The Writing Don’ts

A stop sign by a treeline road

Stop! In the name of good writing...

During his “Redline Your Writing” talk at the 2011 Write-Brained Network Writing Workshop, David L. Robbins gave attendees his list of “Don’ts” — things to avoid to make your stories their best.

1. Don’t switch POV in the middle of a scene.
I mentioned this one in my post “The Importance of POV”, but it bears repeating. Switching POV in the middle of a scene confuses readers, weakens the POV, and cuts the reader’s attachment to the character — and therefore the story — in half. It’s okay to have multiple POVs in a novel or even a short story. Just limit it to one per scene.

2. Don’t treat the POV character as separate from his body.
For example, don’t say, “He could feel his hands shake.” They’re his hands, so obviously he can feel them shake. Saying it is redundant and makes your writing flabby. And flabby writing is weak. Instead, simply say, “His hands shook.” Not only does it avoid stating the obvious, but you end up with a stronger verb, too.

Another example: “He knew his brothers would leave him.” He’s thinking it, the story is in his POV, so you don’t need to tell us he knew it. Change it to “His brothers would leave him.”

And one more: “He gave his captain a sardonic smile” would be stronger as “He smiled at his captain.”

3. Don’t tell instead of showing.
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve heard this one before. If you keep writing, odds are you’ll hear it again.

4. Don’t have physical redundancies.
Like treating the POV character as separate from his body, this falls under stating the obvious. For example, “He looked up at the stars.” As David put it, unless you’re in a space station, the stars are always above you, so you can lose the “up” and simply write, “He looked at the stars.” David also pointed out that you can trim a lot of (unnecessary) word count simply by eliminating physical redundancies like these.

Another example: “She picked up the cup and took a sip of coffee.” Obviously you have to pick up the cup before you can drink out of it, so you can cut that and simply write, “She took a sip of coffee.” (Show of hands, how many of us have been guilty of that one? Yeah, my hand is up.)

5.Don’t use a reflective surface so you can describe what a character looks like.
I think this falls under the category of not needing to describe a character’s appearance (or a place, or a building, or…) at all. Still, David said it’s okay when someone, including the character himself, observes something about a character, as long as you show these things and make them contextual. I’d go a step further and say unless it’s important to the events of the story, don’t waste the word count on it.

6. Don’t rely on asterisk scene changes.
Okay, I have no idea what this means. Maybe I’ll see if I can convince David to do a guest post about it sometime. I’d like to know so I can make sure I’m not doing that.

7. Don’t rush to tell the reader everything about a character.
I’ve read a lot of stories by newer writers where the first several pages are bogged down with facts, figures, and character backstory the writer felt I needed to know before he could get on with the story itself. Oh, is it tough to push through! I agree with David’s advice on this: Let it come out naturally in the course of the story.

David used the first line of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code as an example. “The international banker ran across the street.” At that point in the scene, David asked, to whom, exactly, is the character an international banker? If we need to know that the character is an international banker, that can come out much more vividly later when he’s doing something banking related. But at this point, the important thing is that he’s running across the street. Keep the focus on that, not on something the reader doesn’t need to know yet.

8. Don’t kill characters just to end a story.
Death is not a resolution. I’d take it a step further and say don’t kill characters just to kill them — anywhere in a story. It’s one thing if the events of the story naturally lead to a character dying. It’s something else entirely if a character dies when he doesn’t have to because you thought it would be shocking, or poignant, or a clever twist, or because you couldn’t figure out any other way to end the story. Readers don’t like literary murders. You lose their trust, and they stop letting themselves get emotionally invested in the rest of the characters in the story because they don’t that you won’t murder them, too. And if there’s anything I learned from David’s panel, it’s the importance of getting your readers emotionally invested in your characters.

That wraps up things on David’s “Redline Your Writing” panel. Next I’ll move on to the “First-Page Pit Stop” clinic, where David was joined by author Tiffany Trent as they critiqued first pages from attendees and members of the Write-Brained Network forum.

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