that the adventure, or at least the characters, will continue. If you do this you are obligated to write the follow-on story and have it available within a reasonable period of time... usually within two months.

154. HAVE VICTORY COST YOUR HERO SIGNIFICANTLY. If it doesn't, his struggle will be trivialized. Let your hero hang on the hook of an agonizing dilemma where his inner emotions tear at his, and your reader's, heart. Make the dilemma such that no matter which way the story turns out the hero loses something he values.

 155. DON'T LOSE THE READER. The number-one rule in good writing is never confuse the reader. Break every other rule but this one.

156. DEATH ISN'T ALWAYS ENOUGH. If you want to leave your reader with the feeling that justice has been served, just having the villain die may not be a sufficiently satisfying punishment. Suppose he's tortured hundreds of children to death. A painless execution by injection hardly meets the eye-for-an-eye punishment most readers demand so match the antagonist's punishment to his crimes. Excellent examples of this can be found in many of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels. Mr. Hammer seldom just shoots the bad guy. He's more likely to beat him up, shoot him so he dies a slow, painful death and taunt him as he writhes in agony. It may not be a pretty scene but it's beautiful writing.

157. KEEP HEROES SHORT OF TIME. Placing a time limit on when the main character has to accomplish the final salvation in your story is an effective way to force readers toward the edges of their chairs. If you want to suddenly increase the level of tension, do something that cuts the hero's time to an impossible amount. This can be as effective as introducing a new threat.

158. FINISH WHERE YOU STARTED. One additional way to end a story that gives the reader a warm, closed-loop feeling is to have something in the final scene be the same as in the story's opening scene. This element of commonality can be the location, characters, or a particular action. Endings such as this are useful in series of novels because they establish that no matter what problems the series characters face, when everything's said and done all's back to normal and they're ready for the next adventure.

159. VARY SENTENCE LENGTHS. Best-selling authors use sentences from one to twenty-six words long. The average is thirteen. A series of sentences all the same length and form is boring.

  He pulled out his gun.

  He turned toward her.

  He pulled the trigger.


  Of course there's more wrong with these sentences than sentence length but they get the point across. Let's combine the last two sentences.

  He pulled out his gun.

  Turning towards her, he pulled the trigger.


  This is slightly better. It reads smoother and his turning and pulling the trigger at the same time isn't too awkward but we can do better. Since this is the last entry in this chapter let's use some of the other guidelines to brighten this passage. There are two hes and two pulleds. Replacing these dull, repeated words with specific, active words and giving the characters names helps.

  John jerked out his gun.

  Spinning toward Jane, he fired.

  John and Jane are dull names. Giving characters interesting names is a good first step toward improving the story. Also, using last names versus first names makes the reader think less friendly toward the character called by his last name and more sympathetically toward the character addressed by his first name, especially if you use a soft first name to inspire sympathy. To give the scene more impact let's get more specific about the gun, eliminate the -ing word, and specify where he fired.


  Bronklin jerked the revolver out of its holster. He spun toward Jennifer, took aim and fired point blank into her face.


A bit graphic but certainly a more entertaining passage.





  Make your readers laugh and they'll hunt the Internet for more of your work.

  Authors from Shakespeare to Stephen King have realized this and always include comic interludes in their serious works. Comic moments provide relief from what would otherwise be an endless, boring drama. A comic touch also increases the effectiveness of serious passages by providing contrast.

  Comic scenes frequently come automatically to authors as they're writing and provide the comic relief every story needs. However, from time to time an author recognizes he or she needs to insert something funny at a particular spot in a story and nothing obvious presents itself. This following information will help you manufacture something comical.

  The mechanics of creating something funny are complex and laborious. Fortunately, for the serious novel you'll only need a few humorous moments. This chapter provides several guidelines to get you started. For a complete treatment read Comedy Writing Secrets by Melvin Helitzer.

  Comedy on demand is not accidental. It's calculated as coldly as mathematics and choreographed as meticulously as a ballet. The formula for creating humor is:


put-down + surprise = comedy.


  Putting-down a character in a novel makes the reader feel superior. Surprise initiates an automatic laugh response that evolved in humans as a defensive action to hide weakness. When these two reactions are evoked at the same time people laugh and feel good about themselves. Any insult or insulting depiction creates the put-down. Surprise is created by heading the reader in one direction then using a short punch line to show things weren't going where the reader thought.

  Three ways to inject humor into a story are: the one-liner, the joke, and the comic scene.

  One-liners are short comments made by one character in response to something another character has said or something that's happened. These comments use a play-on-words to create humor by using words or phrases with double meanings. One-liners are part of the story's action while jokes are separate anecdotes that one character tells another.

  Jokes in stories have to be told by a character. It takes an adept author to pull this off without breaking the flow of the story so approach adding a joke to your novel with caution.

  Comic scenes involve throwing a character into an uncomfortable situation and letting the reader delight in the character's squirming. The surprise element in comic scenes is that the situation is something in which the reader wouldn't expect the character to be found. Most comic scenes will present themselves to you while you're writing your story. The key in recognizing a scene's potential for comedy is to constantly imagine your characters acting out the story as you write it.


160. USE ONE, ONE-LINER PER CHAPTER. More than this makes it difficult to maintain a serious tone. Only two or three are needed throughout the entire story to give the reader the pleasant tickle that'll make him remember your name. One exception would be a character that uses a lot of one-liners to type him as a clown, insecure person, or wise guy.

161. ONE-LINERS ARE REALLY TWO-LINERS. A one-liner is a character's response to something said or done. The lead-in statement or event is like the straight man in a comedy team. He feeds the funny man straight lines that provide the material for the punch line. In stories the initial situation or straight line sets the reader up by heading him in a particular direction. The second line, the one-liner, is the pay off. In a mystery, the lead-in might be one detective describing his discovery of a suspect, who's a well-known gardener, performing a questionable sexual act among his vegetables. The scene would be presented straight with a description that portrays the gardener in embarrassing terms. A second detective says,


"I guess gardeners like it dirty."


  One-liners come in many flavors: play-on-words, reverses, or triples. The above example is categorized as a play-on-words because is uses the double meanings of the words it and dirty to suggest a second meaning to what the situation and words literally say.

162. HOW TO WRITE A PLAY-ON-WORDS ONE-LINER. The first step in creating a comic one-liner in response to a situation is to list all of the words related to the subject of the situation. In the case of the suspect it's gardening. Next, expand each of these words into its components.


gardening - plants - flowers





- tools

  -- rakes

  -- shovels

  -- trowels


- dirt

  -- compost

  -- clay

  -- rocks

  -- sand


- activities

  -- digging

  -- watering

  -- planting


  In this example the word lists were purposely kept short. In reality you'd make them as long as possible. The goal at this stage is to go for quantity. Quality comes later.

  Next, list all the clichés or phrases related to the target subject. Again, aim for quantity.


  He's out in the garden

  He likes gardening

  He's in the garden

  He likes it in the garden.

  Gardening is dirty work.


  Take all the words from the initial lists and look for those with double meanings or that sound alike.


flower - flour

out - outside


it - general subject

  - sex



  -- soiled

  -- sex



  -- garden tool

  -- adventurer, philanderer


  Read through these lists several times. The cliché list will suggest comic possibilities. Juggle the double-meanings list with the cliché list until something jumps out at you. Fifty percent of all humor is based on sex because all humans share a desire for and insecurity about it. This universal constant means that humor aimed at sex is more likely to be understood and successful than any other subject. Following that clue, create as many rewritten clichés that use the double meaning of it as you can imagine.


  He likes it in the garden

  He likes it in the dirt



  Continue juggling with the goal of making the statement as short and twisted as possible. This is where you use judgment to throw out ideas that don't work and encourage those that do. The "gardeners like it dirty" line came from this process.

  If this process sounds laborious... it is. Figure one hour of hard work for a simple one-liner. Is it worth it? Yes, if you want to develop a full range of writing skills that will help you write effective novels.

163. WRITING A REVERSE. A reverse derives humor by surprising the reader with the knowledge that the real object of a situation is the opposite of what was expected.


  When school is out, there's always the tearing up homework, screeching and giggling. You would think professors would act more dignified. - Paul Sweeney


  The set-up must create a credible image in the reader's mind that directs attention toward an obvious object or person. The punch line must be short and disclose that the real object is the opposite of, but related to, of the implied object. Mr. Sweeney's joke wouldn't be funny if he'd reversed to policemen, janitors, or even principals. The associations of these professions to students, the implied objects, is too weak and not sufficiently opposite.

  To construct a reverse, create a scene with an implied object. Then make a list of everything related to this object. Select those things that are diametrically opposite to the implied object and chose from them the one that creates the biggest smile.

  Telling a joke in a novel risks pulling the reader away from the story-line so it's best the write the setup as a scene or observation and have a character deliver the punch line in a one-liner.

164. TRIPLES CREATE COMIC MOMENTUM. A triple is a form of one-liner where the set-up statement takes the form of two, short declarative statements instead of a single statement. The advantage of the triple over the one-liner is that its format allows the reader to build up greater momentum before reaching the punch line.


  The most honorable Judge Herbert Watkins, pride of the community, example to the youth, was drunk as a skunk.


  In this case the triple begins after the first comma. The first declaration prods the reader in a particular direction while the second kicks him to greater speed so he slams into the punch line at a full run.

  Triples are most effective if all three statements have the same structure. This enables the reader to skim through them giving him less time to guess at the approaching punch line.

  It's easiest to write a triple backwards. Start with the a phase that instills the final image you want to convey then add two statements in front of it which are diametrically opposite to it. Finish by polishing all three statements until they read smooth and fast.

165. EXAGGERATE! Overstatements and understatements are easy ways to create humor.

  Picture a scene with two detectives standing over a corpse riddled with bullet holes, knife wounds and an ax sticking out of it's head.


"Think we need a coroner?"


"This guy's gonna need two coroners!"

  Exaggerating the size, shape, color, cost, etc. of anything can lead to humor.

...a rat as big as a rhinoceros...


166. KEEP COMIC SCENES SHORT AND FAR BETWEEN. Comic scenes should be shorter than two paragraphs long. Any longer and they dominate the chapter. If you want to end the chapter on a light tone end it with the comic scene. If you want to use the comic scene to heighten drama, put the comic scene at the beginning or middle of the chapter. Two comic scenes in a novel-length story are enough to supply dramatic relief.

167. USE FUNNY SOUNDING WORDS. Psychologists have found that words containing the hard k or long e sounds evoke more humor than words without them because if spoken, these letters activate the same muscles used for smiling. Test this by reading the following lists:

dull ------------- funny

salmon ----------- turkey

porche ------------ buick

donut ------------ cookie

Joe ------------- Claude

Elizabeth ----------- Becky

one ------------- three

five ----------- eighteen

ten -------------- sixty


  The effect is slight but useful. Use these sounds in the names of characters or things you want to portray as foolish. It's just as important to avoid these sounds when you're identifying a character or object that's supposed to be taken seriously.



  Should you rewrite? Yes!

  A freshly completed draft of a story is like an unfinished road; it may pass through beautiful scenery but the ride is so rough you can't enjoy the trip. Rewriting smooths the bumps out of a story just like a grader makes a road drivable.

  The good news is rewriting isn't the horror it's made out to be. It's easier and faster than writing and gives a feeling of polished accomplishment drafts can't provide. Here are some hints to make rewriting easy and productive.

168. DON'T TRY TO WRITE THE PERFECT STORY. It can't be done. Attempting to correct every last error will get you trapped in an endless cycle of revisions.

  When have you done enough rewriting? When you can read your story cover to cover without feeling a strong urge to change something. Once you're there it's time go on to something else, like writing a second story.

169. SOLUTIONS OUT OF THE BLUE. You may wonder where ideas for improvements will come from. For mechanical problems, guides like the one you're now reading will help. For plot changes, new scenes, or fresh dialog, don't worry. The amount of time it takes to write a story permanently imprints the major elements of the story in your mind. For weeks after you put it away flashes of inspiration on how to solve one problem or another will come to you automatically. Write them down in your notebook. By the time you're ready to start rewriting you'll have more than enough material to improve your story.

170. WAIT BETWEEN REWRITES. Don't look at your story for at least a month between readings. This gives you enough time to forget some of it's details so when you pick it up again it'll seem fresh and new. The key to good rewriting is to proof read slowly. Writers are so familiar with their work that when they look at it they don't really read but just skim it; their memories fill in the words they jump over. The hazard is that this permits mistakes to be jumped over as well.

171. CHECK GRAMMAR AT NIGHT. Proof read for punctuation, spelling and other grammar mistakes in the evening. That's when most people are tired and irritable. In this state of mind grammatical errors leap off the page. Correcting spelling errors is particularly important. As a writer you work hard to create the illusion in your reader's mind that they are living an actual story. A misspelled word is like a slap in the face, shocking them out of the illusion by reminding that they are just reading a story.

172. REWRITE IN THE MORNING. Rewriting is the process of improving the effectiveness of your writing as opposed to proof reading which corrects grammatical mistakes. Rewrite in the morning or whenever you're at your best.

173. ELIMINATE THE IRRELEVANT. Cut even good passages if they don't advance the plot or add interesting texture that's pertinent to the story. Don't discard these passages. Record them in your notebook because they may be useful in another novel.

  This is a good test of how serious you are about becoming an author. If you have the strength to cross out a beautifully written paragraph because it doesn't fit you probably have what it takes to become a successful writer.

 174. DROP THEs AND As. Discard as many thes and as as possible. It brightens your writing. Imagine you have to pay for every word on the monitor and it'll be surprising how many unnecessary thes and as turn up.

175. FOLLOW YOUR FEELINGS FOR DELETING. If you ask yourself if something should be cut, it probably should.

176. EACH CRISIS SHOULD ACCOMPLISH SOMETHING. Every major crisis should advance the plot, reveal something about a character, introduce something new, or increase the mystery. If it doesn't, rewrite it so it does or delete it.

177. READ IT OUT LOUD. Eventually, you should read everything out loud, especially dialog. If you stumble over any words, change or delete them so the passage reads smoothly. If you feel the impulse to pause; stick in a comma, speaker attribute, or beat. An inclination to pause is your subconscious telling you that if this were real conversation the speaker would put a break.

178. USE AN OUTSIDE READER. Welcome criticism and use it. A second person's point of view is the best way to identify unclear areas where you understood what was going on so well you assumed the reader did as well resulting in an important piece of information being left out. The problem with proof readers is locating someone willing to invest the time to make honest, specific, constructive notes as they read. Query owners of fan fiction sites hosting stories in your genre to see if they'll proof your story. Archives sometimes have lists of proofreaders. Finally, apply to fanzines for publication. Even if they reject your story, their comments will let you know what you did wrong. In all fairness to fanzine editors, make sure your story is well polished and has been proofed by at least one other person before submitting it. Fanzine publishers and editors are heavily overloaded and it isn't fair to waste their time on a rough draft.

179. DON'T TRY TO FIX EVERYTHING IN ONE REWRITE. If you do your progress will be so slow that it'll take a year to finish. Worse still, by attempting the impossible task of remembering fifty different mistakes to look for, many will be missed. It's more effective to concentrate on two or three problems and get the rewrite done in a reasonable amount of time. Put the story away awhile and address a few more problems during the next rewrite.

  The following checklist can help you make certain you've checked your story for all the important issues.

  1. Have you proved your theme?
  2. Have you touched the reader's emotions?
  3. Is there conflict and is the reason for it believable?
  4. Do your characters grow?
  5. Are all the loose ends tied up?
  6. Have you engaged all the reader's senses?
  7. Did use use active instead of static descriptions?
  8. Did events grow out of each other?
  9. Is the climax satisfying?


180. DELETE ENTIRE CHAPTERS IF THEY DON'T BELONG. The hardest task during a rewrite is accepting that a major plot error has been made and whole chapters have to be thrown out. It's painful because these chapters represent many hours of hard work. Steel yourself. If it has to be done, do it. If you don't you won't have a story but a collection of scenes and events that confuse rather than entertain.

181. AN ELECTRONIC CAUTION. Beware of the "find and replace all" function. These things can sometimes reach inside words and change parts of them. You may intend to change a name and change the spelling of a hundred words.

182. BEWARE OF SPELL CHECKERS. One of the greatest technical assists to amateur writers is the automatic spell checker. For all their value they're notorious for ignoring the wrong word spelled correctly. They're also only good when used. It's easy to forget to run a chapter through a spell checker after every rewrite. The result is that new misspellings slip into your work. Cultivate the habit of using the spell checker before you close a chapter file. Finally, some spell checkers accept two different spellings for the same word. Both may be correct. In such cases go to a second reference and use the preferred form.

183. USE BOTH THE MONITOR AND PRINTER. A document displayed on a monitor doesn't read like print on paper. It's not better or worse, just different so don't do all of your proof reading using the monitor. Print your story at least once and proof this hard copy. It takes time but you'll catch things missed on the monitor. The opposite is true. If you always review printed sheets, work through the story once on the screen.

184. DON'T PRINT ON THE BACKS OF PREVIOUS DRAFTS. This sounds like a good way to save paper but it's not worth it. The printing on the backside shows through giving the side you're reading a distracting, dirty look that can affect the quality of a rewrite. Printing on the backs of pages also leads to confusion about which side represents the current draft.



  This is a list of the short phrases, called beats, used to describe a character's movements usually just before he or she says something. These beats came from the novels analyzed for this text. The number of slash marks after the verb indicate the number of times that particular beat was used. Common modifiers used with the principle verb are listed after the slash marks.


clapped him on the shoulder
pinched his eyebrows
shouldered her way into the mob
he pitched forward
eyelids fluttered and opened
tottered toward the door
puckered into a pout
puffed as he lowered his bulk
tipped forward
lurched sideways
skidded down the hallway
burst // into tears, through the door
whacked the pillow
plucked at her sleeve
glanced ////////////// at, outside, fearfully, sadly
nodded //////////////
sighed ///////////// ruefully, glumly
looked /////////////////////////// round-eyed, over, up, at him with a beaming smile, troubled, him over, sourly, long- suffering, pained, baffled, into his eyes, wide-eyed, into his face, wistful
shrugged ///////////
shivered ////
shook his head ////////////// finger
smiled /////////////
stopped //// to wheeze, smiling
shuddered //
frowned //////
turned ///////// away, to, toward, her head, red
blinked ///
chewed /// thumb, lip, nail
rushed ///
came ///// over, in, out
pooched her lips out
walked or walking /// in, with labored awkwardness, noiselessly
struggled out of his overcoat
stuffed it in the bag
wrestled into the coat, it out of the box
jammed it back in
pursed his lips
rummaged in the shopping bag
started ///// fingering it, to bawl, to leave, toward, to pry himself
lifted //// his glass, the paper
replaced /
left ////// without closing his mouth, again
picked /// imaginary lint from her sleeve, the trunk up, at her food
stuck / a cigarette in his face, out her lip
dug / out a
opened ///// her eyes, the door, her mouth
leaned // over, heavily on the bed rail, back in her chair
patted /// his stomach, her knee, his shoulder
punched / buttons
flipped / the lights off
kept quiet
stood up
gave him a detailed account
pressed the button
let out a long breath
straightened // up, impatiently
took his face in her hands
tried to re-swallow her stomach
eyebrows went up
thumbed through the papers
gasped ///
broke /// into a sly smile, out a cigar
threw up both hands
unlocked the door
led them in
put a finger to his lips
grimaced ///
glowered ///
let his features mellow
drew himself up
nostrils dilated
switched off
got // into the argument, clumsily up
held out both hands
took /// a few steps
stepped //// into the hallway, back nimbly
shied away
wriggled // into pajamas
wiggled / her toes
knelt ///
reached out and touched her
drew back hastily
tried to be a roadblock
dropped // the papers, to her knees
drummed /// on the table, fingernails
got up, squared his shoulder, went into the meeting
pushed back from his desk
sat back
bathed and painted and combed
emptied the drink
cut in
gathered // them by eye, up her skirts
bit her lip
twisted one toe in the grass
repressed a yawn
scowled ///
slumped //
stumbling and stammering she told
appeared to count to ten
counted to ten
sat down
pulled up a chair
timidly touched her hand
jaw dropped
muffed the adjustment
grudged a grin
jaw muscles were jumping
trotted over
recalled... and winced
covered his ears
slapped a hand to his face
charged toward it
was choked with
mellowed slightly
thought rapidly
hummed happily
shoved /// into the crowd, his chair back, through the door
hooked // his spectacles over his ears, a thumb at
gave way
stretched and felt a great weariness, like a million
lumbered upstairs
dimpled ///
pondered it
made a face
waved // the papers, a hand, it aside, vaguely at the screens
raised his voice
jumped in
clipped his answers
mouth worked, but only noises came out
poised to get up
relaxed with a great sigh
barely hesitated
swaggered off
held his breath
eyes twinkled
fixed /// it, him with an eye
whirled around
screwed up his face
met them
took a cigar out of his mouth
put his fingers to his lips and whistled
threw a salute
changed to a smile
snuck a glance
squeezed his hand
eyes got big
undulated away
raised both arms
stared /// blindly at it
gave in
yanked them off
closed /// his eyes, the door, the file
twisted, almost falling out of his chair
sat up //
dumped his drink
covered it
pointed a finger
eyes filled with tears
shifted his attention
twanged the string
tossed it to
wiped // his spectacles on his muffler, his eyes
sat by her
stared at // his glass, her
showed him // how to, where to
dropped the matter
made a croaking noise
swung around
glided towards them
pursued the last bite with a fork
sat down
pulled him down
jutted out his lips
fitted his fingertips together
pointed out
made a disorderly rout
heaved a sigh
went // blindly, with her
called out
reached for her
went around the table
thought about it
strolled into the room
poured a glass of water
gripped his arm
puttered about
leered at him




  The following lists are beats grouped by the types of emotions they express. These don't have to be used only as is but also as inspirations to your own imagination to come up with better beats.


Pinched his eyebrows
His expression cooled ten degrees
Pursed his lips
Raised an eyebrow
Eyebrows went up
He arched his eyebrows
She crinkled her eyes (like she'd missed something whispered about her)
His eyes got a little watchful
He beetled his forehead
Arched his eyebrows
Frowned with his eyebrows
A cleft formed between his eyebrows
The skin around his eyes drew tight
He cocked his head slightly to one side
Leaned his head back to look down the ridge of his nose at him
His eyebrows shot half way up his forehead
He grimaced with one eye
He turned his head to one side but kept his eyes on him
A suspicious little half-smile curved his lips
He measured his words with a teaspoon
His eyes veiled themselves with doubt
A sneer touched the corners of his lips
His jaw muscles jumped as he considered my words
He leaned forward
Listened with his entire body
Stroked his jaw
Flicked an eyebrow
His mouth hung open, forgotten
She pouched her lips out
Gave him a short side-glance
Gave him a tolerant smile
He gave him a small cool smile
He stared over tended fingers at her
He scratched his wide forehead
A deep crease appeared on his forehead
He narrowed his eyes
He made two black vertical lines between his eyes
His lips quirked at the corners
Made a vague sound in his throat
His look turned cool




He blushed
A crimson flush spread up from under his collar
Her ears burned hot
He turned red
He turned away with a shy smile
He looked down (examined) his fingernails
He stuttered
He fumbled his words
His eyes turned down (away)
He eyes skipped around the room; left, right, anywhere but in her eyes
His mouth formed a circle and pink colored his cheeks
Her cheeks colored like a peach in the sun
He shifted in his chair
He stared and tried to swallow
He gulped
He coughed out a nervous laugh
A feeling like stage fright churned his stomach
It felt like chains tied him to the words he'd spoken
His breathing came in short, irregular gasps
His voice quavered
There was a strain in her smile
She willed her eyes to look into his face even though they strained to turn away
Red spots flared on her cheeks
His lips trembled in an insecure smile
He clipped his answers short, tried to avoid looking at her
He tried not to look at her but his eyes kept slipping back to her face
He squirmed
She looked like she didn't know what to do with her face




He steepled his fingers
Chewed his lip, nail, or thumb
He nodded slowly to himself
Pursed his lips
He chewed slowly, ruminatively
He touched his lips with two fingers
His face closed in thought
Touched his lips with his fingers
A slowness overcame his voice
Touched the end of his pen to the corner of his mouth
His eyes looked past me
Muscles drew the skin around his eyes tight
He cast his eyes upward
Studied the ceiling
Eyes grew distant
His face grew vague
His eyes focused inward
His eyes glazed over
His voice trailed off
A veil drew across his eyes
His eyes took on a sheen
Chewed his tongue
Furrowed his brow
Brought his eyebrows together
His face pinched in concentration
Stared straight ahead and rubbed his thumb against his fingers
The skin over his eyebrows wrinkled, He wrinkled the skin over his eyebrows
Made a clicking sound in the side of his cheek
Ran a finger along his jaw
Chewed the end of his pencil
Rubbed the end of his nose
Tapped his forehead
Tapped a pencil on his desk
Pinched his lower lip
Pulled at an earlobe, the hairs at the corner of an eyebrow
Scratched his beard, side of his head, behind his ear, eyebrow
Bit (chewed) the inside of his cheek
Frowned with his eyebrows
Massaged the back of his neck
He eyes were far away
He tapped his lips with his fingertips
Put a finger to his lips
His face took on a measured look
He drifted away, like he'd forgotten where he was
He frowned to himself
His eyes went somewhere else
His mouthed worked without making any sound, but only noises came out
His face took on a pondering air
He chewed his cigar
He jutted out his lips
He fitted his fingertips together
He half-closed his eyes
He stewed for a minute
Thoughts passed behind his eyes like shadows
Whistled quietly under his tongue




The weight of his shadow was enough to drag him down

Nuzzeled his lips around a forth cup of coffee
Let out a long breath
Dropped to his knees
Heaved a sigh
He spread his hands
His nerves jumped
He waved vaguely with a hand
His face crumpled into a rueful grimace
His eyes glossed (crossed) over me without recognition
Her voice quavered
He offered her a flat smile
He forced (willed) a smile
Exhaustion drew his face down (made the pouches on his face sag)
His arms fell to his sides
He couldn't keep his eyes focused
Shadows kept drifting through his vision
He heard a sizzling, headache sound in the back of his skull
Fell, crumpled, collapsed into his chair
His hands shook
His sucked in desperate gulps of air
Drew in a long breath and let it hiss out slowly
His eyes sagged
He made a vague sound in the back of his throat
His eyes were (went) somewhere else
His eyes went dull
He blinked, waiting for recognition to sink in
Nodded dolefully
Exhaustion roughened his words
Managed a weak smile
His eyes drifted half closed
He made a wry mouth
He made a confused smile
He raised a hand only to let it fall away at his side
Purpose was a distant thought, lost behind a mountain of fatigue
He sank into the chair
His voice sounded fuzzy, like he was one scotch short of drunk
He dragged his shadow after him


Activity Level Ordered Thesaurus


  The following list of words is ordered from the lowest level of action to the highest for verbs that can be used to express activities related to running or walking. Some of these words express a sense of continuous action while others are impulsive. This list is not comprehensive.

  Lists like this can be made for any activity and are invaluable for finding the perfect verb for a scene. To construct one of these lists, begin by making a list of all the words you can think of for the activity in question, then look up each of those words in a good thesaurus and add any new words that fit. Repeat this process until all the words you find are ones you've already listed. Finally, rearrange them from one extreme level of activity to the other. Keep any lists you make up close at hand for easy reference. Making one of these lists can take several hours but it is time well invested. They become a ready reference that last forever.

  Note that many words not only express how fast a person moves but create bright images of the nature of the motion and even hint at the person's attitude.


Activity Level Ordered Thesaurus for run

clipped along
struck off for
ran (noticed how boring this word is in comparison to the others!)



  The following lists present many different ways to express simple actions. These lists are useful for finding ways to avoid repetition when you have similar actions occurring close to each other or when you just want a different way to describe a common activity.


Trailed after
Tagged along
Dogged his steps
Tracked after him
Walked in his shadow
Dragged (or any walk-like verb) after him
Tailed him
Fell in line behind him


FROZE(as in stopped suddenly)

Jarred to a halt
Checked his forward motion
Held up
Slammed to a stop like he'd been instantly fossilized
Locked every bone (muscle) tight
Drew himself up short
Braked like he'd crashed into an invisible wall



Led the way
Forged ahead of them
Blundered forward
Charged ahead
Stormed forward
Blazed a trail
(almost any walk/run word or phrase)
Pointed the way
Made his way forward, through the tangle



looked sideways, along his eyes, out of the corners of his eyes, down his nose
fixed him with his eyes, a stare
made out
make out
sized up
gave him a side-glance
strained to see
looked askance at him
His eyes ate him with hate
feasted his eyes on it
Acid poured from his eyes
shot a glance
eyes sparked fire
fired a glare
eyes fired splinters at him
gave him a stare




(As in a character shifting his position.)

Squared his shoulders
scooted to the right, forward, backward, away, sideways around



Sat down
Jammed himself into the chair
Threw himself down
Collapsed onto the stool
He fell into the sofa
Dropped like the dead
Pushed himself down
Snuggled deeper into the cushions
Hurled himself at the couch
Lowered himself gingerly
Eased into the seat
Landed with a thump
Puffed as he lowered his bulk



Stood up
Snapped up, to attention
Lurched up
Struggled upward
Bolted up
Wrestled himself to a standing position
Eased himself up
Threw himself up and out of the chair
Drew himself up to his full height
Bounced up
Climbed up

Clamored up



Eased around
Swung about



  Here's a listing of different sounds grouped by their intensity.


Snap ------- buzz -------- blare
Snick ------ bong -------- bellow
Ting ------- gong --------- bang
Tang ----- clatter -------- boom
Plink ----- clamor -------- roar
Twang ---- thunk --------- crash
Tinkle ------ thud
Plink -------- ding
Chink ------- dong
Clink ------- jangle
Chirp ------- jingle
Bing -------- ring
Ding ------- rumble
Ping ------- rattle
Tick ------- crack



Suggested Reading List


The Mist, a novella by Stephen King in his anthology, Skeleton Crew, (Signet, 1986).

  This story presents four glowing examples of prime writing techniques: ending a dull paragraph with a short, startling sentence to emphasize drama, making a minor character interesting by disclosing an unsuspected ability, keeping the reader's interest in this character alive by having this character grow as the story progresses, and using the repetition of an irrational phrase to portray another character's descent into insanity. Mr. King's development of suspense by placing a sympathetic character in jeopardy from an insane mob shows that terror doesn't come from the monsters chasing us as much as from those inside of us.


Dooms Day Book, by Connie Willis, (Bantam Books, 1992).

  This book accomplished the remarkable achievement of winning both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for outstanding science fiction. Besides being an excellent read this novel demonstrates two effective ways to invoke righteous indignation in readers. In one instance Ms. Willis creates a bureaucrat so absorbed in his own agenda he's oblivious to the dangers to which he exposes his employees. You want to slam this guy against a wall. In the other instance, Ms. Willis has the hero vainly trying to resolve a critical problem but can't because he's besieged by an endless stream of people forcing petty problems on him.


Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein, (Putnam, 1961).

  The opening sentence of this novel uses a timeless cliché to create a powerful attention grabber. Its effectiveness is equaled only by the surprise disclosure on the last page that illustrates the power of closing a novel with something that captures the reader's imagination.

  This novel is a masterpiece of character creation and development. Once read, the people populating this book will live in your mind forever. This story's also the most entertaining science fiction social commentary ever written.


Retief of the CDT, by Keith Laumer, (Pocket Books, 1971).

  In this series of short stories Mr. Laumer does the impossible. He creates a character who is superior in every conceivable way, cynical, and even a little arrogant, yet Mr. Laumer makes you love him. I'm still trying to figure out how it's done.


The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison, (Berkley, 1970).

  The first book of this series shows the irresistible power of opening a novel with an attention-grabbing scene. Before the first page is over Mr. Harrison hits you smack between the eyes with not one, but four needle sharp hooks to capture your attention. I dare anyone to read the first page and not want to finish the book. The Stainless Steel Rat also demonstrates how wry humor spices up a story.


Bova, Ben. The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1994.

Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self Editing for Fiction Writers. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.

Buchman, Dian and Seli Groves. The Writer's Digest Guide to Manuscript Formats. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1987.

Card, Orson Scott. Characters & Viewpoint. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1988.

Carrol, David L. A Manual of Writer's Tricks. New York: Marlowe & Company, 1995.

Clark, Thomas. The Writer's Digest Guide to Good Writing. ed. by Thomas Clark. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1994.

Collier, Oscar with Frances Spatz Leighton. How to Write & Sell Your First Novel. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1986.

Delton, Judy. The 29 Most Common Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1985.

Edelstein, Scott. 30 Steps to Becoming a Writer and Getting Published. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1993.

Gardener, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

Greenberg, Martin and Isaac Asimov. Cosmic Critiques: How and Why Ten Science Fiction Stories Work. Cincinatti, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1990.

Grisham, John. The Chamber. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Harrison, Harry. The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat. Berkley Books: New York, 1978.

Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: G. P. Putnam's Son's, 1961.

Helitzer, Melvin. Comedy Writing Secrets. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1987.

Herman, Jeff. 1999-2000 Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents. Prima Publishing: Rocklin, California, 1998.

King, Stephen. The Dark Tower, The Gunslinger. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1989.

King, Stephan. Skeleton Crew, The Mist. New York: Signet, 1986.

Laumer, Keith. Retief of the CDT. New York: Pocket Books, 1978.

Mandell, Judy. Book Editors Talk to Writers. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.

McBain, Ed. Mischief. New York: Morrow, 1993.

Novakovich, Josip. Fiction Writer's Workshop. Cincinnati, Ohio: Story Press, 1995.

Seger, Linda. Creating Unforgettable Characters. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.

Shertzer, Margaret. The Elements of Grammar. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Strunke, William and E.B. White. The Elements of Style, 3rd. ed. Needham Heights, Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon, 1979.

Tompkins, David G. Science Fiction Writer's Market Place and Sourcebook. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1994.

Williamson, J. N. How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction. ed. by J. N. Williamson. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1987.

Willis, Connie. Dooms Day Book. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.




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