Category Archives: novel writing

Beware Autonomous Body Parts!

As a fiction editor, I flag many issues for revision and rewriting. One common problem is what I call “autonomous body parts.” Sounds ominous. What are autonomous body parts? Read on if you’re brave and want to improve your fiction…

Autonomous body parts are any body parts—eyes, eyebrows, limbs, hands, feet, internal organs, and so on—that an author empowers as if they have minds of their own.

For example:

Marcy shoved Oswald backward, and his arms flailed, trying to keep his balance on the ice.

What’s the issue here? Arms flailing is an acceptable response or result of being shoved across an icy surface.

Autonomous Body Parts

The problem is that arms don’t flail of their own accord. The real question here is, where does the action spring from?

More to the point, who is performing the action? Who has agency? The rule here is:

Body parts do not have agency; characters do.

Beckoning HandUnless you’re writing horror and disembodied body parts actually do have minds of their own, you correct this issue by transferring agency from the body part to the character. In other words, make the character the subject of the sentence—the subject with agency who performs the action verb—with the body part/s as the object:

Marcy shoved Oswald backward, and he flailed his arms, trying to keep his balance.

Recasting the sentence to give Oswald agency also solves the problem of his arms trying to keep his balance. Oswald does something to keep his balance, not his arms.

Another example:

Gary’s frantic hands groped for purchase along the bridge girder.

Beware those spastic body parts! How would you fix this one? To avoid using an adverb (frantically), you’ll need to rewrite a bit:

Gary groped for purchase along the bridge girder, his fingers slipping on the rusted surface.

Flying EyesAnother culprit is disembodied eyes that fly around the room.

When the news anchor mentioned last night’s murder, Winnie’s eyes flew to the television.

Jeepers creepers, did her peepers pop out of her head, zoom across the room, and splat the TV screen? (An “eye-catching” horror idea, but…) Better to state it this way:

When the news anchor mentioned last night’s murder, Winnie’s gaze flew to the television.

Instead of allowing a character’s eyes to rove around like that murder ball in Phantasm, use gaze.

Remember: body parts don’t have agency; characters do. Scan your work for instances of autonomous body parts and transfer agency from the body part to the character. Your readers will appreciate it.

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Narratology: Understanding Narrative Modes

To write fiction you must understand the following narrative modes and learn how to write well in each of them. As you write, if you ensure that you’re always in one specific mode, you’ll always know what you’re doing and why. You should always have a reason for switching modes.

By piecing together passages written in various modes, you can produce a tight, well-written novel.

The six narrative modes are briefly delineated and defined in this first table:

Narrative ModeSub-modeSub-sub-modeDefinition
DialoguedirectDirectly presents character’s speech in quotation marks
indirectSummarizes character’s speech
Thoughts, feelingsdirectstream of consciousnessDirectly presents character’s thoughts in first person
interior monologueDirectly presents thought as in direct speech
indirectnarrated monologueMix between interior monologue and psychonarration
psychonarrationNarrator reports character’s thoughts to reader in third person
ActionPresents real-time action and events in chronological order
DescriptioncharacterDescribes story people
placeDepicts story settings
thingDepicts objects
timePresents the season, time of day, or passage of time
ExpositionbackgroundIntroduces backstory or other information for the story to make sense
summaryReports events in a condensed narrative form
CommentNarrator evaluates story events or characters, shares observations or judgments

The following table fully defines the narrative modes, their sub-modes and, in some cases, their sub-sub-modes. From top to bottom, they progress from showing to telling. Examples are in purple text.

Narrative ModeSub-modeSub-sub-modeDefinition/ Example
DialoguedirectPresents the speech of characters directly, in quotation marks.

Use this mode to advance your plot, to pit opposing forces against each other.

“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m going to bed.”
indirectSummarizes the speech of characters.  The tense is changed from present to past, from past into past perfect and references to the first person are rendered in the third person.

Use this mode when a character explains something to another character when the reader doesn’t need to hear the exact words because it’s long and boring or routine or mundane, the exact words don’t really matter, or because the reader already knows the information.

She said she was tired and was going to bed.
Thoughts, feelingsdirectstream of consciousnessDirect presentation of a character’s thoughts in first person, usually without the logic of structure or punctuation, sometimes a jumbled sequence of associations, whether thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Often italicized.

Calm down, get a grip now… oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it?  A sort of… yawning, tingling sensation in my… my… well I suppose I’d better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway […] so let’s call it my stomach.
Thoughts, feelings (cont’d)direct (cont’d)interior monologueDirect presentation of thought as in direct speech.  Interior monologue is usually a longer passage of uninterrupted thought.  It is intended to present a character’s thoughts directly, imitating as much as possible the way the character might actually have thought his thoughts.  Thoughts are more coherent and structured. Sometimes italicized.

What is she doing up there? She’s always fumbling around in the attic, trying to find some memento from her college days, opening boxes, unwrapping nests of newspaper to find something to transport her into the past. I don’t understand what she sees in those things.
Thoughts, feelings (cont’d)indirectnarrated monologueThis is a mix between psychonarration and interior monologue.  The narrator often sets the scene but the character’s thoughts are reproduced directly and in a way the character would think, though the narrator continues to talk of the character in the third person. The syntax is less formal (incomplete sentences, exclamations, etc.) and the character’s mind style is reproduced more closely.  We hear a dual voice; the voices of the narrator and the character are momentarily merged.

This can create an impression of immediacy but it can also be used to introduce an element of irony, when the reader realizes that a character is misguided without actually being told so by the narrator.

What could she be doing up there, he wondered.  Probably trying to find some memento from her college days. He didn’t understand what she saw in those things.
Thoughts, feelings (cont’d)indirect (cont’d)psychonarrationThe narrator reports the character’s thoughts to the reader, representing them in third person.  The narrator remains in the foreground and may add some general observations (comment) not part of the character’s thoughts. We hear the narrator’s voice more than the character’s.

He wondered what she could be doing in the attic.  She spent a lot of time up there, reminiscing. He failed to understand what she saw in those things.
ActionUsed to present real-time action in the story.  Events are presented in strict chronological order, using action verbs.  Follow the pattern of action–result.

You will use this mode most in the writing of your novel.  Sometimes action is interspersed with dialogue and narration.

Jim climbed out of the car and strode toward the house through the dry, dead grass. He stepped onto the porch and banged on the dilapidated screen door.  He waited.
DescriptioncharacterRepresents objects in space (existents of the story), things that can be seen, heard or felt in some way. Character description describes story people.

One of these boxes was occupied […] by a stern-eyed man of about five-and-forty, who had a bald and glossy forehead, with a good deal of black hair at the sides and back of his head, and large black whiskers.  He was buttoned up to the chin in a brown coat; and had a large seal-skin travelling cap, and a great-coat and cloak lying on the seat beside him.  (Dickens, Pickwick Papers)
placeDepicts setting—either broadly, or specifically and up-close.

On one side of this broad curve in the straight seaboard of the Republic of Costaguana, the last spur of the coast range forms an insignificant cape whose name is Punta Mala. From the middle of the gulf the point of the land itself is not visible at all; but the shoulder of a steep hill at the back can be made out faintly like a shadow on the sky. (Conrad, Nostromo).
thingDepicts an object:

A brass plaque fastened to the front gate read:  “Financially supported by the Garvanter Historical Society.”
timeDepicts the season, time of day, or the passage of time.

Five o’clock had hardly struck on the morning of the nineteenth of January […] (Brontë, Jane Eyre)
ExpositionbackgroundUsed to introduce backstory information into the narrative, information the reader needs for the story to make sense.  It should be doled out sparingly only when readers need to know it.  It should be presented to the readers in a way they’re hardly aware they’re getting it:

• Reduce it as much as possible.

• Don’t repeat it (tell the reader once). If you must repeat it, expand on it.

• Keep the reader guessing about it.

• Chop it up (no big hunks of it).

• Convert it to other modes such as action or dialogue.

• Create a flashback, but only if necessary (to show the reader exactly how something before the story happened—who did what, who said what, what was thought and felt. Structure it as an action sequence.)

• Get it over with (get backstory out of the way by the end of Act 1).
Exposition (cont’d)summaryReports events in a condensed narrative form.  It is a telling mode that distances the reader and should be used sparingly.  Use this mode to:

• Report mundane story events (things not important to plot):

She went inside to freshen up and change. Then she skipped back out to the car.

• Condense story time (to mark a passage of time quickly in which nothing important to the story happens, or to report events that happen regularly or over a long period of time.

The last three weeks of school passed in a flurry of activity.

Each morning for the next week she saw him behind the security desk in the lobby, and every time she passed him he nodded once and gave her a big, handsome smile.

• Emphasize emotions instead of events:

During the month Kevin was in Cincinnati, Sherry wandered about the apartment, not doing much of anything except eating, sleeping and watching TV.  She had never been so lonely in her life.
CommentThe mediator (narrator) is most apparent. We find evaluations of the story’s events and characters, general observations or judgments.

In the absence of any precise idea as to what railways were, public opinion in Frick was against them; for the human mind in that grassy corner had not the proverbial tendency to admire the unknown, holding rather that it was likely to be against the poor man, and that suspicion was the only wise attitude with regard to it.  (Eliot, Middlemarch)

Evaluations can also be made less explicitly.  The choice of pejorative diction, a hint of irony or the use of modifiers (such as “unfortunately”) also work as comment.

Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks. […] He is a gentleman of strict conscience, disdainful of all littleness and meanness, and ready, on the shortest notice, to die any death you may please to mention rather than give occasion for the least impeachment of his integrity. He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man. (Dickens, Bleak House)

When mixing dialogue with a character’s feelings, thoughts, and gestures, use F-A-D order:

An icy chill passed through him.His hands began to shake.“But Helen died a year ago…”


The Marshall Plan Workbook, ch. 18.

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Narratology: Focalization or Point of View

Narratology is a branch of literary theory that studies narrative structure and function. Fiction narratives are communicated through a voice that belongs to the narrator.

FocalizationThe narrator is the fictitious character that verbally transmits the events of the narrative. The narrator can share events from a position outside the story, using the omniscient point of view (POV) of “someone who, for some reason, knows everything about the story” (Freiburg).

More likely, narrators will employ the limited point of view of one or more characters in the story. If so, they’re unable to know anything they cannot see, hear, or otherwise perceive.

Focalization and Focalizers

Choosing a perspective is separate from determining whether the narrator is a character in the story. The term focalization distinguishes between narrative voiceWho speaks?—and perspective—Who sees or perceives? Narration is what is told; focalization is what is perceived (Scott).

There are two kinds of focalizers:

  • An external focalizer is a POV character external to the story. An external focalizer is called a narrator-focalizer because perception belongs to the narrator.
  • An internal focalizer‘s perception belongs to a character within the story. Internal focalizers are also called character-focalizers.

If you’re using an external focalizer as a heterodiegetic narrator, you may tell your story in omniscient point of view. If you employ a homodiegetic or autodiegetic narrator as an internal focalizer, you may choose from second person, distant third, intimate third, or first person POV.

You’re not stuck with only one focalization or POV in your story. You can change focalizers to introduce other POVs. For example, you may have multiple first or third character-narrators, or mix and match POVs from scene to scene or chapter to chapter.

Unreliable Narrators

Not all narrators are reliable. As writer, you may lead readers to distrust what your narrator says. “Some narrators tell deliberate lies or omit crucial information” (Freiburg). One such narrator is Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

Villains may deliberately lead readers down the wrong trail. Other characters, however, may be unable to provide objective information because they’re “naive, insane, unaware, or mistaken” (Scott).

A given narrator’s unreliability can be obvious or hidden, providing only faint hints that something’s wrong.

In the next installment, we’ll dig into the meat of narrative modes.

Further reading: by Rose Scott.

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Narratology: Understanding Narration

Narratology is a branch of literary theory that studies narrative structure and function. Fiction is one form of narrative prose, meaning it’s an account of events told by someone. It’s always communicated through a “voice,” and that voice belongs to the narrator.

To understand narrative voice, you must identify who speaks—who tells the story. This is always the narrator, a fictitious character who has a purpose in telling the tale.

Types of Narrators

Narrators are often a character in the story they’re telling. These types of narrators are called homodiegetic narrators. (Diegetic means within a setting or story world.) If the homodiegetic narrator is also the protagonist of the story, he or she is called an autodiegetic narrator.

For example, Nick Carraway is the narrator of as well as a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But he’s not the protagonist of the novel; Jay Gatsby is. This makes Carraway a homodiegetic narrator but not an autodiegetic one. Katniss Everdeen, however, is both the narrator and protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games; she’s an autodiegetic narrator.

A narrator who is not a character in the story but who knows everything and tells the story from an omniscient point of view is called a heterodiegetic narrator. Heterodiegetic narrators were popular in Victorian literature but are out of vogue today.

It isn’t crucial that you remember this jargon so long as you understand the concepts.

It’s also important to realize that the narrator is not the same as you, the author. Narrators, whether they’re story people or not, are fictive characters who can hold viewpoints and opinions that you don’t share. For example, female authors can create male narrators. And you can write multiple stories each with different narrators who have opposite worldviews. Remember: the narrator in fiction is a made-up character.

Narrators are characters who relay the story to a fictive reader, a narratee. A specific addressee is rarely named in stories. However, in my psychological thriller The Bedwetter: Journal of a Budding Psychopath, protagonist Russell Pisarek ends up writing his journal for another character in the story world.

Levels of Narrative Communication

Three levels comprise a fiction narrative, presented here from the inside out:

  1. A character addresses another character in the story world narrative. For example, Russell Pisarek argues with his sister Becky.
  2. This exchange, along with description of character actions and setting, is told by a narrator who addresses an imaginary reader (the narratee). In The Bedwetter, Russell writes in his journal about his encounters and thoughts for another character in the book.
  3. The text is composed by a real author (yours truly) and is read by an actual reader (hopefully, you).

These three levels are nested, as depicted in the following diagram:

Levels of Narrative Communication

Next installment, we’ll learn more about focalization: how narrators intersect with point of view.


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How to Plan a Great Story

StoryI’ve studied and practiced writing for a long time, incorporating techniques I’ve learned to improve my prose. Because of this, my mechanics are good. But my storytelling was weak. Although I got great ideas and wrote about them, I found I wasn’t telling a story.

It took half my writing life to realize the importance of story structure and content. What, exactly, is a story?

A Story Is a Narrative about an Active Character

A story is a narrative account of a character who takes action throughout a series of related events or experiences that changes him in the end.

Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, in their immensely helpful How to Tell a Story (Writer’s Digest Books, 1998), have this to say about the importance of an active character:

A story is about the person who takes action. Make sure your character is active and really does something to affect what’s happening in the story. It’s not what happens to the character that makes him interesting, it’s what he does about it.

If the conflict you’ve created, however powerful, only causes your protagonist to be passive or merely reactive, the story won’t work. If he’s simply reacting to things the antagonist has done to him, or stumbles on a clue by chance, the story won’t work. Rethink your protagonist’s qualities and make him active!

Story Plan in a Paragraph

Rubie and Provost encapsulate a story in a single paragraph:

Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson. When offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

Do you recognize this structure in stories you’ve read? I did. You can use it to write a novel or short story of your own. Here’s how.

Questions to Answer Before You Write

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, you must answer these questions about your main character (MC), preferably before you start writing:

Something in his pastWhat past event (which happened before your story begins) happened to your MC to rip a hole in his life? Satisfying this psychological or emotional need is the central issue of your story.
Something happenedThis is the inciting incident, the catalytic event that kicks off the story and forces your character to take action. What happens that rocks your character’s world?
GoalWhat does your protagonist want? This is the prize, the thing he’s trying to get or attain throughout the whole story.
Plan of actionHow will your character go about pursuing his goal or prize? He must try and fail three times, making the situation worse, before succeeding.
Forces trying to stop himThis is the antagonist, which could be another character, entity, or force of nature that thwarts your MC’s attempt to reach the goal. The opposition generates conflict because of the antagonist’s contradictory goal and plan (define them too).
A lot at stakeWhat will this effort cost the protagonist? The stakes must be high: life or death; love lost or gained; physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual devastation—something important everyone can relate to.
Bad as they could getThis is your character’s bleakest moment. Everything has gone wrong, and it seems the opposing forces arrayed against him have won. Yet somehow, from the darkness of despair, from his failures, he finds the strength to persevere and overcome against overwhelming odds. What’s the worst moment?
Important lessonThe protagonist survives the bleakest moment with a gift:  revelation. At last, he sees, he understands something about life that he didn’t before. What lesson does your MC learn?
Offered the prizedecide whether to take itThis is the climax of your story. The protagonist must make a decision, preferably between two outcomes equally undesirable. When he decides, he gains something and he gives something up. It involves high emotional intensity from the reader, as well as moral and ethical considerations.
Satisfied a needThis need has been the driving force throughout the protagonist’s life to this point, whether or not he’s been aware of it (but you must be aware of it). In resolving the story, this need is satisfied.

A Story in Three Acts

The previous elements can be divided into three-act structure. Here’s where the points lie:

Before the story begins (some time in the character’s past):

Something in his past—The traumatic past event that tore a hole and created a psychological or emotion need in your MC. He must overcome this past damage to reach his goal and find happiness now and in the future.


Something happened—The inciting incident that kicks off the story.

Goal—What your character wants to get or achieve that he thinks will solve the problem the inciting incident has involved him in. Initially, the goal may be something trivial. But as the action progresses, it becomes his ultimate objective.


Plan of action—How your MC goes about pursuing the goal. His first attempt fails unexpectedly, and often makes things worse, but he learns something from it. His second attempt fails even more miserably, but he learns something again. He tries a third time and meets with disaster.

Forces trying to stop him—In his attempts to solve the problem and reach his goal, your MC is opposed.

A lot at stake—The inciting incident sets the stakes, which must be serious enough for your protagonist to take action. The stakes must rise the more he tries and fails until they become dire.

Bad as they could get—Everything has gone wrong, and it looks like your MC is going to lose. Why and how does he try one final time to overcome?

Important lesson—What does the bleakest moment teach your protagonist? What does he learn that prompts him to make a decision?

Offered the prizedecide whether to take it—Everything that has gone before wedges your character between a rock and a hard place morally or ethically. But, based on the important lesson he has learned, he decides to try one more time—and either triumphs or bombs.


Satisfied a need—The process, climax, and final action resolve the past need, and your character is changed.

I used this story planning process in writing my most popular novel to date, Death Perception.

Example Storyline in Death Perception

Here’s the one-paragraph storyline I developed for Death Perception:

Once upon a time, Kennet’s mother died [something happened to someone], and he decided that he would start a new life by making more money and moving out of her personal care home [pursue a goal]. So he started by looking for a new job and apartment [devised a plan of action], and even though Grinold and Flavia (the antagonists) tried to stop him [forces tried to stop him], he moved forward because his life and future happiness depended on it [there was a lot at stake]. And when his life was threatened [things seemed as bad as they could get], he learns he must avenge the mistreated dead [learned an important lesson], and when given the chance to move into a new apartment [offered the prize] he had sought so strenuously, he stays at the care home to gather more evidence against the antagonists, placing himself in mortal danger [decide whether or not to take it], and in making that decision he overcomes his fear[satisfied a need] created by his father’s abuse and death and his fear of conflict and change [something in his past].

This may not make sense unless you read the book, but it’s one of the exercises I did to plot Death Perception. Read it to see how I executed the plan.

Put some thought into this preliminary process, keep your MC active, and you’ll end up with a more satisfying story, one that, hopefully, will sell. Good luck!

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Cut Unnecessary Details

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.

We can overwrite, giving more information than necessary. But sometimes we also belabor the obvious by being unnecessarily specific. This post is about cutting unnecessary details.

Consider this paragraph from a first draft:

Charlie turned off the ignition, opened the driver’s side door, picked up the gun with his left hand, got out, and walked up the concrete sidewalk to the house. He pushed the doorbell with his finger, and waited. He pressed his right ear against the door. Hearing no one from inside the house, Charlie opened the front door.

When you’re self-editing, you need to look at your work critically to trim the fat, leaving juicy, lean prose. Here’s what my inner editor says as I notice the italicized words from the previous example:

  • If you’re driving, what door would you obviously open other than the “driver’s side door”?
  • Does it matter which hand he uses to pick up the gun?
  • Aren’t sidewalks usually made of concrete? If this one isn’t, is it necessary to the story to describe what kind of sidewalk it is? Probably not.
  • What else would he push the doorbell with?
  • What would you do with the rest?

Too many unnecessary details, and you’re slowing down your prose. Excise them. Here’s the edited paragraph:

Charlie turned off the ignition, picked up the gun, and got out of the car. He walked up the sidewalk to the house, then pushed the doorbell and waited. He pressed his ear against the door. Hearing no one, he opened the door.

Here are a few more observations:

  • A small frown appeared on her face. (Where else do frowns appear?) She frowned.
  • He squinted his eyes. (What else do you squint with?) He squinted.
  • She shrugged her shoulders. (What else do you shrug?) She shrugged.
  • The boy nodded his head. (What else do you nod with?) The boy nodded.
  • After she pulled up the chair, she sat on the seat. (Naturally…) She pulled up the chair and sat.
  • An unknown stranger appeared at the door. (Are there any known strangers?)
  • Their voices echoed back and forth in the dark corridor. (That’s what an echo does.)
  • When Rocco was alone again, he muttered to himself, “I’ll never do that again.” (If he’s alone, who else would he be muttering to?)
  • That’s not right, she thought to herself. (Who else do you think to, unless you’re telepathic?)
  • “I’m through with you!” Joyce yelled. “You—”
    “Don’t say that,” Kevin interrupted.
    (The exclamation point tells us she’s yelling. The dash tells us that Kevin has interrupted her, so there’s no need to use the attributions. Stick with “said.”)

If reviewing these examples is lighting a bulb above your head, why not sit down with your current WIP and practice them?

Cut unnecessary details, and your prose will soar.

If you need an editor, I’m available for the dark fiction varieties.

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Undangling Your Participles

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.

Many fledgling writers have trouble with dangling participles. But before you can undangle them, you must recognize them in your writing.

What’s a Participle?

A participle is an action verb that acts like an adjective and usually ends in “-ing.” For instance, “write” is the infinitive form of the verb, and “writing” is the participle. Dangle/dangling. Snicker/snickering.

Like adjectives, participles modify nouns:

Participle   Noun
Writing desk
Dangling participle
Snickering sophomores

For example:

I hung my head and passed the snickering sophomores.

The participle is underlined; the participial phrase is italicized.

Participial Phrases

“Snickering sophomores” is the participial phrase in the previous sentence. It uses a participle that is not dangling, meaning it’s in its proper place and used correctly. Here are a few examples with the noun (subject) in bold.

Reading the story, I winced at the dangling participles.

“Reading the story” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “I.”

Driving the stake through Krako’s heart, the vampire hunter realized how much she loved her night job.

“Driving the stake through Krako’s heart” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “the vampire hunter.”

These examples show participial phrases—we’ll call them “PPs” for short—close to the subjects they modify. But PPs can pop up elsewhere in sentences and modify direct objects and objects of prepositions:

Krako whistled for the bats, hanging in the dark cave.

This PP modifies “bats,” which is the object of the prepositional phrase “for the bats.” Notice the noun and the modifying PP are close together. The following says something different:

Hanging in the dark cave, Krako whistled for the bats.

It’s not necessarily incorrect if, in fact, Krako survived the vampire hunter and is the one hanging from the cave ceiling. The participial phrase modifies the noun it is closest to.

When Participles Dangle

What about this sentence?

After rotting in the cellar for weeks, Mother brought up some shriveled apples.

Unless Norman Bates is narrating and Mother has reanimated, we’ve got a dangling PP here. Beware dangling PPs! They’re more insidious than zombies or vampires. (But not half as badass as giants.)

The subject of the sentence is “Mother.” The PP, “after rotting in the cellar for weeks,” is misplaced. It actually modifies “some shriveled apples.” (I’ve found, the best way to modify shriveled apples is to make apple butter…)

Mending Your Danglers

How to fix this? If Mother is actually a zombie, aim for the head. If she’s alive and merely wants to make apple butter—or rid the house of those pesky fruit flies—you could recast the sentence this way:

Mother brought up some shriveled apples that had been rotting in the cellar for weeks.

This correction puts the phrase next to the noun it modifies (“apples”).

Sometimes, though, there’s no subject in sight, as in this retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk:

Grinding bones to make his bread, the dog danced wildly.

Fee, fi, fo, fum… Snickering sophomorically, I smell a dangling PP!

There are a couple things going on here. The participial phrase is meant to modify a subject that is not mentioned in the sentence—the giant that Jack came to kill. And while the big gourmand is grinding bonemeal for bread to spread with Mother’s apple butter, his little dog is dancing wildly, probably hoping for some of Jack’s scraps. Rephrased:

The giant ground Jack’s bones to make his bread as the dog danced wildly.

You can often use “as” to fix these problems.

After dinner the giant pulled the bread plate closer and said, “I ate his liver with some magic beans and a nice Chianti. Now pass the apple butter, Mom.”

“Please,” she insisted.

Please,” he said, patting the dog.


Dangling participles modify the wrong nouns. You fix them by ensuring that there’s a proper subject in the sentence, and placing the participial phrase right next to it.

Giants rule and zombies drool, bitches. Now, go write right!

If you need an editor, I’m available for the dark fiction varieties.

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Ferreting Out Filter Words

I recently encountered a post on Suzannah Windsor Freeman’s blog, Write It Sideways. It’s about filter words, character POV observations that create an extra layer of perception that distances your reader from what’s happening in your narrative.

The Filtered View

Susan Dennard explains in The Writing Life: “Filters are words or phrases you tack onto the start of sentence that show the world as it is filtered through the main character’s eyes.” For example:

Henry saw the rack of magazines along the back wall of the convenience store.

If you’re telling the story from within Henry’s POV, why announce his perceptions? Filtering creates a view of narrative action like the security camera in the front corner of the store. If you’re telling the story from Henry’s POV, inside his head, move the camera behind his eyes and simply report what he sees:

The rack of magazines stood along the back wall.

Sometimes you want to draw attention to a character’s perception process, and in these cases it’s acceptable to use a filter word. But in most instances, filtering is unnecessary and should be edited out.

Watch out for “realized.” Instead of “She wondered if he was on his way home,” turn the wondering into a question: “Was he on his way home?”

If filtering is an issue for you in your fiction writing, I encourage you to read Suzannah’s and Susan’s original posts, linked above. And check out two more great articles on the subject by Tracie McBride and Leslie.

If you need some editing help, let me know.

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