How to Properly Format a Manuscript for Submission

How to Properly Format a Manuscript for Submission

How to Properly Format a Manuscript for Submission

Hello fiction writers! Today I’m covering a question I get asked a lot: How do you properly format a fiction manuscript for submission? With small press publishers, literary magazine editors, and literary agents under an increasing amount of stress, formatting your manuscript correctly is more important than ever.

As a professional fiction editor and a reader for a top literary journal, I can attest that proper formatting does make a difference. Agents, magazines, literary journals, and small press publishers are inundated with submissions. Failing to follow proper formatting guidelines won’t necessarily get your submission immediately disqualified (although sometimes it will!), but it will make you look unprofessional, which can have an impact on whether or not your short story or novel is accepted.

So let’s get started, shall we? First things first:

Always check each publisher or agent’s formatting guidelines to make sure you are following their rules.

If they don’t specify something, or if they ask for “standard format,” then refer to this guide.

Get a free printable Manuscript Format Checklist, plus two Submission Templates, in my Free Resource Library.

1. Use Times New Roman, 12 Point, black

Rarely, publishers will request Courier or another font, so always double-check their guidelines. If they don’t say anything, Times New Roman is the default.

2. Use 8.5×11 page size, with 1-inch margins on all sides

This is the default for a new document in Word, but it never hurts to double-check.

3. Double-space your text

This is REALLY important. Double-spacing makes your manuscript easier to read. But most importantly it shows you are a professional who knows that double-spacing is the standard.

The only exception to this could be if a publisher asks for your submission to be pasted directly into an email. Since some email programs don’t support formatting, you may need to go with single-space in that scenario.

4. Align text left

You want your text aligned flush with the left margin, with a ragged right edge. Don’t justify the text, which would align the text flush on both left and right margins. If you want to see what this looks like, check out the Submission Templates in my Free Resource Library.

5. Use ONE space between sentences

That’s right: ONE space. If you learned on typewriters, you’ll have to re-train yourself. If your manuscript already has two spaces between sentences, use Find and Replace. Type two spaces into “Find” and one space into “Replace.” Then hit “Replace All.” Ta-da!

6. Indent paragraphs by 1/2 inch, and don’t put an extra space between paragraphs

There is some debate about whether the first paragraph of a chapter or section needs to be indented. I’ve seen both ways suggested by equally credible sources. I’d say if your publisher or agent doesn’t specify, don’t worry about it too much. Use whichever feels right. As long as the rest of your paragraphs are indented, it isn’t a huge deal whether the first line of each section has an indent.

An exception to this could be if a publisher asks for your submission to be pasted directly into an email. In that case, using a space between paragraphs instead of an indent might become necessary.

7. Indicate scene breaks with a centered # sign.

If you want to see what this looks like, download the Submission Templates in my Free Resource Library.

8. Check publisher guidelines for the header, page numbering, and word count display requirements.

Some publishers are picky about these. If no guidelines are listed, use the defaults shown in the Submission Templates in my Free Resource Library.

9. Pay extra attention to the formatting requirements for contests and publications that read blind.

Most contests read blind, and a few publications do, too. They will have strict rules about if or where you put your name on the manuscript, and violating the rule can get you immediately disqualified.

10. Always check (and double-check!) the publisher or agent’s formatting guidelines.

Yes, this is so important that I’m saying it twice! If they fail to list a guideline, the Submission Templates in my Free Resource Library are a safe default. But if they do specify a guideline—any guideline—follow it.

Do they want your page numbering on the bottom left? Do it. Top right? Do that. Do they want your manuscript in Courier 10? (I’ve seen this, usually for SFWA publications.) Do it. A separate cover letter? Give it them. They definitely don’t want your name anywhere on the manuscript? Check and double-check to make sure your name is nowhere to be found.

11. Be patient.

Formatting submissions, especially if you have to make changes for each place you submit, can be a huge pain in the ass. It’s frustrating when you think you have everything right, only to double-check the publication’s guidelines and realize you need to change it again.

But over time you’ll get the hang of it. You’ll get faster and faster until finally you’re on autopilot, and this stuff won’t take up so much space in your brain. I promise!

12. If you get something wrong, don’t lose sleep over it.

You submit a story or novel, thinking you have it formatted perfectly… only to wake up in the night in a cold sweat because Holy shit you forgot to send a cover letter. (Yes, this will happen. And yes, we’ve all been there.)

Ultimately, just do the best you can do, and give yourself a break if you don’t get it perfect every time.

Hope this helps!

Access my Free Resource Library to get the companion downloads for this blog post: A printable Manuscript Format Checklist, plus two Submission Templates!

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

10 Questions to Ask an Editor Before Hiring Them

10 Questions to Ask an Editor Before Hiring Them

10 Questions to Ask an Editor Before Hiring Them

While a great editor can bring your fiction to its highest level and teach you priceless writing skills in the process, other editors can leave you in worse shape than you started—frustrated, confused, and out a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. I don’t want that to happen to you, writers! In this post, I’ll walk you through the 10 essential questions to ask an editor before you hire them, so you can make sure you end up with a winner.

Click here to get a printable checklist of these questions from my Free Resource Library!

Although we tend to use the catchall word “editing” to describe all work done by an editor, not all editing services are the same… and not all editors are created equal. Just like writers, they’re individuals with strengths and weaknesses. Because each book or story requires different abilities, it’s important to prepare yourself before and during the process of hiring an editor to make sure you’re getting what you need.

Here’s a list of 10 questions to ask a editor to find out if they’re right for you and your writing… before you hire them.

(Note: Some of this information might be included on the editor’s website, so you may not need to ask. But if you have any uncertainties, double-check with them! Remember, this is their job. If they’re not willing to give you the information you need, consider it a red flag and look for someone else.)

1. What editing services do you offer?

There are lots of different kinds of editing! Manuscript critiques, developmental editing (also called content or structural editing), line editing (also called stylistic editing), copyediting, and proofreading… just to name a few. Each one has a specific purpose and skill set. Don’t assume that every editor offers every kind of editing. For example, here at The Literary Architect, I offer manuscript critiques and developmental editing, but not copyediting or proofreading. Meanwhile I know other editors who provide only copyediting and nothing else. (Don’t know what kind of editing you need? Check out this post.)

2. Do you have a specialty?

Just as you can’t assume that every editor provides every kind of editing, don’t assume that they are equally skilled in all genres and forms. Hiring an editor can be a big investment. Try to find someone who has experience with your kind of writing. You wouldn’t want a textbook proofreader to critique your novel, or an editor who specializes in mysteries to edit your memoir!

Even if the editor appears to offer all services for all kinds of writing, ask them anyway. Most editors are more experienced with one genre, editing type, or style than another, even if they don’t say that upfront.

3. Can I see a sample of your work?

Many editors don’t offer free sample edits for clients, and that’s totally understandable. However, they should have some samples of work with previous clients that they’re willing to share. Reading these samples will give you a sense of their editorial style and help you decide whether you two would be a good fit. For example, some editors are more reserved in their changes, whereas others like to dig in deep. Some editors are soft and polite with their suggestions, whereas others are more direct and forceful.

4. Do you have testimonials or references from previous clients?

Most editors should be able to provide testimonials from previous clients. If they don’t have them on their website, ask them to send you a few.

5. What do you charge?

Does the editor charge per page, per word, or by the hour? If it’s by the hour, how many hours do they estimate the project will take? Editing can range between .005-.10/word or $40-120/hour, depending on if it’s a light proofread or a serious developmental edit.

6. Can you meet my deadline?

If you don’t have a deadline for your project you should still ask, What’s your turnaround? You don’t want to get into a situation where the editor hangs onto your work forever. And if you do have a deadline, don’t wait until you’ve paid your deposit to find out that the editor is all booked for the week you need your edits returned!

7. How will you deliver my edits?

Some editors still use paper manuscripts and snail mail. Others use track changes in Word or Googledocs. Check to see if their style works for you.

8. How and when will I pay you?

Some editors take the full fee upfront, others want a 50% deposit and the rest on delivery. Some older editors only take checks, while you can pay others with a credit card on PayPal.

9. What is your cancellation policy?

What if you pay a deposit to book them for the month of August… but when July rolls around you no longer need their services? Is the deposit refundable? Before you fork over any of your hard-earned cash, find out the editor’s cancellation policy. While it’s totally understandable for an editor to have a non-refundable deposit or even a completely non-refundable fee, you want to know this in advance so you don’t get unpleasantly surprised if you have to cancel.

10. Will you available for follow-up questions?

What happens if you have questions about their suggestions? Can you email them? Call? How about revisions? Will they read a revision after you’ve implemented their suggested changes? And at what point will they charge for follow up questions?

Most editors have a clear policy about this. For example, I offer follow-up support where I will answer brief questions via email. As long as I can address the questions in about 15 minutes, I don’t charge. But if a client wants me to read a revision, or has the need for more intensive follow-up support, I charge for my time.

Did you find this post helpful? Click here to get a printable checklist of these questions from my Free Resource Library!

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

Creating Character Arcs with the DCAST Method

Creating Character Arcs with the DCAST Method

Creating Character Arcs with the DCAST Method

Creating Character Arcs Using the DCAST Method

Hiya! In this post, I’m going to show you how to create a story-level character arc using the DCAST method. For a bonus printable workbook, head over to my Free Resource Library. Sound good? Super. Let’s get started.

Intro: Character arcs defined

So… what is a character arc? A character arc is the transformation, growth, or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. Character arcs are related to and tied up with plot arcs. Whereas plot arcs are about a character’s external journey (save the castle, get the girl, avoid prison); character arcs are about a character’s internal journey (fearful to courageous, shy to boisterous, miser to philanthropist).

Character-driven stories focus heavily on this internal arc, whereas plot-driven stories may only lightly touch on it, and that’s okay. Every story doesn’t need to be about a deep excavation of a character’s soul. But even plot-driven stories can benefit from incorporating character arcs.

Character arcs come in different shapes. They can be positive, negative, flat, ambiguous, bittersweet, or any combination.

  • Positive character arcs are the most familiar, since they are used so often in mainstream fiction and movies: Through a series of events, a character improves their situation and themselves. Examples: High Fidelity, Harry Potter, basically every mainstream book and movie
  • Negative character arcs are about characters who transform in an unsavory way by the end of the story. Example: Crime and Punishment
  • Flat arcs happen when a character encounters a series of obstacles and remains steadfast and unchanging, for better or for worse. Lolita, The Hunger Games
  • Ambiguous arcs are more common in literary stories. They present the reader the opportunity to interpret the arc for themselves—was it positive? Negative? Flat? Examples: The Road, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
  • Bittersweet arcs are similar to ambiguous arcs, except, well, they’re less ambiguous. In the end, the reader is clear what both the positive and negative aspects were, but feel that the positive outweighs the negative. Examples: The Fault in Our Stars, The Outsiders

Why character arcs are important

Good characters are essential to a good story. Imagine To Kill a Mockingbird without Scout; The Hunger Games without Katniss; Harry Potter without Harry, Ron, or Hermione; or Everything is Illuminated without Alex. This is not to minimize the importance of good plot. But a plot without good characters will fall flat.

That’s because readers don’t care about your plot by itself. They care about how your plot affects your characters. If your plot is full of crazy, exciting events but your characters are stiff, cardboard cut-outs who watch blankly from the sidelines as the story passes them by, your story will feel lopsided and unsatisfying.

That’s where character arcs come in. But, as you’ve probably figured out already, creating a character arc isn’t the easiest thing to do. I invented the DCAST method because I was frustrated and overwhelmed with all the “character development” sheets and checklists that were a mile long… but didn’t actually help me get to the heart of my character’s arc. Now, I’m able to get clear relatively quickly using the acronym DCAST to remind me of the most important character arc elements.

In this post, I’ll introduce you to the basics of creating a story-level arc for your character using the DCAST method. To apply this method to your own characters, get the companion download Creating Character Arcs: The Workbook over at my Free Resource Library.

How to plot a story-level character arc using the DCAST method

We’re going to look at giving your character an overall, story-level arc using the DCAST method. That means we’ll chart their internal development over the course of the entire story. They may have smaller arcs and changes within the story, but this top-level arc defines their overarching purpose and change (or lack thereof).

I stress this because often writers lose sight of the forest for the trees. They focus on all the smaller internal shifts their character goes through… and forget to define their character’s story-level journey. This can make for a story that lacks focus and drive.

Whew. Okay, I think we’re ready.

Creating Character Arcs with DCAST Infographic

D is for Desire or Goal

The first step is to find out what motivates your character. What does your character want? Like, what do they really really want?

As you explore this question, you’ll probably come up with a range of answers. That’s fine. Most characters want more than one thing. But narrowing it down to one or two overarching desires will give your story more focus and make it easier to create a coherent throughline for your character.

For a well-rounded character and a head-start on your plot, try to choose one internal desire and one external desire (sometimes called a “goal”) for your character.

  • Internal desires are abstract, emotional desires, and are closely related to your character’s arc. Examples include wanting to find love, wanting to make one’s parents proud, the desire for redemption from a past misdeed, or a longing for a sense of security.
  • External desires, or goals, are concrete, measurable desires that manifest in the physical world, and are closely related to your story’s plot. Examples include wanting a job promotion, a new bicycle, buried treasure, or to get into college.

External desires come into play heavily during the process of plotting your story, and should ideally tie into your characters internal desires.

C is for Conflict or Obstacle

Okay, so now you know what your character wants. Great! But in order for your character to have an arc, they can’t just rush straight ahead and get exactly what they want without any obstacles. That trajectory is not only boring, it’s flat. And arcs are, you know, arc-y. So.

What stands in the way of your character getting what they want? This conflict can be internal, external, or both. Again, you might have a long list at first. But try to narrow it down to one or two major conflicts. This will help you keep your story focused. When you get into plotting your story on the scene- and chapter-level, you can explore subplots and sub-conflicts. But for now, decide what your character’s big, story-level conflict is going to be. When I’m using this method, I like to choose one major internal and one major external conflict.

  • Internal conflicts are emotional intangibles like fear, self-doubt, depression, or arrogance. This is sometimes called your character’s “flaw.”
  • External conflicts are concrete obstacles like a mean boss, a nosy neighbor, or a giant wall around the castle you’re trying to seize. When an external conflict is another character, they’re called an antagonist. But external conflicts can also be inanimate things or situations that are beyond the character’s control.

A is for Action

You know what your character wants, and what stands in the way of them achieving their desire. Now… What is your character going to do about it? What action will they take, or be forced to take? This will tell us a lot about your character. Not everyone will react the same under the same circumstances. This question is especially important for writers who are prone to creating passive characters.

If your answer is, “Nothing—my character isn’t going to do anything,” go back to the first step, Desire. Chances are, your character doesn’t have a strong enough desire. Find one that’s strong enough to motivate them into action.

If your answer is, “My character is going to do a, b, c, d, e, and f…” Stop right there, and get out a notepad. It’s great that you have so many ideas for how your character is going to react to the situation. Write them all down so that you don’t forget them. You will use these notes when you’re plotting your story on the chapter and seen level.

But for right now, come up with one major action that your character will take in the story as a whole. You might not be able to express this with several words, you might need a whole sentence. But be clear about the difference between the Big Action that defines your entire story, and the Little Actions that make up your plot.

For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss takes many, many actions. She kills game, trades at the Hob, gets into a fight with Cato, lays flowers on Rue’s grave… Those are all little, scene-level actions. Her big, story-level action could be described as follows:

[Desire] Katniss wants to protect her family, but [conflict] her sister is chosen to go to the hunger games, so [main action of the story] Katniss goes to the games in her sister’s place and wins.

For those of you who are literary writers, I can already hear your protests: But that’s formulaic… It only works for mainstream fiction… My story is so much more subtle than that, etc. In which case I offer you the same template for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: [Desire] An unnamed man wants to protect his son, but [conflict] the world is cold and bleak and full of cannibals, so [action] he attempts to walk south toward warmer weather and safety.

Action is all about the external. Even in a story that is not plot-driven, there are always opportunities to put your character into action.

Action is key to shaping an arc because it demands movement. The shape of desire without an obstacle is a straight, flat line. But desire with an obstacle quickly becomes a frozen dynamic, like the folk tale about the two goats who butt heads on the single-lane bridge. Something has to give in order a change – the arc – to happen… even if the action is just your character retreating from their desires to the point that they’re completely steamrolled by the conflict. But they’ve got to move one way or the other for the arc to take shape.

S is for Stakes

Okay, so you know what your character wants, what the conflict is, and what they’re going to do about it. But what will happen if your character doesn’t act? Or if they act and fail? What does your character stand to lose by failing to get what they want? Why do they continue to struggle and move forward despite the obstacles?

Maybe they will be doomed to a life of unhappiness. Their marriage might fall apart. Maybe they will go to jail, or be eaten alive by vampires, or freeze to death, or be forced into homelessness. They might never reconcile with their child or parent. They might lose their integrity. Remember, stakes don’t have to be life-or-death. The consequences of failing just need to be important enough to your character that we’re convinced of why they keep trying.

Stakes are important for the reader – it helps them be more invested in whether the character succeeds or fails. But they are also important for the character. Why would they act at all if they have nothing to lose? And if it’s a positive-change arc, why would they be motivated to improve themselves if there’s nothing at stake?

Stakes help create an arc because it’s a force that pushes forward in the face of conflict. If your character meets an obstacle and just walks away… well, you could definitely create an arc out of that, but that’s a topic for another blog post. Let’s just say it’s an easier more versatile choice to have something at stake. Stakes opens up opportunities for dramatic things to happen for your character as the tension rises and the conflict becomes more intense.

T is for Transformation or Change

Ah, the big moment.

Your character wants something, but there’s a conflict. Ideally, a big conflict—one so big that your character can’t get what they want without changing some aspect of who they are, or changing their mind about what they want.

Now, your character doesn’t have to change. If they are confronted with an obstacle to their desire and fail to succeed because they refuse to change, then you’ve just written a tragedy or another non-positive arc. But even if that’s the case, you should have a clear idea of the potential change they’ve refused so you can communicate that to the reader.

So… How will the events of your story force your character to change in order to get what they want? To transform? To become a different person?

And if your character refuses to change and insists on starring in their own tragedy, why and how have they resisted change? Can the reader relate to this refusal and feel empathy for the character, or are we standing in judgment of their actions?

That’s it! Now go forth and create your character’s arc!

For a printable workbook that walks you through the process outlined here, download Creating Character Arcs: The Workbook from my Free Resource Library.

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

How to Choose the Right Point of View for Your Story

How to Choose the Right Point of View for Your Story

How to Choose the Right Point of View for Your Story

Welcome, fiction writers! In this post, we’ll be looking at how to choose the right point of view for your story. If you like, you can download a free, printable Point of View Cheatsheet in my Free Resource Library to go along with this post.

Point of View: An Introduction

Simply stated, point of view is the vantage point from which a story is told. But point of view is much more complicated than that. It encompasses everything from who the narrator is (the author? a character?) to what attitude they have about the story they’re telling.

When the point of view for a short story or novel has been thoughtfully constructed, it acts nearly invisibly. But lose your footing, even briefly, and the reader will immediately sense something is off. Even subtle inconsistencies in a story’s point of view can pull us out of the moment.

With the stakes so high, it’s important to make deliberate, thoughtful choices about point of view. Yet all too often, this show-stopping element of fiction writing takes a backseat to writers’ concerns about plot and character. But point of view isn’t an easy gimmick or a frivolous choice to be taken lightly. Point of view, when used correctly, is the story.

Let me repeat that. Point of view IS the story.

Say your novel is about a woman who murdered her husband. You could tell that story from the perspective of the woman, 20 years later, looking back regretfully on what happened… or from the perspective of a burned-out detective, during the investigation… or from the perspective of her dead husband, from the afterlife, as he watches his wife suffer in prison… or from the perspective of a deaf child who witnessed the crime, and is now traumatized for life…

But those aren’t just “different spins” on the same story. They are all completely different stories.

The infinite subtleties and endless possibilities of point of view are too much for a single blog post. But I’d like to share some point of view basics with you as a jumping off point.

Here’s a list of the five most common points of view, and how to decide which is right for you. I also made a printable Point of View Cheatsheet that you can download in my Free Resource Library. 🙂

The Five Basic Points of View

The five basic points of view are first person, second person, third person limited, third person omniscient, and multiple point view. Choosing between them can seem overwhelming at first, but you can simplify your decision by thinking of them as existing on a continuum between perspective and intimacy.

Point of View Spectrum Perspective-Intimacy

As you can see in the graphic, third person omniscient allows you the most perspective with the least amount of intimacy. On the other end, first person gives you a lot of intimacy with very little perspective. So one of the first questions to ask yourself when deciding what point of view is right for your novel or short story is: Which is more important, perspective or intimacy?

For an epic fantasy that spans several hundred years and many continents, perspective is probably more important than intimacy. For a young adult novel about the inner complexity of a depressed teen, you’ll likely favor intimacy over perspective. If you need a good mix of both, third person limited can be a good way to go (which is why so many books are written with this point of view!).

First Person (“I, we”)

In first person point of view, the storyteller uses the pronoun “I” or “we.” This narrator is generally a character from the book, although in rare circumstances it may be the author.

A first person point of view is perfect if you have a character with a unique voice to narrate your story. Ideally, this character should be the protagonist of the story. However that’s not a strict rule. The Great Gatsby was told in the first person by a “peripheral narrator.”

First person has the most intimacy and the least perspective of all the viewpoints. That’s because you are completely trapped inside the perspective of a single character. Not only do we see everything from that character’s point of view, we hear about it in their voice. For that reason, it’s especially important that your narrating character is someone that you (and your reader) are interested in spending a lot of time with.

Many writing advice-givers will try to steer you away from first person, claiming that it’s too difficult for a beginner. But if it seems like the right choice for your story, don’t shy away from it! First person presents unique challenges, but also unique payoffs when done well.

Second Person (“you”)

Second person point of view is more rarely used than first or third. With second person, you tell the story as though the reader is the viewpoint character. Like first person, it offers a ton of intimacy and not a lot of perspective. When used carefully, second person can bring an immediacy and intensity to the work that makes the reader feel very involved in the story.

On the other hand, sometimes second person can be too intense. For that reason, second person is more often used for short and/or experimental work. (However the novel Bright Lights Big City was written in second person!)

As always, you’re the boss! Feel free to experiment. Many publishers do shy away from accepting stories written in the second person. But that shouldn’t stop you from using it if it feels right.

Too much to remember? Keep these point of view basics in your back pocket for reference! Download a free, printable Point of View Cheatsheet in my Free Resource Library.

Third Person (“she, he, they”)

In third person, the author (not a character, like with first person) narrates the story. There are endless variations of the third-person point of view, but the most common are third person limited and third person omniscient. Let’s look at each.

Third Person Limited (also called third person “close”)

In third person limited, you only give readers access to one character’s inner thoughts (usually the main character or protagonist). Harry Potter is a perfect example. Whereas first person sacrifices perspective for intimacy, and omniscient does the opposite, third person has the advantage of combining both. We have a bit more distance from the perspective of the main character than with first person, yet we still have access to their inner world.

Third person limited is perfect for stories where you need a balance of intimacy and perspective. Examples include stories where you are introducing a new world to the reader, stories where the main character is too biased or quirky to effectively narrate their own story, and stories where you want the reader to be able to look “at” the main character instead of constantly seeing the story “through” them (as in first person).

Third Person Omniscient

In third person omniscient, the narrator (aka the author) knows everything. They have access to every character’s inner thoughts and feelings, and every detail about the story.

Omniscient was very popular in Victorian fiction, but has fallen out of favor recently. These days, third person limited is much more common, as modern readers tend to prefer to experience more intimacy with the characters. Because the omniscient is an all-knowing point of view, we don’t get to deeply experience any one character’s perspective, which can leave modern readers feeling unsatisfied. But again: Your story, your rules! If omniscient feels like the right choice, go for it!

Multiple point of view

In multiple point of view, we get the perspectives of multiple characters. You can use multiple first person (The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver); multiple third person (Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin); or mixed multiple, which uses both third and first person (Strange as This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake).

Unlike third person omniscient, stories written with multiple point of view don’t shift viewpoint characters within a chapter or section. Instead, each part is written entirely from the perspective of a different character.

Multiple point of view can allow you to widen and complicate your story world. However, keep in the mind that the more viewpoint characters you have, the less intimacy the reader will have with each character.

For more information about multiple point of view, see my blog post A Beginner’s Guide to Multiple Point of View.

Hope this has been helpful! For a handy reference, download a free, printable Point of View Cheatsheet in my Free Resource Library.

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

A Beginner’s Guide to Multiple Point of View

A Beginner's Guide to Multiple Point of View

A Beginner's Guide to Multiple Point of View

A Beginner’s Guide to Multiple Point of View

Just starting out? Click here for an introduction to the five basic points of view.

What is multiple point of view?

In multiple point of view, we get the perspectives of multiple characters within a single story. You have three options with multiple point of view:

  • Multiple first person (The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver)
  • Multiple third person (Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)
  • Mixed multiple, which uses both third and first person (Strange as This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake)

Unlike third person omniscient, stories written with multiple point of view don’t shift viewpoint characters within a chapter or section. Instead, each part is written entirely from the perspective of a different character.

When to Use Multiple Point of View

Multiple point of view is great for novels you need to cover a lot of ground, either metaphorically or literally speaking. It can work well for thematically complex work, mysteries, and sprawling epics of all genres.

Multiple points of view doesn’t work so well for short stories. That’s because in a short story you don’t have enough time to fully explore multiple perspectives. If you need a wider view for a short story, third person omniscient is probably a better choice.

When used well, multiple point of view can allow you to widen and complicate your story world. It’s not the right choice for every story, but if you decide it’s the right choice for yours, here are 5 tips for success.

5 Tips for Success with Multiple Point of View

1. Use a separate chapter for each point of view character

Not only will this keep readers from getting confused, it allows them to more distinctly bond with each character or narrator.

2. Make the point of view character apparent immediately

If you’re using first person multiple, this can’t be achieved partly by making sure that each character has a distinct voice that will be immediately recognizable to the reader. But don’t stop there. When using multiple point of view, you should ideally make it clear within the first few sentences of a new chapter who the point of view character is.

Some novels that use multiple point of view even title each chapter with the point of view character’s name. This might seem too “obvious” for some writers, but if literary giants like Barbara Kingsolver and William Faulkner did this for their multiple point of view novels, there must be a good reason!

3. Each point of view character should add something to the story

If they don’t, or if you aren’t interested in weaving them into the narrative in a meaningful way, you might be using multiple points of view for the wrong reasons. So what does “add something” to the story mean? It can mean a few different things (or all of them!):

  • The character has their own arc within the story
  • The characters actions affect the plot and advance the main conflict of the story
  • The character’s actions and conflicts speak to the theme of the story
  • The character has an important relationship with the protagonist

4. Develop each point of view character

Each point of view character should have their own desires, conflicts, fears, and backstories. While distinct personalities are important too, make sure you aren’t confusing your character’s personality with their actual character.

A limp or a stutter is a superficial quirk. Unless it’s tied to something more substantial in that character’s history or inner world, it won’t do much to help you create a character arc or drive the conflict in your story.

A desire to get revenge on your brother for kissing your husband, on the other hand, is not superficial. It’s a deep inner drama that has the potential to drive and shape an entire story.

5. Each character should have a distinct voice

This can be a tough one for some fiction writers. If you’re writing in first person or a very close third person, each character should have a distinct voice. Ideally, this voice should be strong enough that a reader can easily distinguish one character from another by the writing alone. Here are some things to keep in mind when creating unique character voices:

  • Word choices: If you ask this character to come to a party, do they respond “hell yeah!” or “I’d be honored”?
  • Attitude: What attitude does your character have about your story’s events? Sincere? Sarcastic? Anxious?
  • Perceptions: How would your character describe their surroundings? How do they perceive other characters and events in the story?

Writing in multiple point of view can be challenging, but if you take the time to make sure it’s right for your story, develop well-rounded characters, and are willing to do a bit of extra plotting, it can really pay off! Hope this helps!

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

Show Don’t Tell? Not Always. Here’s When to Use Summary

Show Don't Tell? Not Always. Here's When to Use Summary

Show Don't Tell? Not Always. Here's When to Use Summary

I was inspired to write this post after getting a great anonymous question in my Ask on Tumblr: “What’s your opinion on the whole ‘show don’t tell’ advice? Do you have any tips for when to show and when to tell?”

Here’s my response:

I honestly think that “show don’t tell” is one of the most over-quoted and least-understood pieces of writing advice out there.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, “show don’t tell” means that instead of explaining or telling something to your reader (“Sheila was reckless and impulsive”), you should show Sheila’s impulsiveness through action or dialogue. For example, “Even though her rent was overdue, after she got her paycheck Sheila spent $400 on an antique toilet.” This would allow the reader to draw the conclusion that Sheila was impulsive for themselves, rather than being told.

Theoretically, this is great advice for new fiction writers, who, left to their own devices, tend to write their stories entirely in “telling” mode.

But summary (telling) has a place in fiction as well, and it’s an important one.

For one thing, summary allows you to pace your story. If everything is shown in the moment, a story can sometimes seem to be unfolding with breathtaking speed. Alternating with a bit of summary allows your reader to slow down for a break every once in a while.

Secondly, scene takes a lot longer to write than summary. In the earlier example, it might take several scenes or hundreds of words to thoroughly show and convince the reader of Sheila’s impulsiveness. Whereas the sentence “Sheila was impulsive” takes three words. So summary can allow you to fit more into your story or novel and keep it a reasonable length whereas if you wrote every single little thing that happened in scene your story might be prohibitively long.

So summary helps control the pacing of the story and also helps the writer moderate the story’s length.

Even the most fervent supporters of “show don’t tell,” as far as I know, do not dispute that every story can make use of and benefit from summary.

Try it yourself: Pick up your favorite story or book off of the shelf and see if you can locate parts of the story that are told, explained, or summarize to the reader. It’s there. It’s part of the package. Good writers use summary, and they know how to use it well.

So how do you decide when and where to use summary?

The answer is in itself another question and topic. But here’s a quick guideline:

Use summary to give the reader any information she needs which is not important enough to the story to warrant a scene, or to show the passing of time between important parts of the story.

Example #1 Using summary to quickly present inconsequential information.

If the fact that Sheila is reckless and impulsive is a central part of the story—maybe this is a story about how Sheila, your protagonist, learns to overcome her impulsiveness, for example, or maybe in this story it becomes a major issue in Sheila’s relationship that she is impulsive, etc.—then by all means show Sheila’s impulsiveness in scenes.

But if Sheila is, for example, a minor character who is only mentioned by two or three times in passing, and whose behavior doesn’t really affect the story one way or another, then go ahead and summarize Sheila’s behavior. For example, if Sheila is a distant cousin of the protagonist and is only mentioned in a few sentences when the protagonist bumps into her at a family reunion. She is not a central part of the story, but for whatever reason it’s important for the reader to know a few minor details about her.

Example #2: Using summary to show time passing between important scenes.

If your story is about a couple being trapped inside a cabin for a long winter, by all means show the bitter cold days in full scene. That’s the essence of your story, you wouldn’t want to summarize it and deny the reader the chance to experience it.

But if your story is about two friends who share a friendship at summer camp every year, you might want to recap the winter that passed between their visits in a paragraph or two.

Another time to quickly summarize time passing is to use a sentence or two when characters transition from one important location to another, e.g. “They left the movie, drove back to the house, and started dinner.” Again, check up on your favorite writers. I promise you they are not showing every single tiny action blow-by-blow. It would be tedious as hell and make it almost impossible for the reader to figure out what’s important and what’s not.

A few final words about “show don’t tell”:

  • If you’re having a hard time deciding what to put in scene and what to put in summary, you might not understand your story well enough yet. Go back and make some notes, or have someone you trust read your story and give you feedback.
  • Everyone has different levels of tolerance for summary and exposition. Find out yours. You want to be the kind of writer that you would want to read, right? Go through your favorite short stories and novels with a highlighter and highlight any passages or sentences that are telling. Are you the kind of reader who loves a page of summary about the snow falling outside, or do you prefer your stories to be more action-heavy?
  • There is a lot of bad advice out there about showing versus telling. Some writers would have you write: “She sighed deeply as a single crystalline tear gently glided down her face, tracing the line of her button nose before splashing onto the yellow formica countertop” instead of “She cried.” “She cried” is not telling! Cried is a verb: it shows. “She was sad” or “She was upset” is telling.
  • Similarly, beware of anyone who applies the “show don’t tell” advice prescriptively, or who seems to be repeating it like a parrot. Those people usually don’t know what they’re talking about. They heard that advice somewhere, and they’re just repeating it. Anytime anyone reads your writing and says, “You should show more,” without giving any further explanation, question them. Get them to specifically tell you what they’re talking about. If they can’t, find someone else to look at your writing.
  • Summary doesn’t have to be boring. When it is appropriate to summarize, look for ways to add verbs and sensory details to your summaries to keep them more vivid. Give your reader something to visualize. “My father was restless” is hard to visualize. “My father was like a squirrel on cocaine. By the time I woke up, he’d been out in the yard for hours, stuffing Easter eggs into his pocket like they were acorns,” is, well, absurd. But easier to visualize.

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

8 Ways to Improve Your Writing

8 Ways to Improve Your Writing

8 Ways to Improve Your Writing

I got a great anonymous Ask over on Tumblr last week from someone who wanted to know how to identify weak spots in their writing. One of the things that comes with time and experience is finding the language to identify, discuss, and address the feeling that something isn’t quite right or that a story is “missing something.” Not knowing them or their writing, of course I couldn’t help them figure out what specifically the problem was. But I did share with them a list of things I’ve done over the years to be able to identify weak spots and improve my writing.

1. Analyze your favorite writers.

Figure out why you like the writing that you like. Ask yourself: What are they doing here? What are they doing that I’m not doing? Why do I love their writing so much? Take notes on their stories. Plot them. Write in the margins. Read them slowly. Read their reviews—both good and bad. Did that writer you love once write something you hated? Great, even better. Figure out why that particular book was different from the others.

2. Analyze your own writing.

Do you have an older story you wrote that you love? Figure out why. What did you do differently in that story that you’re not doing in the current story you’re writing? Make notes. Draw maps. Reverse engineer everything.

3. Develop a language to talk and think about writing.

Read craft books, blogs, anything you can get your hands on. Learn about point of view, conflict, character development, dialogue, story structure, syntax, metaphors. Get your advice from good sources, and don’t believe everything you read. If something doesn’t sit right with you, throw it out. But be open to everything.

4. Journal and write about your writing.

Over time, you will identify consistent weaknesses that you have. Then, in the future, when you feel like “something is missing” from your writing, you can reference your notes and remember, for example, that you often have difficulty with your protagonist’s motivation, with theme, with dialogue, etc., and you’ll have a better idea about where to go looking.

5. Share your writing with someone you trust, ideally a more experienced writer than you or an editor or mentor.

Be very careful about who you share your writing with. Friends and family are not always the best choice. You don’t want someone who’s just going to throw around their uneducated opinion about your work, who has a big ego, or who won’t be honest with you. Remember: “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” are useless pieces of feedback. You want someone who can read your work and say, “Your protagonist’s passion for music made them really likeable to me. I was dying to know whether they would get into the conservatory or not!” or “My attention wandered on page two, when you described the couch upholstery for three paragraphs.”

6. Analyze the areas of your writing which are commonly problematic for new writers (and writers in general).

In my experience as an editor, the most likely culprits are unclear character motivation and lack of conflict. There are a lot of good resources (books and blogs) about this. Try a Google search for “most common mistakes beginning writers make.”

7. Trust your intuition.

Do you keep coming back to the same page or scene in your story, feeling like it isn’t right? You’re probably onto something.

8. Take time away from your writing.

You’d be amazed how much more clear everything will be after a break. Give yourself at least a week for a short story, 3-4 weeks for a novel. It could also be the case that your ambitions for this particular story don’t yet match your skills, and that you’ll have to wait even longer to successfully finish it. I’ve known writers who have given up on a story only to come back to it months or years later once they’d gained the skills and insight to complete it. And then suddenly writing that story seemed really easy!

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

How to Spot Bad Writing Advice: 6 Red Flags to Look For

How to Spot Bad Writing Advice

How to Spot Bad Writing Advice

First of all, I’m not by any means the authority on what makes good or bad writing advice! Writing is an art. There are no rules in art, which means that writing advice, by extension, is highly subjective.

In my opinion, if it works for you, if it helps you improve and be happier with your writing, that’s good writing advice. If it hinders you, takes you down the wrong path, fucks with your creative process, causes more confusion than clarity, that’s bad advice. So when you’re sorting the good from the bad, go with your gut, and don’t let anyone bully you into their way of thinking, regardless of how credible, famous, or experienced they are. However…

If you’re a new writer, it can take a while to tell the difference between helpful (”good”) writing advice and unhelpful (”bad”) writing advice.

Remember that literally anyone can pose as an expert and offer writing advice. As a published fiction writer, professional editor, and writing teacher, I see a lot of writing advice floating around on Tumblr that I just don’t agree with. Figuring out how to sift through everything takes time, but here are some red flags to keep an eye out for:

Red Flag #1: Hard-and-Fast Rules

Bad writing advice gives hard-and-fast rules, and doesn’t allow for exceptions. It liberally uses words like always and never. (Example: “Never open a book with the weather,” “Always punctuate your dialogue like this,” “You can’t write a novel that’s longer than 100,000 words,” etc.)

Red Flag #2: “Because I Said So”

Bad writing advice often doesn’t give the reasoning behind the rules or guidelines it offers. It will tell you what to do but not why. Now, people don’t always have the time to write a super long post explaining the reasoning behind their advice every single time they share a tip (I know I don’t). But if you ask for clarification and they can’t or won’t give it to you, or they give you a glib answer, consider it a red flag. (Example: “Don’t start a book with a character eating a sandwich.” “Why?” “Just don’t do it/because you shouldn’t/because it’s stupid/readers hate it.”) Remember: “Because it’s boring/annoying/overdone” are not good explanations. WTF are you supposed to do with that information? Just take their word for it? How are you supposed to grow as a writer if you don’t understand the rationale behind the advice and just blindly follow one rule after the other, having no idea what the deeper logic is?

Red Flag #3: Ginormous Ego or Attitude

Bad writing advice can be snarky, rude, combative, judgmental, or defensive. Granted, some people don’t mind being talked down to, and I’ve seen some decent writing advice presented by people who have a huge attitude. But consider it a red flag if combined with anything else on this list. Good writing advice, in my opinion, is supportive, kind, and thoughtful. If you honestly want to help other writers, there’s no need to bring a huge ego into it.

Red Flag #4: No Examples

Bad writing advice often doesn’t give any examples of the advice in action. Again, see #2: Those of us sharing advice don’t always have the time to go into insane detail for every single post. But if you ask for actual examples of their advice in action and they can’t give any, beware. And be especially wary if someone can’t cite an example from a published book or story authored by a credible writer, if they quote from their own work-in-progress as an example, OR if they use movies as examples. I run across blogs all the time by unpublished writers who use their own work-in-progress or self-published book as an example. Now, some of these blogs are actually giving out good advice! If you really like and respect their work and there aren’t any other red flags there might not be anything to worry about. But otherwise err on the side of caution and be more trusting of advice that uses (or can provide if asked) quality, published work by experienced writers as an example.

Red Flag #5: Sales-y

Bad writing advice sometimes comes from people who are desperately trying to sell you something. Now, this is a fine line, as many good and credible professionals make their living teaching, editing, and giving writing advice. Often, those people have blogs with a wealth of information available, and they may mention their services or products from time to time. That’s is how I make my living, too. But if they sound like sensational, snake-oil salespeople who make wild, unrealistic promises (”Unlock the secret to writing a bestseller in only 3 days!!!!), run the other way.

Red Flag #6: Inexperienced

Bad writing advice is sometimes given out by inexperienced people. I’m not one of those snobs who thinks that only highly experienced, credentialed, professional writers, editors, and teachers can give good writing advice. But experience is something to consider, especially if another red flag is already present. How can you tell if someone is inexperienced? Well, for one thing, they have less experience than you! If they’re a writer, they probably haven’t been writing very long. They’ve learned just enough to trumpet a bunch of do-or-die writing advice from the rooftops, but not enough to learn that there are many and varied exceptions to every “rule” they share. If they’re giving feedback on your writing, their writing advice also tends to be prescriptive, which means that instead of trying to help you to write the story you’re trying to write, they slap on a bunch of writing advice cliches and call it good. (Example: ”You need more action!” “Where? Why? What are you talking about, specifically?” “Stories should have action!!! You need more action!”)

How about y’all? How do you weed out the helpful from the unhelpful with so much writing advice floating around out there? Anything you would add to this list?

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

5 Reasons to Kill Your Critique Group

5 Reasons to Kill Your Critique Group

5 Reasons to Kill Your Critique Group

Oh my gosh, it’s been so long since I’ve written a blog post! As some of you know, in addition to freelance editing and writing for others for a living, I also pursue my own creative endeavors. This spring, I took a few months off to spend time on two main projects—revising my new zine Pigtail Girls, and organizing the first Santa Fe Zine Fest in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Now that Santa Fe Zine Fest is behind me, and my work on Pigtail Girls appears to be on autopilot, I’ve started thinking again about you all—the other writers in my midst, and what tidbits of information I might be able to pass along to help you.

After taking time off to focus on my own writing, I feel closer than ever to the concerns and struggles of making creative work. Each time in the last few months that I’ve come up against an obstacle, had a breakthrough, or experienced a potent “ah ha” moment, I’ve made a little note to myself to write it up in a future blog post or newsletter.

So here’s July’s pearl of wisdom, which I gathered while going through an exhaustive beta reading and developmental editing process for my own work, a dark, strange, and non-conventional feminist fairy tale called Pigtail Girls that I’ve been writing on and off for 3 years.

You don’t need a critique group.

You really, really don’t.

In fact, giving your work to a critique group may do more harm than good.

(If your critique group is working for you, by all means stick with it. But if you’ve been having doubts or frustrations, and wondering how else you might get the feedback you need on your writing, read on!)

Reason #1: Critique groups encourage critique

Um… This one is pretty obvious. But since critique groups exist to give a writer feedback on how to improve their writing, many participants feel compelled to find something wrong with a story, even if it’s quite good.

It’s the old if-all-you-have-is-a-hammer conundrum.

I’ve seen some excellent work go in front of critique groups. After 10 minutes of praising the piece, inevitably an awkward silence falls over the room… until someone starts a chorus of nit-picky criticism that slowly wears away at both the story and the writer for the next 20 minutes.

In this scenario, everyone walks away feeling crappy—the writer, surely, but also the members of the critique group, who were so completely flummoxed about how to react to a solid piece of work that they ended up flailing around, subconsciously aware that they were not offering anything helpful yet not knowing what else to do.

This particular reality of critique groups is part of what leads writers to submit work that’s not finished yet—they know that the group will tear the story apart either way, so why submit a story that the writer is convinced is flawless? Which leads us to the second reason critique groups are problematic…

Reason #2: Subjecting a story to critique too soon can constrict creativity, ignite the inner critic, and lead to paralysis

There’s not too much to elaborate on here. If you submit work that’s in its tender sprouting stages to a critique group that rips it apart, it can be very difficult to shut up the critical voices in your head as you move forward with the story. Again, I’ve seen early drafts with tremendous potential be abandoned by writers who got steamrolled at their critique group.

Reason #3: Critique groups encourage “story by committee”

Imagine this (if you haven’t already experienced it first hand): You give your story to a critique group of 8 people. 6 of them think it moves too slow in the beginning. 2 of them say the opposite—they wish you would’ve slowed down in the early chapters. 4 of them don’t understand your protagonists motivations, while the other 4 feel like they’ve been hit over the head with them. 3 of them absolutely insist that your story is historical fiction and that you’re not adhering to the conventions of that genre, while the other 5 have no opinion on the matter.

Clearly, everyone can’t be right. So who do you believe? Do you try to please everyone? Defer to the majority? Ignore everyone’s advice and go about your business without changing anything at all?

In the worst cases, critique groups—especially for beginning writers—can quickly become a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Writers find themselves trying to please everyone. Alternately, they weigh the group’s opinions based on the numbers, aka majority rules.

Not only does this strategy leave the writer overwhelmed and frustrated, it holds the added risk of cutting them off from their most powerful writing tool, the writer’s own self trust and intuition about their work. Which leads me to…

Reason #4: Critique groups can squash a writer’s fledgling sense of self trust

In the best case scenario, getting feedback on your writing from the right reader can help you cultivate and learn to trust your own intuition about your work. But critique groups sometimes do the opposite. Writers can get overwhelmed with feedback that seems to go against their own gut feelings, causing them to question whether they can trust themselves.

Reason #5: Critique groups can proliferate bad writing advice and discourage innovative work

This is a big one. Because critique groups have many members and are often populated with inexperienced writers, they tend to encourage conformity. Unless the group is being led by an experienced and well-read writer, experimental work that pushes boundaries or blends genres may be corralled into something more traditional and lackluster by writers who don’t appreciate, value, or like anything too “different.”

Another reason groups discourage experimental or innovative work is out of a belief that the work with never be published or received well by readers “out there.” They might think they are protecting the writer from inevitable rejection.

But ironically, this is exactly the kind of work that gets recognized by editors, publishers, and agents, and is most likely to be honored with awards later on. So not only can the critique group discourage a writer from producing something truly daring and interesting, they may also inadvertently sidetrack their success with misguided beliefs about what sells.

Last but not least, critique groups are often full of people who just straight-up give bad writing advice.

What To Do Instead

So if critique groups aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, what should you do? Abandon the idea of feedback all together?

No, of course not. You need high-quality feedback on your work from trusted sources in order to grow and improve as a writer. With critique groups, you can get your work reviewed by a large sample of people, anywhere from 5-20 depending on the size. You’d think that would be an advantage—more opinions, and a bigger sample of opinions. More is always better, right?

Well, as we’ve seen, not always. I’d argue that what you need to improve your writing is not more feedback but better feedback. At this point in my writing life, I have just a few readers who I really trust—readers who like my work, who get me, and who are able to give laser-sharp criticism that aligns with my own gut instincts rather than going against them.

If you’re like me and you’ve felt frustrated, overwhelmed, and constricted by critique groups, I highly recommend this strategy.

Where do you find these trusted readers? That’s the one thing a critique group can actually be useful for!—finding and connecting with individuals who you actually click with. Just be sure, once you find these people, not to succumb to the temptation to give your work out to more and more readers. You don’t have to prove yourself by making sure that 15 or 20 people approve of your work before submitting it for publication! Trust yourself, trust your one or two carefully selected readers, and move on.

Hope this helps!

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

Are You Using Too Much Stage Direction?

Are You Using Too Much Stage Direction?

Are You Using Too Much Stage Direction?

Fiction writers: Are you using too much stage direction?

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we don’t need to know that someone crossed the room, reached for the coffee cup, turned sideways, took a step forward, or glanced to the left.

Visual writers have an especially hard time with this (fiction writers who “see” their story in their head, and write down the images blow-for-blow, as though narrating a movie).

There’s nothing wrong with this writing process, of course. Just know that you’ll be more prone to adding excessive, pointless movements to your novel or short story.

Then, when revising, ask yourself if they are important to the story (sometimes, it is important that someone took a step forward!) and take out the ones that aren’t. Or, better yet, delete them all, then put back only the ones that have left holes in their absence.

Remember, stage direction is different from meaningful gesture or action.

Meaningful gestures and actions can orient the reader or give information about character or plot. Stage direction, by my definition, is pointless movement.

Here is an excerpt from Haruki Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World to illustrate my point. First, the original:

“See anyone milling around in the hall?” I asked.
“Not a soul,” she said.
I undid the chain, let her in, and quickly relocked the door.
“Something sure smells good,” she said. “Mind if I peek in the kitchen?”
“Go right ahead. But are you sure there aren’t any strange characters hanging around the entrance? No one doing street repairs, or just sitting in a parked car?”
“Nothing of the kind,” she said, plunking the books down on the kitchen table. Then she lifted the lid of each pot on the range. “You make all this yourself?”

Here, we get just enough to orient us–we know the woman was outside the apartment, she walked into the house, went into the kitchen, and the narrator followed her there. But Murakami doesn’t actually say that. He allows us to infer those movements from the dialogue and the light peppering of action and description.

Now, here is the same excerpt re-written with way too much stage direction:

“See anyone milling around in the hall?” I asked. I poked my head into the hallway and looked left and right.
“Not a soul,” she said.
I undid the chain, let her in, and quickly relocked the door. She walked inside and stood near the coat rack.
“Something sure smells good,” she said, looking toward the kitchen. “Mind if I peek in the kitchen?”
“Go right ahead,” I said, following her as she walked down the hallway and into the kitchen. “But are you sure there aren’t any strange characters hanging around the entrance? No one doing street repairs, or just sitting in a parked car?”
“Nothing of the kind,” she said, plunking the books down on the kitchen table. Then she walked over to the stove and lifted the lid of each pot on the range. “You make all this yourself?”

Some would argue that you need beats to break up dialogue—actions, gestures, and stage directions that give the reader a sense of grounding, so that your dialogue doesn’t turn into “talking heads.”

But those gestures, ideally, should serve some purpose beyond breaking up the dialogue. Otherwise they clutter up your writing. Do they add clarity? Give us a sense of place? Show character? Reveal something about the story?

Remember, it’s a balance. We don’t necessarily have to hold every single gesture up to a microscope.

But if you notice that your characters are shifting, nodding, twitching, lighting cigarettes, walking across the room, etc. *constantly* then it’s time to take out the red pen

When you add too much stage direction, you deny your reader the chance to make your story theirs. Read the above examples again, and honestly ask yourself which you prefer. Notice how the first, original excerpt feels roomier? As though you are participating in the story, instead of being held at arms length?

Readers need space to enter the story. If we constantly smashing them over the head with every tiny pedestrian detail, they have no room to live inside the story themselves. We effectively block them out of it by explaining too much. It seems counter-intuitive, but leaving out excessive stage direction is one way that fiction writers can invite readers into our story world, keeping them more engaged and happier in the process.

Your thoughts?

Bucket Siler is a writer, editor, zine enthusiast, and the founding editor of The Literary Architect, where she helps fiction writers perfect their craft and polish their original stories. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has lived in New Mexico since 2006. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.

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