When revising your fiction (or non-fiction), you should search for and destroy junk words in your manuscript. Here’s not a check list but a “chuck list” of words and phrases to excise from your prose.
Although past-tense forms of verbs are presented, be sure to search for their root forms if you’re writing in present tense.
-ing verbs — When used with a helping verb, such as “was walking,” change to past (“walked”). When used at the beginning of a sentence, make sure you haven’t dangled a participle (see Undangling Your Participles).
-ly adverbs — Usually used to modify a weak verb. Cut the adverb and use a stronger verb.
; — The semi-colon is a stodgy pace-killer. If you’re writing genre fiction, avoid them or minimize them.
! — Exclamation points are often overused. They’re like poking the reader in the eye. Suggestion: one per short story, up to three in a novel.
began to, started to — Unless it’s important to emphasize the initiation of an action, you can usually cut these phrases.
tried to, attempted to — This can stay if it’s followed by the failure of an action: “She tried to call him, but the phone was dead.” Otherwise, cut it.
degree words — a bit, a little, fairly, somewhat, sort of, kind of, quite, rather, slightly, just, pretty, very, almost, maybe. Cut.
even — Overused junk word. Cut.
eyes — Avoid traveling eyes and other autonomous body parts. Instead of “Her eyes swept the room” (Oh, really? Did those eyeballs use a broom?) use “gaze” instead (“Her gaze swept the room.”). When describing the viewpoint character’s action, not “His hands groped for the light switch,” but rather “He groped for the light switch.” Characters have agency, not their body parts.
filtering verbs — considered, decided, discovered, felt, figured, guessed, heard, knew, looked at, noticed, realized, saw, smelled, spotted, tasted, thought, touched, wondered. If you want to create an immersive reading experience with an intimate POV, recast these as described in the linked article and the articles mentioned.
in front of — “Before” is more concise and dumps the prepositions.
Have you written a slew of stories you’ve been unable to place? I did—for two decades. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong that prevented editors from accepting my work.
Way back in the 1990s, I came across a little how-to book by science fiction writer Algis Budrys titled Writing to the Point: A Complete Guide to Selling Fiction (Unifont Company, 1994). It taught me how to plot a story, a story that would sell. The book is unfortunately out of print but, because it was so helpful to me, I want to share the best from it with you.
Budrys says, “A story subjects its characters to a process; to a growing up, or an enlightenment, or, in the case where a villain is the central character, to an enlightenment and a disaster” (p. 10). For another take on this process, see How to Plan a Great Story.
Seven Elements of Stories that Sell
Most good commercial fiction—meaning stories that sell—have these seven elements:
A main character (MC)… Show her traits (visible actions) that demonstrate her strengths and weaknesses pertinent to the story.
In context… Time period, location, setting, circumstances—include whatever readers need to understand the MC’s place and station in her world.
With a problem. The problem may seem small at first, but it’s important enough for the MC to do something about—to take action toward a goal. Details will emerge as the story proceeds until it becomes “The most important problem this particular person could have” (p. 62). The antagonist is also motivated to win what the protagonist wants, interfering with actions that worsen the problem.
a. MC attempts to solve the problem using logic and intelligence, making an adequate response based on her best guess at the nature of the issue. But… ↓
c. MC tries another tack to solve the problem with her newfound knowledge. But… ↓
e. MC applies what she’s learned and tries a third time to correct the issue. But… ↓
b. MC encounters unexpected failure. As a result of this failure, the MC learns more about the problem—and about herself. These trials and failures stress your character and reveal hidden facets not shown before. →
d. MC fails again, learning even more about the problem. →
f. MC fails once more, miserably. ↓
MC experiences victory or death. “At the last possible moment, wagering everything in a do-or-die situation, the hero wins” (p. 12). If a villain, the MC experiences defeat because of a fatal character flaw.
The outcome is validated. An independent authority—another character or the narrator—confirms that the story is indeed over: “The monster is finally dead!”
The Seven Elements in Three-act Structure
A story must have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. In each of these three customary acts, you must include certain elements:
1, 2, and 3 can be presented in any order. But all three must be included. Budrys states that “The purpose of the beginning is to lay the ground rules; establish the (1) character (2) in context (3) with a problem, and then go on” (p. 11).
After you have presented 1, 2, and 3 to readers, the beginning is over. Every incident and action in the middle and ending must adhere to the rules you set up in the beginning. In the rest of the story, you cannot violate these rules or the world you’ve established. “If you do,” Budrys warns, “you ‘invalidate’ the story” (p. 62).
The middle is where the story develops. 4a is the MC’s attempt to solve the problem using what she believes she understands about the situation and her own resources. At this juncture, the character doesn’t think the problem is overwhelming. This is because she doesn’t fully understand its nature.
The MC encounters unexpected failure in 5b. She also may experience partial success toward her goal but with another complication cropping up. “[I]f the character could solve the problem immediately,” Budrys admits, “it wasn’t much of a problem” (p. 11). Therefore, despite how sensible the character’s effort to resolve the issue, through failure she learns more about the issue and herself.
During these attempts, the problem progressively worsens, and you must put your character under pressure to reveal more facets that fit her. She reaches deeper inside herself, tries to fix the problem again (4c), and fails again (5d). And again (4e and 5f). Three times.
Why three times? Budrys explains:
Because anything less is unsatisfying, because anything more is redundant, because Aristotle and Lewis Carroll said that what I tell you three times is true. Three times, on a rising scale of effort, commitment, and depth of knowledge of the problem and one’s self, is the correct number. Human beings believe that three times has an effect which two does not. Conversely, four creates overkill. (p. 12)
In order to win, the character must turn away from some old traits, no matter how precious, and emphasize new ones, no matter how undesirably they would have seemed in the beginning. Some last straw happens: something breaks, or something precipitates. (p. 63)
Based on this new understanding, she decides to make one last monumental effort. “Simultaneously with the climactic physical action,” Budrys says, “the character displays a new view of the world, grown out of the old one” (p. 63).
After this fourth do-or-die attempt, it’s victory or death—6. A positive character achieves victory. A villain dies or fails in such a way that it means ruin (pp. 12, 62). Here, Budrys insists, “You must make sure that the reader understands it is victory or death” (p. 12). Here’s why.
Over the course of your story, solving the problem and winning the goal must become for your protagonist the most important achievement at this point in her life. So that she doesn’t simply walk away at any time, the stakes must intensify through the middle: “the character cannot help but stake everything on the solution, for to fail is to be obliterated, either literally or spiritually” (p. 63).
Budrys recaps: The middle “consists of (4) effort to solve, (5) repeated failure or increasingly near-attainment of the goal, and (6) victory or death” (p. 12).
What’s left to complete your selling story?
7 is validation. Some independent authority, a “trustworthy figure,” must, Budrys recommends, “step forward and say, ‘He’s dead, Jim’” (p. 12) to confirm for readers that the story is truly over. This also could be a brief statement by the narrator.
The character’s revelation, adjusted worldview, and the result of her decisive final action must be validated. Budrys likens this to “pinning a hero’s medal on the character” (p. 63). (Remember the final awards ceremony in Star Wars? That’s validation.)
Budrys’ plotting method will help you write a great story. One that hopefully sells. To help you implement the process in your writing, use this PDF worksheet to plan your next story. Here’s to your success!
I’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 past
What 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.
This 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?
What does your protagonist want? This is the prize, the thing he’s trying to get or attain throughout the whole story.
Plan of action
How 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 him
This 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 stake
What 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 get
This 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?
The 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 prize… decide whether to take it
This 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 need
This 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 prize… decide 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!
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.
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.