Restrain Your Characters, Please

***Excerpted from my editing class (Lesson 6: Turn Down the Volume)

Sometimes drama works. And sometimes it’s just loud.

Hyping up the drama in fiction is not the same as creating dramatic conflict or believable tension. The latter is built on successive challenges and obstacles to the character, the former on emotional flash.

Gone are the Hollywood days of a good face slap, when the heroine spits venom at her hero lover and he plants a big kiss on her afterward. Touché, amour!

Nowadays, that’s called abuse and generates restraining orders. Not that a character can’t get so riled they let fists fly.

But consider how cliché and passé such a scene has become. My theory is let the tension drive your readers to want to throw the punch for you. And only let it happen once in a book, after a long-time coming.

Too much gunplay can also numb a reader. Heroes who go around shooting everyone is too Arnold Schwarzenegger for books. In screenwriting, there’s a philosophy that says “when a scene gets boring, throw a gun in the room.” Been there, seen that.

Hollywood has numbed us to the presence of weapons, and writers often use such tricks without believable reasons or intent.

What readers will believe is the emotional buildup and tension that we’ve seen a character endure through constant struggles, receiving blow after blow in life. No person, real or fictional, can “take it” forever. Such a build-up means one thing: a blow-out.

When the character becomes the loaded weapon, then entrance of a gun (or knife, sword, poison, etc.) makes readers tense. By now, they anticipate a showdown.

While we’re on the subject of characters throwing a fit, don’t let them constantly storm off, stomp their feet, scream, hit walls or have full-fledge panic attacks (unless they have condition like clinical anxiety or PTSD).

You’re supposed to put your characters in a pressure cooker, so if they are blowing their top all the time, then the reader has nothing greater to expect. You’ve spent your wad.

Why We Love & Hate Articles

Today in my editing class I was asked why articles (a, an, the, this, that) are weak words since they are so necessary in sentence structure. Great question!

My reply was that in any given situation, you have to make the choice regarding which words are most appropriate and most powerful and best lend themselves to the effect you are trying to create in text.

The issue is that articles are vague. That's what makes them weaker than more specific words.

"A glass" could mean one of many off the shelf and is less specific than "the glass," which presumably is the one glass in a scene, maybe one that was previously identified. Likewise, "his glass" is even more specific. "Joe's glass" even better.

Of course, using "he/his" instead of saying "Joe/Joe's" all the time is also appropriate. Yet I've also seen folks overuse the pronouns. This can be a sign of lazy sentences. And it's not always about substitution, but sometimes the sentences need to be rewritten for more interest.

I had this great mentor, DeWitt H. Scott (Scotty), the head copyeditor for the SF Examiner for 20 years. He also taught at UC Berkeley. Scott taught us to be more critical of weak words , such as articles, instead of always letting them slide by and fill up the page.

We were taught in journalism not to start paragraphs with certain words, articles being high on that list. In "How to Write," Scotty gave this reasoning a funny spin: "When you begin a book, a chapter or a paragraph with 'the' or 'a', it probably will be dull -- or at least the first sentence will be."

Underscoring his point, Scotty assigned point values to words (better than my system in my previous post), so you could add up the value of all your words and see if you had a low score (too many low-value words) or a high score (lots of high-impact verbs and nouns) per page.

When I teach at the University of Washington Extension for the Editing Certificate Program, I tell students the Dick and Jane books are some of the best editing books available. They laugh. I explain: "See Dick run." Verb/noun/verb. So precise. Little else is needed to communicate.

No one's saying you should eliminate ALL articles. Heaven forbid. They are my friends, though I may invite them less readily than their verb and noun cousins.

Again, editing is about the making choices to fit the context of the situation. But better to have the critical eye than not, right?

Enter Late, Leave Early

NOTE: Excerpted from my SENSATIONAL SCENES class, May 14-27, 2012 via Savvy Authors (reg/info at

Writers tend to include a lot of preamble to their stories. It’s like listening to a speaker “ahem” a lot before they start their speech, or like, “before I start my story, let me tell you about why this story is happening and why this character is so special...” Do this, and you are wasting the reader’s time. Readers will put the book down. This includes the agent and editor, who are your first readers.

Of the many techniques I learned from studying film and scriptwriting, my favorite is “enter late, leave early.” This means your scene is really just a middle slice out of a sequence of events (i.e. it does not contain all the events).

Let's consider a suspense genre book with a crime scene for an example...

Entering late means you jump into the middle of the action, leaving obvious elements, such as how people drove to the crime scene, for the reader to self-diagnose. At the other end of the scene, you leave before the characters dissolve their action/interaction and preferably on a high note, or ‘aha’ moment.

Another way to look at it is this: don’t show the hero waking up, brushing his teeth, getting dressed, locking the door, getting into his car, then driving to the murder scene, parking, spotting his partner, and asking if there’s coffee... Just let the detective be there already, in the middle of the most important dialogue about the crime scene. That is entering late (the action is already in progress).

Likewise, don’t show him getting back into his car and driving home. Just stop the dialogue when his partner points him toward the victim to be questioned. Then show the detective turning to see his wife. That is leaving early (the action will continue without us), so the reader gets a “whoa, what happens next” moment.

With the advent of Hollywood, the Internet, and multi-media sources of storytelling, readers are more sophisticated than ever. They are also more impatient. They want to jump into the middle of the mayhem. So get them there faster.

“Sol Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

No, that’s not exactly what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about questions in a manuscript (lines literally ending in “?”) that slow pacing. Yes, questions slow down reading.

So here's my message to writers: stop asking.

Did you already know this? (Sorry, had to do it.) Questions cause readers to stall. It’s a natural response by the brain to switch gears when we are asked a question and start searching for an answer. The computer inside your noggin translates the question then flips through relevant files, even when there isn’t really a need to answer the question. Unfortunately, this brings the story to a halt, however brief.

Many genre writers, especially romance and thriller/suspense writers I’ve been reading lately, use questions in the course of their story in 2 places: dialogue and narrative.


When questions are used in the narrative (even if it's internal dialogue), they can help relay the characters confusion or the necessary motivation/conflict that is driving the character and/or situation.

For example (this is made up, of course): “....his chest armor was bulletproof, so which would I go for, the blade to the throat, or a club to the head?”

Silly, I know, but useful in exemplifying where one could simply show the scene playing out without all the internal squabble. When you truly put a reader in the scene, embed them in the action and in the throes of danger, and then just show the reader their options (blade or club)...they will be asking the question for the character. That’s the difference between showing and telling.

But let’s say that we must keep this internal squabbling for clarity. Then state it, don’t ask it: “.......his chest armor was bulletproof, so only two options remained: a blade to the throat, or a club to the head.” This keeps the story moving forward.

Don’t believe that questions stop a story? Here’s another example... You’re reading a story about a young boy. He gets on his bike and rolls down the driveway, turns into a lane, and races toward a stop sign. Which way will he turn? Worse, will he stop? And did dad fix his brakes?

The minute the questions began, the bike stopped moving. Often writers believe it creates more suspense or tension, but only rarely is this effective or necessary. There are other, better ways to achieve tension. Have him daydreaming. Show another vehicle approaching the intersection. The driver spills coffee. Then we will be asking the questions for the writer. That's what you want: the reader to ask the questions, not the manuscript.


The other place writers shouldn’t use so many questions is in dialogue.

When characters ask each other too many questions, it sounds like the writer is using the characters to prompt for storyline. “So, Barney, how did you become purple? Well, Ed, let me explain it to you...”

New Rule: don't let the reader see the seams of your novel.

I’m reading a thriller where the detectives are asking repeated questions. The constant questions make me feel like I’m reading a job application more than a thriller. First of all, most humans don’t work this way. Secondly, I don’t get much of a sense of these characters because they sound like mindless automatons. People typically remark/comment more than they ask/question. And detectives often bait their subjects without asking direct questions. This is more interesting, more suspenseful.

And remember this: asking is weak energy, whether it’s in narrative or dialogue. So if you have an alpha character, only have them ask questions when they are revealing their weakness or vulnerability. Then a question can be wildly effective.

So hunt and destroy, dear writers. Search for every “?” in your manuscript and see if you can change it into a statement or action. It’s a challenge, but typically a productive one.