Stoppers: Critical Writing Errors

Great writing is “invisible”—it contains very few words or phrases that stop the reader . . . unless that is the writer’s intention. Unintentional “stoppers” are usually the result of confusion (and likewise, result in confusion) and includeWording Stoppers and Conceptual Stoppers.

Wording Stoppers

  1. Words that are out of place in that they don’t fit with the story type, character profile, or environment (good words in the wrong places in a story or good words that don’t belong in the story being told) For example: character dialog should be consistent with character background and education;
  2. Incorrectly used words (good words with the wrong meaning for where they are used);
  3. Generic wording (wording that is so “common” that it contributes nothing to the story—too much generic wording [often in the form of clichés] will cause your story to lose momentum and your reader will “fall off”);
  4. Overly elaborate wording (elegant [look at me!] words and poetic phrasing that is so “beautiful,” “exquisite,” or “awesome” that reader ends up focused on the words and loses track of the story) [kill your darlings];
  5. Convoluted or overly-long sentence structure (wording, that, while correct, is so complicated or overly long that the reader is forced to re-read a sentence in order to derive meaning;
  6. An imbalance between dialog and narrative (Too much dialog, and the reader will lose track of the setting and who is speaking. Too much narrative and the story stops because there is no ongoing action or the reader is no longer with the character.);
  7. Misuse of tags/ speaker attributions (too many, too few, too “over-the-top,” or misplacement of the “he said/she saids) can get in the way of your story (a common error is to put the attribution at the end of a hunk of dialog. When the reader has to wonder who is saying something and gets the “surprise” toward the end of the “conversational thought,” the reader is wondering, not staying in the story. If you are in conversation with people, you almost always know who is speaking—immediately. Writing needs to follow reality).
  8. Mechanical errors (incorrect punctuation, spelling errors, poor grammar usage, awkward structure);
  9. Passive voice (backwards sentences)—what should be at the beginning of the sentence (the subject) shows up at the end, preceded by a form of the verb [to be] and then an action verb. Sally was teased by Bill. Clean up the sentence and you get: Bill teased Sally. If you change passive sentences to active, you will typically reduce your word count by a third.
  10. Excessive use of prepositions (more than 4 or so in a sentence and your reader will get confused—confusion is a BIG STOPPER—the reader should not have to stop to figure out what the author is saying).

Other Stoppers

Other stoppers are not so much “word” problems as they are conceptual problems. Writers create “contracts” with their readers . . . which involve how much of a view of the world the reader will experience and be allowed to know. Once that contract has been created, breaking it risks damaging the reader’s intimate relationship to the Point of View characters, and thereby, his or her relationship to the work. A broken relationship is a stopper.

Point of view refers to “Where the person who is telling the story at the time is standing.” If Sally is telling the story, the reader will experience things that Sally experiences . . . as if the reader had “moved into being Sally.” Typically, in today’s writing, the author will often use one character’s point of view consistently throughout the work. If more than one point of view is used, changes in the POV will be indicated by keeping the POV consistent within a chapter and changing POV only with a new chapter OR using a “scene break” to indicate a change in POV within a chapter. A scene break is a blank line between paragraphs and can also be used as a clue to the reader either that there has been a change in location or a break in time.

Point of view violations

Maintaining POV means that the reader sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells what the POV character senses. A point of view violation happens when the author forces the reader to step outside the point of view character. This can happen when:

  • The POV character sees him/herself do something.

Sue brushed her hand across her face and smeared lipstick up to her ear. (Who is looking at her?)

  • The POV character sees something which is not in his/her line of sight.

Ben (POV) stood at the window. Karl came into the room from the kitchen. (If Ben is looking out the window, how can he see who comes into the room from an interior location?)

  • The POV character knows what someone else is thinking.

James saw Nick cross the lobby. Nick had a gun in his pocket and had been planning to kill him all week.

  • The POV character knows something which s/he has not sensed and about which s/he has not been told.

Bob was in Barbados last week. On Tuesday, without asking him, his sister, Maxine, drove his Corvette to the dealer and got it painted pink. (POV violation) Boy, was he in for a surprise when he got home. (author intrusion: see next section)

Author Intrusion

Author intrusion is a very specific form of POV violation. Instead of sharing the POV character’s thoughts, the author intrudes and provides the author’s thoughts. Author intrusion happens when the author communicates information that the narrator, locked in “story time” cannot know. An example might be, “Little did she know it was her last day on earth.” If she is the POV character, she is not going to know. Telling what is going to happen in the future shows arrogance on the part of the author . . . the author knows more than the reader does, so the reader is at the mercy of the author’s whims about what will or will not be communicated. And “last day on earth”? Cliché.

Use of “sensing” words.

Example: He looked out the living room window. He saw an old red Buick with a missing headlight slide past the house. Looked describes what he did, so that is okay. The sensing word is “saw.”

Now, if you see a red car, do you think at the time, “I see a red car”? You might tell someone that you saw a red car . . . yesterday. But your awareness at the moment that you see a red car is that there is a red car, not that you are seeing it. That seeing awareness only comes at the time you are communicating your experience. To keep your story in the present moment and keep the reader deeply involved IN the character rather than having the character report to the reader, write what the character sees, not the fact that the character sees something. An example where the reader is more deeply involved with the character than in the prior paragraph: He looked out the living room window. An old red Buick with a missing headlight slid past the house. Other examples:

  • He heard the church bells ring. vs.
    • Church bells rang.
  • He stood in the living room and sniffed. He smelled roses. vs.
    •  The scent of roses wafted through the living room.
  • He put his hand on the stovetop and felt pain from the intense heat. He looked at his hand and saw raw, angry blisters on his fingertips vs.
    •  He put his hand the stovetop. Intense pain seared his palm. He looked at his hand. Raw, angry blisters bubbled his fingertips.

In each case, the second sentence keeps the reader in the character rather than allowing the reader an “observational distance.”

Internal Inaccuracies

Internal inaccuracies occur when information in one sentence or one part of the story conflicts with that in another)—a character with red hair suddenly appears as a brunette, with no mention of a “dye job”;

Incorrect Use of Flashbacks

Incorrect use of flashbacks or reference to what happened “before,” (Backtracking, no matter how insignificant, stops the story. Instead of saying, “Before (2) happened, she did (1)” – keep the story sequential – “(1) happened, then (2).” We don’t live in time that goes backward and forward. Ripping a reader into the past and then plunking him or her into the present is disconcerting);

Ignorance of the Facts

Research your subject. If you include false information in your work, you will alienate those of your readers who are experts in their field. For example: If you write crime novels, you either need to be in law enforcement, be a criminal, be a crime victim who has “lived through it,” or have beta readers who will find and help  you correct the factual discrepancies in your work. A beta reader is a reader who will evaluate your writing before you go to press, and preferably before you hire an editor. Trying to use an editor as your beta reader may produce marginal results . . . depending on how much research your editor is willing to do and how much you are willing to pay for this very expensive research.

This is NOT a comprehensive list of stoppers, but correcting these in your writing will help your work to become more dynamic and engaging.

Comments welcome.

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