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Old 08-08-2014, 06:59 PM View Post #1 (Link) Infinity_Man's Mega Guide To Prose
Infinity_Man (Offline)
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I was thinking about writing a few more guides, and how I wanted to organize them--if I wanted to write a guide on beginner's advice, and then if I wanted to write one on more advanced advice--when I realized I could just make a compendium of all the basic writing advice that I know. So here you go, my most ambitious and longest guide yet, the Mega-Guide to Basic Writing Advice.

I'm going to try and avoid retreading ground I've already covered in other guides. For that reason, I've compiled a link to all the other guides I've written on the forum at the bottom of this post.

Additionally, this guide is not complete. I intend to add to this list later on when I decide I want to write a short guide that won't fit into a larger one elsewhere. I will post in this thread when I update the main body.

This guide is divided into technical advice, narrative advice and style advice. As with all of my guides, this comes with the disclaimer that I am by no means an expert in the field, and this is just my opinion compiled from years of practice and research. Furthermore, there's no such thing as a rule in writing (other than "if it works, do it") so take all of this as advice rather than hard rules.

Technical Advice

A Beginner's Guide to Punctuation.

There's probably a great guide or two on the forum already about punctuation, but we can always use more. You might not think this is necessary, but it's increasingly evident that some newer writers aren't as familiar with basic punctuation as they could be, maybe because no one's ever taught them with sarcasm and goofy examples. So here I go, starting this guide with the most basic of basic advice.

. - This is a period, or a full stop.

The main use of the period is to end a sentence. This punctuation mark indicates to a reader that the related clauses have all come to a stop, and their brain now knows to stop processing it as one function. Without a period, a sentence might look like this:
Bob bought a cat the dog didn't like her.
Your brain gets confused reading this sentence because it's not until "her" that you fully realize it's not supposed to be one clause. Until that point, your brain is reading this sentence as "Bob bought a cat the dog didn't like" and all is well. But then you reach the end and everything you've known is a lie and how can we live with ourselves after that?

The key here is to identify the clauses. A clause is made up of a subject--usually a noun--followed by a predicate--usually a verb and object. In this example "Bob" is a subject and "the dog" is a subject. "bought a cat" is a predicate and "didn't like her" is a predicate. There are fancy ways we can connect these two sentences even though they're separate clauses, but for now let's separate them based on their subject+predicate grouping, so it looks like this:
Bob bought a cat. The dog didn't like her.
Now that we've put a period where it needs to go, the sentence makes sense.

A full stop isn't the only use of a period, but it is the main one you'll be using for prose, so it's all I want to touch on right now.

, - This is a comma. It has several uses.

The simplest use is in lists. When you are listing a number of objects in a sentence you will want to separate them by commas. For example:
Bob bought a cat dog fish and rat.
Doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But if we add commas...
Bob bought a cat, dog, fish, and rat.
You don't have to use a comma before the last object on the list, unless not doing so will lead to ambiguity. For example:
Bob bought a cat, dog, fish and rat
Is acceptable, but:
Bob said hello to the girls, Sarah and Jane.
It is unclear from this list whether or not Sarah and Jane are the girls Bob is saying hello to, or if Sarah and Jane are two separate entities from the girls we mentioned. On the other hand, writing like this:
Bob said hello to the girls, Sarah, and Jane.
The only interpretation is that Sarah and Jane are separate from the girls.

The more common use of a comma in prose is to separate clauses, whether they be independent, dependent, conjunctions, what have you. For example:
Having finished his purchase, Bob brought the cat home.
In this instance, "having finished his purchase" is a dependent clause because it does not make sense on its own, but is only understandable when connected to the independent clause that is "Bob brought the cat home" (note the use of subject and predicate). By using a comma to connect these two, you now have a sentence that makes sense and is more sophisticated than "Bob finished his purchase. He brought the cat home."

Sometimes you will want to join a conjunction with a comma. Generally speaking, you should use a comma when both conjoined clauses are independent, such as:
Bob bought the cat, and then he brought it home.
However, if one of the sentences conjoined is dependent, you may omit the comma.
Bob bought the cat and brought it home.
A parenthetical comma is one that is used to connect a parenthetical information--information that is not necessary to the understanding of the full sentence. For example:
Bob bought a cat, that son-of-a-bitch!
In this example you do not need "that son-of-a-bitch" to understand the main clause, so you separate it with a parenthetical comma. Another example:
Bob, having bought a cat, drove home.
The main clause in this example is "Bob drove home" but the parenthetical phrase "having bought a cat" is not necessary to understand that clause and so is inserted parenthetically, with a comma both before the clause and after to completely separate it.

A comma splice is an incorrect way of using a comma in that you connect two complete clauses when you should have used a period/full stop. For example:
Bob bought the cat, he drove it home.
Without a conjunction to connect the two clauses, they are independent of each other and this reads incorrectly. Either fix comma splices by inserting a full stop, or a conjunction, like so:
Bob bought the cat. He drove it home.
Bob bought the cat, and he drove it home.
Comma splices may be used stylistically, such as in short sentences that have similar meaning, but use this sparingly and not as an excuse to let comma splices into your work. A passable example might include:
Bob's eagerness to buy a cat was legendary, his forethought unheard of.
Since these two clauses are expressing a similar idea (that, while Bob is known for wanting a cat, no one thinks he put much thought into it) it is stylistically acceptable that they be spliced together.

? - This is a question mark. You always use it to indicate a question has been asked.
Has Bob brought home is cat yet?
Without a question mark, this looks amateurish. Not including a question mark may also lead to ambiguity about whether or not something is a question, if it lacks a question word (Who, what, where, why, when, how, etc.)
This might seem like a simple statement of fact, but it also could be one character asking the other if they want to go to lunch. The question mark is key to making that meaning clear.

! - This is an exclamation mark. It is used to show emphasis and--surprise--exclamation.
Bob bought a cat? I can't believe it!
However, use this sparingly, if at all. Overusing exclamation marks--especially more than one in succession ("!!!")--is about the easiest way you can indicate to your reader that you're an amateur, and possibly a thirteen year old texting about their crush.
Think of it this way: If an exclamation mark is used for emphasis, to draw a reader's attention to something out of all the rest of the story, then you're not really doing that if every other sentence has an exclamation mark. This practice can be very self-indulgent.
Exclamation marks are commonly frowned upon in prose writing. Avoid whenever possible.

... - This is an ellipsis. It is used to show an omission in academic writing or, in prose, the trailing off of a thought. For example:
"Bob bought a cat [...] and brought it home"
In this example, the ellipsis (put in square brackets which indicate someone other than the original author is altering the text in this way) represents missing information--whether it was the name of the cat or where Bob bought it--that the person presenting the text decided was not important for what they needed. This is an academic use that you will probably use in essays when quoting overly long pieces from journal articles or books. You don't really have to worry about this for prose.

"Bob bought a cat, but I think... Nevermind."
This is the use you'll want for prose, as it indicates a trailing off of thought.

It is NOT used for emphasis at the end of a sentence. For example:
Bob bought a cat, but I think it's a bad idea...
This is not drawing emphasis to the sentence, it is indicating that the speaker is uncomfortable or awkward about saying this. I have seen new writers use an ellipsis for emphasis like this, but it doesn't work that way.

: - This is a colon. It is your large intestine, which processes used to introduce a logical consequence or a list. Such as:
Bob had only one choice: he had to buy the cat.
Now that he had Mittens, Bob owned several animals: A dog, a fish, and a cat.
The colon is generally a very formal punctuation mark and you shouldn't really use it in prose writing as it can make your narrative voice seem too academic.

; - This is a semicolon. It is difficult to use.
Its primary use, in prose, is the connection of two similar independent clauses not joined by a conjunction, and which are balanced--meaning they have to be very closely connected.
Bob bought a cat; he's not a huge fan of dogs
Is not how you use a semicolon, as the second clause is not in balance with the meaning of the first clause.
Bob bought a cat; he didn't put much thought into it.
This works better, as the two clauses are more related.

A semicolon can also be used to separate items in a list when doing so just with a comma would be confusing. For example:
Bob had several animals: A cat, Mittens, a dog, Chowder, a fish, Skinner.
This list could be confusing and cleared up with semicolons:
Bob had several animals: A cat, Mittens; a dog, Chowder; a fish, Skinner.
In this instance, the semicolon links the names of the animal to the animal itself, and makes the list clearer to read.
However, this is a very formal use of the semicolon and it is rare you will have to use it in your prose. If you find you're making a list like this in your prose, you probably should think about how stuffy you're coming across.

There are, of course, more punctuation marks. But these are the main ones I wanted to address. You should be more than able to construct good stories using just these. Other punctuation, such as an em dash, is also more straightforward and doesn't necessarily need as much attention as these basic ones.

Show, Don't Tell

Continuing with the most basic of advice, the one piece that everyone hears when they start writing, and even professional authors struggle with. This is the benchmark piece of writing advice that, if followed, will improve your writing tenfold. But what exactly does it mean?

Well, the funny thing is, no one seems to be able to agree on what it means to show. I've seen professional authors try and answer that question, and it's always different. So I figured I'd throw another answer in there and stir up the confusion some more.

Showing versus Telling has always seemed to me to be a matter of how you establish information. At it's basest level, you've shown information if the reader is able to interpret it themselves, but you've told information if you've established that information yourself by addressing the reader or through exposition.

Now, telling has it's place; the rule would be better titled "When to Show, When to Tell" since both are valid forms of information establishment and, as I'm about to argue, it's impossible to not tell at all.

But why is showing better than telling? Basically, it's more engaging. If the reader is coming to conclusions on their own, they are more involved with the text, which means they'll be more immersed. Telling, conversely, has about the same level of engagement that a history or science textbook might, and is half as interesting.

Another way of looking at it is the difference between visual and oral storytelling. A visual story, one that you read, relies moreso on showing to be good. There's time and room to let the reader come to their own conclusions, and that's part of the fun. An oral tale, on the other hand, will be shorter and more direct--whether it's a fable or a joke you're telling at school--so you have to tell a few things. That's why fairy tales, their origins in oral tradition and emerging from an era where telling was the preferred mode, tend to tell more than show--we're told someone is a virtuous beautiful princess because there's no time to show us through other actions, and that'd be boring anyway.

So how do you go about showing over telling? Well, let's look at an example.

Bob was angry.
This is telling. This is the narrator telling us that Bob is angry. Compare that to the following:

Bob kicked open the door and punched the wall, growling as he did so, his face turning a deep shade of red.
Here, the reader can figure out that Bob is angry from the actions he takes. That means this is showing. By expanding on the information, and writing it as part of the scene, I've turned telling into showing. Here's another example:

Bob was not good at hitting on women.
Compared to:

"Hey hot stuff," Bob said, winking at Susan. "How'd you like to go to my room and see what happens?"
In this example, I've used dialogue to show the reader just how bad Bob is at hitting on women, rather than directly telling them he's bad at it. Note, however, that I didn't just go this route:

"Bob is so bad at hitting on women," Susan said.
This technically could work, but it risks getting into As You Know territory, which is where one character delivers exposition to another character that both characters are obviously already aware of, and its only purpose is to fill the reader in on that exposition. This is clumsy writing, and looks rather ridiculous. There's also just less engagement to turning the telling into an exact dialogue quote, rather than something more interesting like the first example, so you should try and be a bit more creative with it.

However, you'll notice that these examples still have telling. The narrator is telling the reader what Bob is doing. It's telling us Bob kicked open the door, and that he punched a wall. That is why I see showing not so much as an alternative to telling, but a way of using telling to create an illusion of showing. Therefore, telling is unavoidable, which means you shouldn't beat yourself up too much over it, and you should be careful in critiques when you accuse people of telling.

It also means it's quite tricky to decide when you're telling too much, which is why so many authors have a problem with it. If everything is telling, it becomes less a matter of identify the telling and changing it to showing, and instead grows into figuring out where in the telling you could be showing more strongly.

There are some things you'll want to tell. Maybe it's a passage of time you want to skip over, or an unimportant detail that would only kill the pacing of your story if you included it. In these moments, it's perfectly fine to go into telling. For the first, and probably not last time, I'm going to use the Harry Potter series as an example (I like using Harry Potter for examples for two reasons: a) I know the series super well and b) it's one of the most widely read series, so it's the most universal example I can use to reach the teenage audience of YWO). In the HP series, Rowling uses telling to good effect when she wants to give the impression of Harry's school days without bogging the story down with unimportant scenes of him going to class. We are told that Professor Binn's classes are really boring, but we don't actually sit in on one until later in the series, and only then it's only because something more important is happening elsewhere. So J.K.Rowling, one of the most successful authors of all time, uses telling frequently and she's still highly regarded. Telling is okay, if you know why you're using it.

So, on a scene level, you need to decide what you're going to show as a scene and what you can just skip over, with exposition or not. This is where you have to have skill--you need to decide what you want to accomplish in a scene, and what you can accomplish in a scene, and what you can cram in there to keep the story moving, develop character, and keep the reader hooked all at the same time.

On a sentence-by-sentence level, you should probably be aiming for showing any time you can. One helpful tip is to look for the word "was" if you're writing in past tense, or "is" if you're writing in present tense. These, such as with the example above, often lead to instances of telling, so keep an eye out.

Really, the only way to catch all instances of telling is to comb your writing line-by-line, word-by-word and deciding how exactly you're going about establishing information. It is, unfortunately, one of those problems that you can only really solve with awareness. Learn how to distinguish showing against telling, and then recognize that in your own writing.

Write What You Know

Probably the other most common piece of advice new writers get, but a seemingly simpler one. "Write what you know" should make instant sense: the more familiar you are with a subject, the more authentic your writing will probably be. An intimacy with your subject will help avoid common misconceptions and add a touch of detail that will give a sense of style to the way you handle the piece. Ideally.

However, I've also often seen this advice trashed, and on lists of "Writing Advice to Ignore." Usually, the people who say you should ignore this advice think it would limit writing subjects, and how could you only write what you know and have genres like fantasy and science fiction, and books about serial killers and adults writing about modern teens? They're not wrong, but I think they're misunderstanding the purpose of this advice.

It's not "write what you know," it's "know what you write."

That means research. Want to have guns in your book? Read up on a basic knowledge of guns and how they work--knowing that they make deafening noise and older guns created plumes of smoke will add that layer of realism that will attract certain readers. Want to write about a man living amongst bears? You'd better do some research about bear behaviour.

This isn't so much advice as just common sense, I feel. If you're reading this on YWO, then you're probably fortunate enough to have grown up with the internet, and you've probably never known the clusterfuck was dial-up internet. The entire world of information is at your fingertips thanks to Google and Wikipedia, and even getting in-depth information is closer than ever before. Almost everything has a forum, too. Want to capture that gun knowledge or learn more about bears? There are hundreds of gun enthusiast and animal-lover forums on the internet that are free to join. People like to talk about the subjects they know. Ask them questions, and you'll probably get answers.

Research is a lot of work, but it's better to be remembered for being realistic rather than that glaring factual issue you included when you thought your bears had the opposable digits small enough to fit in the trigger of a pistol.

Be Active, Not Passive

Another big piece of advice that many writers, new and established, have trouble with is writing in the active voice over the passive voice. For a quick rundown: active voice is when the noun is performing an action, whereas passive voice is when the noun is having an action performed to it. For example:

I kicked the ball
The ball was kicked
The former is active voice, and the latter is passive. A good rule of thumb: if you have to include the word "by" to clarify who's doing the action ("the ball was kicked by me") then you're in passive voice (although that doesn't completely cover the passive voice).

Passive voice does have its uses, but generally speaking active voice is far more readable. It's more engaging, less wordy, tighter, and, as the name suggests, more active. In the current age of English literature, active voice reigns supreme.

There's also a risk of ambiguity in the passive voice. Take the previous example, which doesn't specify who kicked the ball. Without adding "by me" the reader has no way of knowing, and if the reader gets confused they won't like the story they're reading. You might think no one could possibly make that mistake, but you'd be surprised.

Fortunately, changing passive to active voice can be fairly easy, as long as you can recognize it. Since this is exclusively a sentence-by-sentence issue, you shouldn't have to rewrite whole scenes just to correct it.

For reasons why passive voice is acceptable, please look below to find my guide "5 Controversial Pieces of Advice"

Avoid Repetition

This is one piece of advice that you probably should have heard by now, especially here on this forum. Basically, if you reuse certain words enough times, it starts to get jarring to the reader very quickly and will make your prose sound very stiff. Consider this:

Bob bought a compactor. Unfortunately, the compactor was broken. He took the compactor back to the compactor store.
"I want to return this compactor," Bob said to the compactor-sales-lady.
"Why do you want to return this compactor?" The compactor-sales-lady asked.
"This compactor is broken," Bob said.
The compactor-sales-lady checked the compactor and found that, as far as compactors go, the compactor was indeed broken.
"I can find you a new compactor to replace this broken compactor," the compactor-sales-lady said.
Obviously that's an extreme example, but sometimes repetition can read that way, no matter the word. You probably should have felt the frustration of having to read the word compactor over and over again. I felt frustrated just having to write it. It also just sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?

So how can we avoid repetition?

Well, the first step I would take would be cutting pieces of this that are unnecessary. But the biggest change would come from using pronouns, which are words that substitute for nouns. Using pronouns can help you avoid unnecessary repetition:

Bob bought a compactor. Unfortunately, it was broken. He took it back to the compactor store.
"I want to return this," Bob said to the saleswoman.
"Why?" she asked.
"It's broken," he said.
She checked the compactor and found it was indeed broken.
"I can find you a new one," the saleswoman said.
"But Infinity_man," you, the hypothetical reader, might be asking, "won't the pronouns become repetitive as well?"

Yes and no. Certain words are more invisible than others. "Compactor" is a highly visible word, bound to be noticed by even the least observant of readers. But other words, such as most pronouns, are fairly invisible, words that get skipped over on a conscious level and are only subconsciously recognized. These words are fantastic because they manage to get across meaning without killing the pacing of your story. In excess, yes, they can be repetitive, but it takes a lot more repetition of "it" to get to the same levels I just did with "compactor." This is the same reason, as I'll talk about later, we don't need to change the word "said" even though it's used three times in that example.

One issue to watch out for with pronouns is pronoun ambiguity which is where it is unclear what noun the pronoun is substituting for. This can happen if you use the pronoun "he" while there are two active male subjects in a scene, or if you have a character interacting with a multitude of objects and refer to one as "it." Pronoun ambiguity is very bad as it confuses the reader with its unclearness, and clarity is your number one priority.

Another way to avoid repetition is to expand your vocabulary and use additional, varied words to keep the scene fresh. This can be especially useful when a pronoun doesn't make sense. For example, in the previous situation, it wouldn't make sense for Bob's first dialogue to be "I want to return this one," where one is a pronoun for the compactor. Granted, "this" is a pronoun so it works that way, but for the sake of this example I could have said "I want to return this machine" or "I want to return this purchase" or "I want to return this hunk of shit." All of those would have made sense, and are varied enough that they'd spice up the writing.

I would recommend against using a thesaurus, though. Generally, readers will recognize when a word is not part of your writer's voice, even if you use a word from the thesaurus in the proper way. That can take a reader right out of the text. As suggested, there might be subtle nuances to a word you choose that you don't know, and it might have a different effect on your writing than you expect. So for now stick to your vocabulary, and expand it in your free time.

Avoid Redundancy


Redundancy is kind of like the avoiding repetition advice, although it can also reach into whole scenes. It's possible you might have to cut chapters out of your novel if they're completely redundant, but we'll get to that.

Essentially, redundancy is the repetition of information that was either already established or didn't need to be established.

For example:
Milky leapt up into Bob's lap and curled up into a ball, her tail wrapping up to her head. She meowed silently and began purring as Bob scratched her belly. Then she scratched him and ran off, hissing. Milky was a cat.
In this example, "Milky was a cat" is redundant because it should be clear enough from the rest of the paragraph that Milky is a cat. By stating Milky is a cat, you're using precious words and killing your pacing to tell the reader something they already know.

Redundancy can also take the form of implied information and action, such as in the following example:
Bob began to reload his pistol. First, he slapped the barrel open, then he discarded the spent casings. Barrel empty, he drew six bullets from the pouch on his hip and fitted them into each slot, shaking the barrel back into place.
The problem with this sentence is that it's a lot of information that we don't really need to know and could just be told to us with a simple "Bob reloaded his pistol." Unless you have a reason to show us each step to reloading--whether that be tone or character development or what have you, not just you think your writing is amazing--you can edit most of this down into a single sentence and your writing becomes far more readable, and the pacing enjoys the cut in extraneous detail.

Redundancy on a word-by-word level takes the form of pleonasms which are words you can cut from a sentence without losing the meaning of a sentence at all. By being extraneous, pleonasms are therefore redundant. Here's an example to illustrate what I'm talking about:

It wasn't until just when Bob ran into Sarah at the very same grocery store he always visited that he realized he wasn't wearing a pair of pants.
The pleonasms in this sentence are words that can be cut, which don't really add any meaning to the sentence. Meaning you could probably do this:
It wasn't until just when Bob ran into Sarah at the very same grocery store he always visisted that he realized he wasn't wearing a pair of pants.
To get this:
It wasn't until Bob ran into Sarah at the grocery store he always visited that he realized he wasn't wearing pants.
It's a better sentence, right? I mean, it's not that great since it's one I made up on the fly (so sue me) but you can see the improvement. By cutting the redundant words, I've tightened the prose, and the pacing improves. It has more punch to it, doesn't take too long to get to the point, and reads quicker. Best of all, the meaning is completely unchanged. Pleonasms are definitely a problem you should look for in your own writing, as you can improve your writing a lot just by cutting these simple words.

Redundancy can also occur on a scene-by-scene level, if you have scenes where not enough is being accomplished. I won't get too far into this now, since this is a matter for the narrative section of the guide, but do not be afraid to cut whole chapters and scenes if nothing is happening that didn't happen before.

Stick to "Said"


I've covered this one in my guide to cutting down word count, but it's important enough that I want to repeat it here.

In the "Avoid Repetition" section, I brought up invisible words. If you skipped over that part, invisible words are words that are more likely to be consciously skipped over by your reader, but subconsciously absorbed. That means they're reading it and understanding its meaning, but it almost literally takes nothing away from the speed they read over the phrase. Most common words--"the," "and," "or"--are like this. These words are great.

One of the biggest invisible words in prose is the dialogue tag "said." This word can come up thousands of times in a book and the reader probably won't even absorb it. This is especially useful because, when it comes to dialogue, what the reader should be noticing and taking in is the dialogue itself, not the dialogue tag.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers feel the dialogue tag is the perfect time, for some reason, to show off their vocabulary. I've read whole short stories where a young author hasn't used "said" once, instead choosing words like "exclaimed" and "retorted" and "countered." Most of the time, this is a completely self-indulgent practice; other than trying to alter the meaning of the dialogue through the dialogue tag, the only reason to use an alternative dialogue tag is to show off.

But here's the problem: words that aren't "said" and "asked" stick out and jar the reader. Suddenly they have to actually read the word, and usually it's not worth it. Here's why:

Take the following example:
"I AM SO STINKING MAD!" Bob shouted.
There might not seem like there's anything wrong with this, but think about how many indications the reader has that Bob is raising his voice. For one thing, what he's saying, the context of the dialogue, could suggest to the reader that he is shouting. Notably, everything he's saying is in capital letters. There's also an exclamation mark. So why does the author feel like they need to tell us Bob shouted?

There's the rub: This is the show vs tell rule, but with dialogue.

Telling us how a character is saying something in the dialogue is telling, and just as unengaging as if it was telling in prose. Showing us, through his words, how he's saying something will be far more engaging. Sure, the reader might not read it the way you intended, since I could read "I am so stinking mad" in a couple of ways (shouting, seething, evilly laughing) but here's the thing: that's kind of the point. A reader becomes engaged with writing when they're allowed to bring their own interpretation to it. It's because a reader can imagine the way Bob is saying this that they are immersed in the story. If you hold their hand the entire way, they never get to enjoy their own adventure, and your story becomes boring.

Quick caveat: The example I used was an extreme one. It's amateurish to use all capital letters, and you should use exclamation marks sparingly, for emphasis. Really, context is your best friend here. I in no way condone WRITING THAT LOOKS LIKE THIS!!!

Another caveat: Using modifiers is cheating. So even "he said quietly" doesn't work, even though you've stuck to said. I cover this more in the guide to cutting word count.

Avoid Modifiers

I've covered this in the "cutting your word count" guide, but it's important enough I wanted to repeat it here.

Modifiers are, most commonly, adjectives and adverbs that are used attributively. This means words that alter the understanding of a noun (adjectives) or a verb (adverbs).

For example:
Bob threw the green dart.
Bob quickly threw the dart.
In the first example, "green" is an adjective because it modifies the noun "dart." If you cut "green" the sentence would read "Bob threw the dart" and still be grammatically correct.
In the second example, "quickly" is an adverb because it modifies the verb "threw." If you cut "quickly" the sentence would read "Bob threw the dart" and still be grammatically correct.

Note that attributive modifiers are different from ones used predicatively, such as:
The dart is green.
Although "green" is technically a modifier in this instance, cutting it would leave behind an incomplete sentence and is not what I'm going to be talking about here.

Modifiers are, generally speaking, very excessive, and should be used sparingly. Using too many can make your prose purple and thick, and bring the pacing of your story to a grinding halt. Often, modifiers come across as self-indulgent, as the writer is choosing to show off their vocabulary (which is ironic, as a reliance on modifiers usually comes from a limited vocabulary) rather than telling the story in the best way they can. Let's see the rest of the example:

Bob quickly threw the green dart at the big dart board. It firmly stuck into the large board and Bob cheered loudly. He walked pompously to the dart board and easily pulled his green dart out of the cork board. The other player glumly stared with his arms crossed.
That's a lot just to say Bob threw a dart and made a good shot. We can identify the modifiers because they're the ones we could cut without losing much meaning in the sentence. Adverbs can be spotted often by looking for words that end in "-ly." If we cut the modifiers, this is what we get:

Bob threw the dart at the board. It stuck in the board and Bob cheered. He walked to the board and pulled his dart out. The other player stared.
Note: I cut "with his arms crossed" because this is a prepositional modifier.

Now, cutting the modifiers usually won't be enough. If you do that, you'll probably be left with language that feels stiff or mechanical. With adverbs, the better path is often to find a stronger verb that encompasses the action and the modifier itself. For example, we could change "quickly threw" to something like "shot," or "walked pompously" to "strutted." Other adverbs we cut because they were redundant, such as "cheered loudly." Adjectives you can get away with more, since you can't really replace a noun with a stronger noun that encompasses the modifier, but you should still use them sparingly. I like to refer to modifiers as a spice in a dish: The right amount gives you a nice kick, but too much and it's all you can taste.

Here's what this example looks like after the modifiers have been cut or changed:

Bob shot the dart at the dart board. It stuck into the board and Bob cheered. He strutted to the board and yanked his green dart out. The other player scowled, his arms crossed.
This does a good job of balancing the two extremes: it's not so weighed down by modifiers that it's impossible to read through it, but it isn't so dry and lifeless that it's boring either.

Avoid Filtering


Filtering is one of those harder things to catch, and harder to understand why it can be an issue. Ultimately, filtering is expressing the story or details through the feelings of the character. I know what you're thinking: that's exactly what a story is. But I mean this is a sentence-by-sentence basis. So, for example, if I was to say "Bob felt the wind on her face" I'm filtering, because I'm telling the reader that there's wind through the knowledge that Bob feels it.

Filtering, naturally, has its place, but it can distance the reader. The more steps there are to experiencing that wind themselves, the more disconnect they'll have from that detail. Maybe the important thing here is that Bob can feel the wind at all--maybe he's just undergone nerve-surgey to get feeling back. Then telling us he's feeling it is important. But if you're just trying to establish that there's a breeze, then you're trying to immerse the reader into the setting, and you're not doing that as effectively if you filter it through Bob's perspective.

Fortunately, filtering can be rather easy to edit, once you know to look for it. For example:

Bob felt the breeze on his face. He saw Sarah and Jane coming up the hill.
This is filtering, and, assuming the reader knows we're in Bob's close perspective, could be changed to:

A breeze rolled in. Sarah and Jane made their way up the hill, towards him.
The same information is established, but now the reader experiences it directly.

If you're writing in first-person perspective, or a very limited third-person perspective, filtering is especially unnecessary because the reader comes to understand that anything that is pointed out is within the main character's scope. If, in the first person, I say "I felt the wind blow on my face" I'm not writing as strongly as if I said "the wind blew against my face."

Again, it's about connecting to the reader through direct prose. In the first instance, the reader just knows that the narrator can feel wind on their face. In the latter, the reader feels the wind themselves.

Be Assertive


This is a tricky one, because "assertive" is subjective and can be difficult to work into your prose. But basically, assertive writing is the difference between:
The garage seemed dirty and grungy. Bob thought it might take him days to clean up.
The garage was dirty and grungy. It would take Bob days to clean up.
The difference is subtle, but it's there. In the first, the narrator is flip-flopping in their description, and there's not a lot the reader can grab onto and immerse themselves in. The narrator, depending on what style of narrator it is, needs to be a source of trust and absolutes. Unless you're writing an unreliable narrator, or certain versions of a first-person narrator, what they say should be the truth. An assertive narrator doesn't get to go "seems dirty." The assertive narrator has to drive home just how dirty the garage is. As well as making your writing punchier, it should also help your descriptions become more vibrant and interesting.

The best way to catch unassertive writing is to look for problem words like "might" or "seem" or what have you. "Thing" is also an unassertive word, because there are many many stronger words that can be used in its place. Metaphors, generally, also are stronger than similes, as you're not comparing something, you're saying "this is what it is. Deal with it."

There are, of course, places for this kind of writing and these words. The trick is to decide when they're necessary, and when you should be writing something with more strength.

The point is to appear both confident in your writing, but also to be vivid and punchy and to have strong descriptions. I'll leave you with one last example:
The horned thing charged at him maybe like a bull, something like steam rising from what could have been a nose.
The horned monster charged headfirst, black vapor gushing from its nose.

Avoid "To Be"

One of the hardest pieces of advice I've seen is the idea that you should cut most instances of "to be" and its conjugations. That means, primarily, "was" and "is." The idea is that these are generally weak verbs that lead to bland description over interesting, moving passages with stronger verbs. Sometimes, though, it can just be an unnecessary word.

Take, for example:
Bob was the first to notice
That's an alright sentence, right? But why not just edit it to:

Bob noticed first
That simple change has done a few things. For one, it's cut the word count of that sentence in half. That's always a plus. But more imporantly, it's reduced the number of verbs I've had to use in the sentence to express what was happening. That makes the sentence simpler, snappier, and thereby gives it more punch. The meaning is the same, but the prose itself is improved.

But to get back to the earlier, more important, and more complicated point of changing to stronger verbs.

Here's a longer example, taken from a book I wrote a few years ago and for some reason thought was good:

Together, they looked back at Laika, who was too busy reading the map to notice the problem. He was having the most trouble walking through the desert out of the three of them, as he was not used to the deep sands, or the long journey. However, he was too eager to complain.
I've saved you the trouble of counting how many times "was" shows up in that paragraph. It comes up four times in three sentences. Any other word that came up that often would start to feel repetitive; if you read critically enough, "was" does start to stand out and feel repetitive.

So what's wrong with this paragraph? Well, for one thing it's kind of ridiculous because the problem is in relation to the map so why would Laika not notice if he was reading it? But that's a narrative problem. Besides that, it's all telling; I don't show he's having trouble walking out of the desert, and I don't show he's too eager to complain, I just tell the reader this information. But to fix that I would probably rewrite this whole paragraph into something else, so that makes for a bad example.

The problem, as it stands for this guide, is that the prose isn't very interesting. Even if it wasn't telling (although the "was" verb enables the telling) it just wouldn't stand out as good writing. Allow me to try and edit this passage into something more interesting, and I'll see if I can cut the use of "was" altogether.

Together, they looked back at Laika, his nose buried in the map, oblivious to the problem. They called him over, and he struggled through the sand, his boots sinking with each step. His breathing came in long, forced rattles, but he wore a smile and didn't complain.
It's edited a bit more heavily to get away from the telling, but that was inevitable since the "was" was part of what made the telling happen. I could edit more, of course, but for a quick edit it's a definite improvement over the actual passage.

Apart from showing versus telling, a large part of why this reads better is the use of verbs. Instead of using the same, boring verb four times, I've used verbs like "buried" and "struggled" and "wore." Those have a stronger impact than "was" and your reader should respond as such.

I've said before that a word like "said" is an invisible word, something readers skip over and automatically read. For its uses, "said" is great as an invisible word. But "was" is kind of an invisible word too, when you don't want invisible words. Verbs should never be invisible. Otherwise they get boring, and how you use them inevitably becomes boring. Take this description:

There was a light hanging over the table. There were plates on the table. There were also cobwebs on the plates. The ceiling was creaking.
That's pretty boring, right? So let's change it to something more interesting:

The ceiling creaked with each gust of wind, shaking the light hanging over the table, casting light off of the cobwebs smothering the plates.
That's not nearly as boring, because, on top of changing the sentence structure and adding details, I've found ways to cut my use of "was," either by changing it to a different verb, or changing the structure of the sentence itself.

Now, here's the caveat: you risk getting into purple writing by doing this. If you try too hard to compensate for your use of "was" you might just change the entire piece completely, and that can work out or backfire. This is why you really need to think about when you need to change the verb, and how you're going to change it. Because it's not as simple as just finding "was" and replacing it with a different verb--usually, you'll have to rewrite at least one sentence, and you'll have to make it sound fluid and not awkward. Other times, you'll find that "was" is simply the best verb to use, and in those instances feel free to use it as much as possible!

The problem is that you, the writer, are trying to balance a clear and interesting writing style with sounding like a normal human being. Normal human beings use the word "was" all the time. NHBs pretty much use all of the things I'm going to tell you not to use in this guide. If you stray too far from what a NHB sounds like, you'll come across as purple, or formal, or mechanic, and that's bad. But weak prose is just as bad, so this is a vital step, and that's where the challenge comes in.

What you have to do is decide when you have room to unpack, and when "was" is the best word for your purposes.

Narrative Advice

Conflict, Conflict, Conflict

A story is, practically by definition, an onvercoming of conflict. Which means if you want to have something readable, you're going to need at least one conflict. But probably a lot more. Maybe you think you can get away with writing a concept novel that has no conflict, but if you're reading this guide then you're probably wrong. Don't be so full of yourself.

There are several kinds of conflict, and the most prominent ones are:
Man VS Man
Man VS Nature
Man VS Self
Man VS The Unknown (I'm cheating a bit and lumping a couple smaller ones into this category).

In these cases, Man is a universal, which means it refers to women and animal characters as well.

The first step to creating conflict, and an interesting character, is deciding what a character wants. Often, a stronger character will have more than one motivation. You might find it easiest, until you get more comfortable with developing characters, to give them two conflicts: one that has stakes on the global scale, and one that only has personal stakes. Stakes, if you do not know, are what's at risk should the main character not get what they want--i.e if Bob doesn't stop the nuclear reactor, all of New York will explode; or if Bob doesn't get home in time for dinner, his wife will decide to leave him.

Man against man is exactly what it sounds like. It's the protagonist against a character that is called the antagonist. Note: Protagonist and antagonist don't exactly mean "good guy" against "bad guy." Instead, the protagonist is the central character of your story--whether he fits the traditional heroic archetype or is an evil overlod figure--and the antagonist is the character or characters who stops the protagonist from accomplishing their goals.
I also lump Man VS Society into this one, as it tends to be larger-scale man vs man issues such as oppression, prejudice, indoctrination, what have you.

Man against nature is also what it sounds like. The antagonist does not come in the form of a person, but in an element of nature, whether that be a dangerous animal or a natural disaster or just plain old nature (since it's pretty dangerous when it's just sitting there).

Man against self is where the more personal crises come into play. The only thing keeping the protagonist away from his goals are his own personal conflicts, whether that be something like overcoming a disability, depression, disease, etc. etc.

Man against the Unknown is how I'm lumping in Man VS the Supernatural, Man VS God, and Man VS the Fantastic. These all generally deal with the same theme of man trying to overcome something greater than himself that he cannot understand fully, although they tend to bleed into the other three genres (for example, if a man's fighting vampires that might be more Man VS Man, and if a man is questioning his faith that can be seen as Man VS Faith.)

Anything you write doesn't have to stick to one of these basic categories, obviously. They can bleed into each other. And this isn't really how you go about planning a conflict, it just tends to be something archetypical that plots ultimately fit into. Let's look at a few examples, both books and film:

The Dark Knight is a Man VS Man story where Bruce Wayne has both universal stakes and personal stakes. His personal goal in the movie is to find someone who can defend Gotham without the need of a mask so that he can settle into a normal life with his love interest. His universal goal is to stop a terrorist who's been attacking the city. These two conflicts intertwine in interesting ways because Bruce Wayne has to choose between the two of them: Ultimately, his universal goal to keep the Joker from winning is so strong that he sacrifices his own role as a protector of Gotham to stop him.

The Lord of the Rings has the obvious universal goal of trying to destroy the one ring and keep the dark lord from rising again. But there's a very personal goal, and that's Frodo trying to keep the corruption of the ring from getting to him. Again, these two conflicts intertwine, especially at the end when Frodo's ability to overcome the ring's power is what allows him to save Middle Earth overall.

So you can see how multiple plot conflicts can work together to great effect: Usually, no matter how separate, they'll come together in some way at the end. Either the main character has to make a choice between his two goals--like Bruce Wayne--or else only be achieving one goal can the protagonist achieve the second. And, of course, these conflicts are not limited to just two main ones. Feel free to have as much conflict as you want, as long as you can control it and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion.

Essentially, the sooner you can introduce conflict into your story, the more likely your reader is to be interested and to keep reading. Your first page--and, some would argue, your first sentence--should have a recognizable sense of conflict. This doesn't have to be your main conflicts, mind you. It just has to be something that can keep the readers interested until you can introduce the main conflicts. However, I should note, you'll probably want to introduce those main conflicts as soon as possible so your reader has an idea what the book they're reading is going to be about.

Furthermore, you should intersperse small conflicts wherever you can. Treat scenes like mini-stories where your characters have goals and are working towards accomplishing them. They might not achieve them in the scene, but it will help have them drive towards a goal.

Or maybe you have a scene that's not holding readers' interest. Maybe it's because you don't have enough conflict inserted to keep it interesting. For example, maybe the scene is an amicable conversation between two associates. Instead of making it amicable, have them disagree with each other, and then the dialogue is them trying to convince one another of why they're right and the other is wrong. That alone will make the scene far more interesting.

If you're ever bored, it's probably because there's not enough conflict, and therefore no story.


This is also partly a technical bit of advice, but I find it easier to get the point across when talking about narrative aspects.

The idea of function is that everything you write has a very specific purpose and adds something to the story. This can be pretty broad. Maybe a scene advances the plot, maybe it develops character, maybe it builds the world. Maybe a sentence adds some humour to the tone or introduces a red herring. The point is, the less flimsy sentences you have that are adding nothing to your prose, the stronger the overall work.

Look at the scenes in your book or story. What, specifically, is gained by reading this scene? What has changed about the story for the reader since they entered the scene? Has the plot advanced farther? Did we learn something new about one of the characters? Are more questions piling up on us? Etc. etc.

Characters should have some sort of function too. As a general rule, you want to stick to as few characters as you possibly can in your book, depending what you're writing. Each of those characters should have some sort of purpose for being there. Maybe someone is a love interest; maybe someone is a red herring; maybe a whole group of people is just there to show the size and scope of the plot (I'm looking at you, Epic Fantasy novels).

The more prominent a character is, the more important their function should be. To use Harry Potter as an example, a lot of people criticize Ron Weasley because he doesn't exactly bring anything to the trio. Harry is the bravery and daring, and Hermione is the brains, but what is Ron? He's the first one to throw a tantrum and run away most of the time, and sure he's the comic relief of the three, but his character is generally under-utilized considering he's the second most mentioned character in the books.

Ideally, in this machine where everything has a purpose, as many pieces of the machine as possible actually have more than one purpose. That sentence that advances the plot? Also provides foreshadowing for a future plot twist. And that character who just appears to be a love interest? She's actually a sub-antagonist. By applying multiple functions on both a sentence-by-sentence level, a scene-by-scene level, and a character-by-character level, you make your plot more complex, and therefore more rewarding when it finally unravels for the reader (assuming you pull it off).

Characters Part 1: Active Versus Passive

If you haven't already read the piece about creating conflict, do so now. In there, I outline how conflict is a matter of having a character who wants something, and is then prevented from getting it somehow.

That's the first step to making an interesting character. The second step is to make sure your character actually does something about achieving their goal.

An active character is one who is actively working towards achieving their goal.
A passive character, while having an objective, is one who is simply reacting to the actions of others.
And before you ask, yes, you can have characters that fit into or flip-flop between both categories.

The passive character is the problematic one. Readers are naturally drawn more to someone who is active and seeking their goals. A passive character is, by definition, surrounded by active characters who are overpowering him. That means all of your side characters are probably more interesting than your main character, and we want to read a story from their perspective instead. For general examples, think of any book you've reader where the villain was more interesting than the hero. Often, especially in fantasy, the hero is only on the quest they're on because the dark overlord is up to something, which means the hero is a passive character reacting to the objective of another. This can work, but it's better to at least give your hero an objective of their own, even if it's a personal one like "I want to keep peace in my village so I'll stop these active barbarians from attacking."

I'm going to use A Song of Ice and Fire as an example, but I'll keep my spoilers limited to the third book.
If you ask who people's least favourite perspective characters are, who do you think they'd usually say? In my experience, the following get thrown out pretty often: Sansa, Catelyn, Bran.
If you ask who people's most favourite perspective characters are, who do you think they'd usually say?
In my experience, the following get thrown out pretty often: Jon, Tyrion, Daenerys and Arya.

So what's the difference between these characters? Well, consider their plotlines in the first three books:
Sansa: Is sent to king's landing, spends three books a prisoner to Joffrey until she's whisked away by Littlefinger.
Catelyn: Decides to start a war, basically, and then after letting Jaime Lannister go spends most of her time under house arrest in Robb's army playing nagging mother to him.
Bran: Loses his ability to walk, spends three books complaining about it, has someone else walk him North.
Jon: Joins the Nights Watch, rises through the ranks through sheer bravado, goes on a scouting mission and infiltrates the Wildlings, then manages to get back to the Nightwatch where he leads the defense against an invading army.
Tyrion: Apart from being the sassiest of the bunch, manages to charm his way out of near-death situations countless times, becomes Hand of the King, leads the defense on the Blackwater, and gets some royal payback after being falsely accused of murder.
Daenerys: Becomes queen of a people she's never known, gets dragons, starts liberating the shit out of the Eastern world.
Arya: Learns to fight, manages to survive bandit attacks, and converts one of the sourest characters in the series into a lovable puppy.

Do you see the difference in those character plots outside of the exaggerations I gave for emphasis? Jon, Tyrion and Daenerys are all doing things on their own volition (debatable). Sansa, Bran and Catelyn, meanwhile, have objectives, they just aren't doing much to get those objectives other than reacting to the things other people are doing. The result is that almost literally everyone you meet in all three of their plotlines is more interesting than those characters.

Compare how this changes over the series, however. By the end of the third book, Daenerys has decided to settle down and play queen in a city she conquers. This is generally regarded as the place where Danny's plotline gets stale really quickly. This is because she's literally stopped what she's doing to work towards her overall objective and is stalling. Contrast that to Sansa, who by the end of the third book is showing signs of activity, and most people regard this as the time when Sansa starts to get interesting. Meanwhile, one of the other characters becomes rooted to the spot and another one turns from active to passive. The point is, it's a constantly changing spectrum you have to be careful with.

However, this example also shows that you can have a book with passive characters that does well. Part of that may be because of the strength of the more active characters in the series, but there are some people who might say Bran is their favourite character (they'd just be crazy).

Characters Part 2: Flaw Your Characters

Another step to creating believable characters is to flaw your characters. Real people have flaws, and so characters with flaws will feel like real people.

This does not mean superficial flaws, like scars or liking vegemite over peanut butter. This means real personality flaws that, preferrably, aid the conflict. Think Shakespearian characters, whose tragic flaws usually lead to their downfall, whether it be pride, envy, or the fact it takes them five acts to decide that, yes, maybe they should totally kill their uncle.

The knight in shining armour is boring. Reading a book about a perfect human who has no problems, besides feeling unrealistic, is also just a drag to read. Part of this is because we've come to expect Man VS Self conflicts in just about everything, and usually these have to be overcome before the other conflicts can be--Luke Skywalker has to decide he doesn't have it in him to join the Dark Side before he can defeat Darth Vader; Frodo Baggins has to silence the corruption of the Ring in order to destroy it. But it's also because having flaws provides another layer to a character, which makes them more interesting to read.

Not flawing your characters, and having someone who can do no wrong, also risks accusations of writing a Mary Sue. Mary Sues are characters who are so perfect, do things so perfectly, and everyone likes, that it's clearly the author inserting themself (or what they think of themself) into the text as a character. This is the epitome of self-indulgence, and will get your book laughed at and closed if it's ever discovered.

This works in reverse for your villains, especially if you're going for the Evil Overlord type. You want to redeem your villains, slightly. This doesn't mean, in the end of the book, they change sides to good. It means the reader can sympathize somewhat with their cause. This step is what keeps your antagonist from reading like a cartoon stereotype and instead makes them read like a real individual.

Consider Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, the most popular Dark Lord in literature in our generation. He has all the usual bits and bobs--the quest for power, the evil look, the disregard for human life--but he also has a lot of traits and backstory that make him somewhat sympathetic. He's the product of rape, abandoned by his parents, grew up feeling isolated and alone, and he's a dark foil to Harry Potter himself when it comes to his interactions with Hogwarts. Most importantly, Voldemort fears death, which is a fear that most human beings can relate to. It's this fear of death that adds both a human character to Voldemort and motivates him through his mission to become the most powerful wizard there is.

Even if you're writing a purposely white vs black plotline, all of your characters should have a mix of redeeming qualities and negative qualities. It will add depth to them, making them more realistic, and can aid your plot if you can weave it together well enough with multiple functions.

Characters Part 3: A Life Outside The Story


Another way to create a character who feels realistic is to give them a life outside of the story. This means that the reader gets the illusion that, before the story began and when it ends, the characters will all go back to doing something before.

There are a few ways to accomplish this. One is through relationships. Very few people exist in a vacuum, and will meet other people. If all of your cast are strangers who are meeting for the first time, find ways whenever possible to change it so some of them knew each other beforehand. Maybe there are best friends, or brothers, or enemies, or a boss and their employee. This can colour their relationship in a certain way that won't come out when interacting with the other characters, if you write it so.

Interests and quirks are another method. If your character likes things and has hobbies that don't revolve around the plot, and don't come into play for the main plot, they'll feel less like characters in a book created for the sake of accomplishing plot, and more like real people who got lassoed into conflict. Harry Potter is very good at Quidditch and spends (maybe a bit too much time) chasing after girls in later books; Indiana Jones hates snakes but really likes teaching, etc. etc. These don't have to play a huge role in solving the conflict, if they play one at all, or they can come around in interesting ways the reader might not expect originally.

There's a key difference between quirks and interests, though. Quirks are just small little things you give to add a small detail to your character, like they have a scar on their face or they don't need sleep. These don't define character, they just bring in tone, or act as a way to familiarize a reader with a character--i.e if you have a large cast of characters and the character with the scar only comes in every hundred pages, that scar could be a way to remind readers "oh, yeah, this is the guy with the scar, who did _____ 100 pages ago." If all you're relying on is quirks to make your characters seem deep, you are going to fail.

The interests outside of the plot ties into the idea of having a personal conflict versus a global conflict, and it's kind of like having an unimportant conflict, let's call it. Since your character existed before the plot (here defined as either personal conflict or a global conflict being pursued and challenged), theoretically your character had other wants and goals. Maybe they wanted to go to college, or they were looking to raise money for a car, or they just wanted to get through one more cancer treatment. The main plot could be something completely different--that college-bound kid becomes the last leader of a space rebellion, the guy raising money for the car falls in love with a ghost, and the cancer patient needs to steal the Statue of Liberty right now--but the extra knowledge that your character had a life and goals before the book started will help make them feel believable.

Note, however, that you shouldn't push this unimportant plot too hard, or else it moves from being an unimportant plot to being another subplot, and you have to find a way to fulfill it by the time the book ends, lest you leave a plot-thread hanging.

Style Advice

Kill Your Darlings

I'm putting this very common advice under style because it's not quite technical, and it's not quite narrative, but it's mostly about the author's state of mind.

How some people have come to understand this advice is that if there's something in your book that you really enjoy, you should cut it. This is why some people suggest not to listen to the "Kill Your Darlings" advice. However, the truth is more detailed than that.

What "Kill Your Darlings" means is to see your writing as a piece of work, and not your baby. Maybe you get really attached to a scene or a character in your book. But, when the edits start coming, you have to be able to honestly judge whether this scene or character is helping your book or hindering it and, if it's the latter, you have to have the nerve to cut it no matter how much you like it.

We, as authors, are very biased when it comes to our own work. We usually think it's much better than it is. That means, sometimes, we can't see the major flaws of our work. So it's an important skill to develop that you can look at your own writing critically, understand how everything affects the story, and be able to cut without whining over how much you love a character as if your mom was trying to get you to break up with your first girlfriend/boyfriend.

Some people overcompensate. They're so bad at critically assessing their own work that they create this mindset that anything they like must be bad, so that's the advice they follow and pass on to others, and that's how "Kill Your Darlings" has been mistranslated.

Other people overcompensate in another way. Knowing that we're so bad at seeing our work as bad, many authors will take the opposite approach, having insane amount of difficulties seeing the good in their work. No matter how many people respond positively to their writing, they'll never think they're good enough. These people have about as much a chance of getting published as the people who think their work is perfect.

So while it's important to kill your darlings and take your work for what it is--something that can be improved--it's also important to recognize your own value and skill. After all, improvement is just as much about discovering what you're doing right as it is what you're doing wrong. But sometimes we get so worried about cutting the bad stuff that we forget we need to play to our strengths as well.


If middle school taught you anything about writing, you'll know that there are three perspectives:
-First Person
-Second Person
-Third Person

And that's it. Pick one and go, right?

Well, not exactly.

Since Second Person perspective is so hard to pull off, and Third Person perspective is a bit more expansive, writing in prose will be more like choosing from one of these:
-First Person
-Third Person Limited
-Third Person Ominscient

And even then it gets a little more complicated. But first, let's just do a quick overview of the basic perspectives:

First Person

First Person perspective is a common perspective that relies on a character in the text doing the narration, usually communicating directly to the reader. This is your "I walked into the bar" and "I laughed at Bob" perspective. 1st Person doesn't have to be a character in the text itself, but usually it's better when you're writing in 1st Person to be writing as a persona rather than as the author actually telling a story. Think A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is narrated by Lemony Snicket, a fictional narrator who plays virtually no role in the main plot of the story he is telling.

1st is useful in that it allows you to really get attached to the main character who, theoretically, the reader will be following through the whole book (there are, of course, examples of books that use multiple 1st person narrators and combinations of 1st and 3rd person narrators). Anything written in 1st person has to be at least somewhat character-driven by an interesting 1st person narrator, or else the reader will get bored.

However, 1st person also has a challenge of distance from the reader. Self-descriptions can be very awkward. For example, if a narrator turns around and says:
"I have brown hair and dark eyes"
Then we can be reminded that we're in a story and not being immersed in one, and it can be jarring and awkward. It reeks of author intervening rather than something a character would naturally do. You can find ways to work this kind of description in, but often it seems unreasonable that a character would stop to describe what they look like.

1st Person also has the advantage/disadvantage of unreliable narrators, which are narrators which cast doubt into the reader's mind of how certain we are what we're reading is the truth. This can either be worked to great effect, or can be the downfall of a book.

Second Person

Second Person is the direct address to the reader. This is where the narrator explains everything as "you."
You enter the room. You look around and feel the temperature drop.
It's a very direct form of address, and can be used very powerfully. However, there's a reason it's the least common form of perspective in prose fiction, and that's largely because it's tiring to read.

For one thing, it feels unnatural to most modern readers. We're used to reading in "He, she, it" and "I, me, we" but "You, yours," is strange to us, and it works our minds harder to read something in this form, especially in longer works.

However, it's because it's such a powerful address that it's tiring. It involves the reader in a way without a distance that first and third person perspectives provide, and that can leave a reader feeling exposed and overwhelmed.

Subject matter also needs to be taken into account. If you're writing a graphic murder scene, a reader might be turned off by the second person perspective (whether they're the victim or the murderer). 2nd can also be tricky to pull of without feeling gimmicky. I also, personally, always feel like challenging 2nd person perspective. If a story tells me:
You start feeling scared
I think "no I don't" and close the book.

2nd person can be done, and there are great books out there that use it, but if you're using this guide to tell you what 2nd person perspective is, you're probably not skilled or mature enough to be able to wield it effectively yet.

Third Person Limited

It can help to think of perspectives in the same way as movie cameras or, more accurately, video game cameras. Certain video games, like Call of Duty or Bioshock, are played in the first-person-perspective, where you see the world through the character's eyes. Others are played in what's referred to as Over-The-Shoulder Third Person. These are games like Uncharted or Gears of War where you still follow the same character around, but there's a distance between you and that character.

This is Third Person Limited, which sticks to one character (in any given scene) and doesn't hop to others. Here, we're tethered to that character but we have more room to see the bigger picture, learn things that that character hasn't figured out, while still enjoying the depth and attachment to a single figure. So it largely comes with a lot of the benefits of the first person perspective, but isn't as constrained. This does mean you sacrifice some of the more personal connection to the reader, but that can be worth it.

It can also be tricky to avoid head-hopping in this perspective, as you might be tempted to move freely from each character's thoughts. However, if you're in Third Person Limited, you have to stick with the character whose perspective you've established for that scene. The Harry Potter books did not swap to tell us what Ron Weasley was thinking--that was something J.K.Rowling had to show us through Harry's perspective.

To head-hop is to confuse the reader and lose control of your own prose. Both are book-killers.

Third Person Omniscient

If this was a video game, this would be a top-down strategy game where you have control over a number of characters. An omniscient narrator is a completely impartial objective narrator that has access to the thoughts of every single character.

In this perspective, you are allowed and expected to head-hop, since the reader knows what they're getting into. If Harry Potter was Third Person Omniscient, we would have seen what Ron Weasley was thinking. However, we also would have seen what Hermione Granger was thinking, and Albus Dumbledore, and Voldemort.

Maybe you see the problems of Omniscient here.

For one thing, it can be tedious. If you don't show us the thoughts of most characters as they do things, a reader can feel cheated. If a character suddenly reveals at the end of the book that they've known all along Harry Potter was a Horcrux (Er... spoilers, by the way, I guess) then the reader is going to feel cheated, because we've been in that character's head. That's the author purposely withholding information from the reader for a literary payoff, which is a form of author intrusion, which is a good way to ruin the immersion of the book.

So you have to make sure you cover important details and not cheat, which can mean you'll have to take up time to cover several character's thoughts (you obviously don't have to do a role call of every character in the room whenever they think of something new). This can also kill tension--imagine if we really did know what Dumbledore and Voldemort were thinking in the Harry Potter books, or if in Chamber of Secrets we'd wandered over to Ginny's perspective just as she thought to herself "Oh man, I hope they don't discover that I'm the one writing all these messages" (Er... spoilers). But to not do so would be to cheat, and cheating is bad.

However, you can see that there's some use for omniscient. Yes, Chamber of Secrets would lose all mystery if we knew it was Ginny operating under Tom Riddle's command that was responsible for everything, but on the other hand can you think about how awesome the dramatic irony of the book would have been? While Harry and Ron are worried about catching Draco Malfoy, we the reader are wondering when they'll figure out it's really the quiet sister sitting across from them.

Like second person, it's tricky to pull off, but there are major benefits to writing in this form.


After you decide which perspective you write from, you have another question to ask yourself: Whose perspective will you write from? I mean, depending on how you planned your book you'll know who the protagonist is before you know which perspective you'll write in, but bear with me.

What you should look for in a perspective character is who has access to the most interesting perspective on a scene itself. Usually this means your protagonist, because theoretically they're an active character the reader is attached to. But sometimes you'll want to show something the protagonist might not see. It's perfectly okay, depending on your writing, to switch to another perspective to show a different scene. Perhaps you have multiple perspectives like many epic fantasy novels. Maybe you just want a quick one-off scene from the antagonist's POV. It's okay, as long as you make it clear what's happening, whose perspective we're switching to, and it works in the novel.

Note: Perspective changes like this can be tricky in first-person perspective, as there's a sort of understanding that the first-person narrator is telling you the story. It can feel cheap to suddenly switch to somebody elses perspective, especially if it's a one-off, as if you couldn't find a better way to establish information to the reader. It can be done, of course, as there are books with multiple first-person-perspective narrators, and books that mix first and third-person.

If you are writing outside of omniscient, it is a good idea to indicate a perspective change, either by putting a space between paragraphs when the shift happens, or some kind of symbol (like a * or a #). Generally speaking, it's a better idea to stick to one perspective for a scene and avoid hopping back and forth like this, as it can become confusing. But again, if it works it works.

Description through Character

There will come a time when you want your main character to walk into a room and describe something. Whether that's the room itself, the woman sitting at a table, or the gun she's pointing at him. Now, there are a few ways to write bad description, such as through passive language, or using "to be" verbs, but that's covered elsewhere in this guide and is more of a technical aspect. This section assumes, instead, that you are proficient at writing description but need something that can improve it just a step further.

The answer to adding kick to your description is function, which is also covered elsewhere in this mega guide. Basically, description that does more than one thing at a time is good description. Specifically, you can easily establish character while also establishing description if you describe through the eyes of the character.

Everyone is different, and everyone has different outlooks. How a hitman sees a room will be different from how a fisherman sees a room. For example, a fisherman might walk into the room and see:
The place reeked of gut fish. Not the good stuff either. Swedish herring. Porpoise. No one seemed to mind, since the windows were all shut, trapping that stink in.
Whereas the hitman sees the same room like this:
Cramped. Not a lot of room to swing your arm. Try it and you'll hit a table or a post. Only three exits, if you count the door I came in through. Four, if I assume I can break the glass of one of those windows when I jump through it.
What they notice first says a lot about the character. You can see the way this nuance plays in the way both describe the windows--the fisherman sees it as trapping the smell in, while the hitman sees it as a possible escape route. We learn something about the characters based on their description of the room, which means there's function. This also applies to the woman at the table:

He'd heard about women like this. Where he was from, a sight like her lured you into the sea to kill you. She'd no doubt have the same enrapturing voice, the tempting words. But she would be the death of him.
The broad has tits, I'll give her that. Strong arms, too. I'll have to watch that in a fight. She's wearing heels, which means she won't be standing long if she takes this to fists.
You can tell, without me prompting, who is who. This is because even the way you describe another character should match the character the reader is used to.

Other things to think about when entering description through the eyes of a character:

-What is actually important for the story? If it's not establishing character and not pushing the plot, then it's useless. For example, I see a lot of stories that give exact heights for characters, or measurements for rooms; unless your character is unnaturally gifted at judging measurements like this, it doesn't feel natural, and adds nothing but the author trying to indulge in giving all of their description first.
-What does the character notice first? If I was to describe the woman sitting in the room holding the gun to the character, what does the character take in and therefore describe first? It's a toss up between the woman and the gun, mainly, but once I choose which one to start with I can flow through the description.
-Keep a sense of movement. There should be a logical train in your description. Don't jump between describing the gun, mentioning a line of bottles on the wall, then come back to the woman, only to mention the sound of the bathroom door opening and closing. Find some train of thought that makes sense

6 Ways to Cut Your Word Count
YWO Edits

Effective Openings

9 Questions to Improve Your Dialogue
5 Controversial Pieces of Advice
Description In Prose

8 Ways to NOT make it as a writer
7 Essentials to Staying Safe as a Writer
How to TAKE a Critique
Is Your Idea Worth Continuing?
8 Poor Excuses For Poorer Writing
8 More Poor Excuses For Poorer Writing
8 Tips to Improve Your Critiques


If you would like to request me to cover a certain topic, feel free to post below or send me a VM/PM.
Infinity_Man's Mega Guide

Pro-tip: because my first instinct is to procrastinate anything I see as an obligation or responsibility, asking me for a critique is a good way to make sure I never give you a critique.
						Last edited by Infinity_Man; 04-30-2015 at 06:46 AM.
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Old 08-09-2014, 04:17 AM View Post #2 (Link)
Georgy (Offline)
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Thanks, Infinity Man. The great stuff you posted.
"And the internet has everything on it. It's a blessing and a curse."
"The point of poetic prose, in my opinion, is to illuminate a truth, make us see something that's there, but hidden."
"I believe we stand together to address the real issues facing this country, not allow them to divide us by race or where we come from. Let's create an America that works for all of us, not the handful on top." Senator B.Sanders
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Old 09-29-2014, 09:12 AM View Post #3 (Link)
han123 (Offline)
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this really is a fantastic quide. It's gonna help a lot of people
Critiques: Ask and you shall receive
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Old 11-22-2015, 12:20 PM View Post #4 (Link)
Thewritingteen (Offline)
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Just on the topic of flawing your characters (and you can put this in an edit if you see fit) avoid all munchkin characters. Gandalf and Aragon are well known examples. If you replaced frodo with Aragon and everyone else with Gandalf, it would be an extremely boring story. Gandalf would stop sauron from spying on them, and Aragon would kill everyone else. A rule of thumb is that the more powerful a character is, the less they should have to do in the story.
Great guide infinity_man, and a massive THANKS,
						Last edited by Thewritingteen; 12-08-2015 at 12:32 PM.
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