Happy Thanksgiving

May you be with loved ones this Thanksgiving holiday. May you eat well, laugh heartily, and count your blessings. Whether you are safe and happy, or suffering a tough skid in your life’s journey, look for what is positive this day and give thanks for it. Let it shine for you, however small. Even a candle’s flame–though tiny–can hold back the shadows.

fall floral arrangement pumpkin

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The Notorious Info-Dump

Among the many pitfalls for the unwary writer is an urgent “need” to share far too much information and explanation with our readers. After we’ve created settings and characters that require considerable detail and knowledge within our heads, it seems only natural that we should then want to blurt out all this lavish wealth of information and share it with everyone.

However, readers should know only about ten percent of what a writer invents for his or her story. And if that’s the case … and if we aren’t going to cram this stuff into our stories, why should we bother to create it at all?

Well, one reason is that writers should work very, very hard so that their readers never struggle, become confused, or lose suspension of disbelief.

Another reason is that our characters will be more plausible and dimensional if we create elaborate and sometimes lengthy dossiers for them. This effort acquaints us with their psychology, their motivations, their fears, their ambitions, their hidden weaknesses. If we know that a character was bitten by a rabid dog when a child and had to undergo painful rabies treatments, then we can write this adult individual’s extreme, panicky reaction to any canine with far more verve and authority than if we just randomly decide she should be frightened of dogs.

However, do we need to put the story on pause while this character’s entire backstory and horrifying childhood experience is dumped in? No, we do not. Readers are clever in picking up clues and hints dropped through character dialogue, reactions, and behavior. Allow your adult character to encounter a growling German Shepherd and show only her response to it–without additional explanation. Because you know all the background behind her fears, you will write her reaction much differently than if you never plan that event in her past.

Then, trust the character to carry the story for you. She should deliver a doozy of a reaction.

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Passing Along Inspiration


Instead of yet another post in my meandering series on what shatters a reader’s suspension of disbelief, today I am sharing a link to a “Brain Pickings” newsletter article. it was passed along to me by a former writing student, Steven Thorn, and it conveys its nine points far more eloquently than I could.

May you be inspired today, if only through acknowledging your worth and creativity. Remember always that you have value, and believe in what you can do.




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Fatal Summary

Controlling reader involvement is another necessary component of suspension of disbelief. Making readers care about your story is the first step. Thereafter, making them continue to care will encourage them to stick with your characters, willingly following the events in their imagination.

However, reader involvement can be discouraged, diminished, and even lost altogether when an author relies too heavily on narrative summary.

One of the five modes of discourse available to writers, narrative condenses story events or information into a summarized capsule that can boost story pacing, skim over trivial incidents, manage background or explanation, and transition quickly from one setting or time to another.

Narrative is extremely useful, but it carries a price in that it doesn’t lend itself to reader involvement.

Think of how you feel when a friend starts telling you about a terrific novel she’s just read. You’re interested at first, thinking you might want to read the book yourself, but when she launches into a lengthy summary of the entire plot, your interest flags, then you become bored, and finally you stop listening. Eager friend has spoiled it for you by skimming through the best parts, giving away the plot twists, and–worst of all–making it impossible for you to experience the novel in your imagination as it unfolds.

Therefore, when you write fiction, try not to fall into the trap of thinking you’re quickening pace by summarizing the dramatic action. Unless forced by length restrictions to shorten a story, you should never condense important scenes.

By their very purpose and construction, scenes are the most involving dramatic points a short story or novel can offer. Because of that, they are written in a way that immerses readers into the situation, the conflict, and every moment of the action and dialogue that transpires. But summarize a scene or important event, and you render it insignificant in a reader’s perception.

Suddenly, having set up reader expectation for exciting scene action, you drop kick your readers out of that vicarious experience.

It can be quite an unpleasant jolt when it happens. If readers enjoy the story otherwise, they’ll forgive such momentary turbulence and continue. But do this too often in the same tale, and you may well lose your audience completely.

For example, for the past week or so, I’ve been trying to read a mystery novel called PHOTO FINISH by Dame Ngaio Marsh. I’ve known about this author for years, but never acquainted myself with her work until a few months ago. She is considered one of the four original “queens of crime” from the golden age of mystery writing in the 1920s-1930s.

So far, I’ve read perhaps three or four of her books, all of them competent mysteries that I enjoyed. This one, however, I am struggling to finish. I’ve read another book since starting PHOTO FINISH, and I find myself doing other things instead of picking up the book. Worst of all, after several days, I have only reached the halfway mark.

(All fairly fatal signs, don’t you think?)

Now, in all fairness, PHOTO FINISH was published in 1980, two years before Dame Ngaio’s death. It was the next-to-last book she published, and I hope that I can do as well in my nineties after such a lengthy, distinguished, and successful career. The story is set in her native New Zealand, and her depictions of the scenery take me to a remarkable, most unusual backdrop.

Yet despite the flamboyant characters and exotic setting, despite the by-now familiar protagonist–Inspector Alleyn–and his wife Troy, the story just isn’t holding my attention.

The story premise is rock solid and exciting. The plot itself has a few hiccups, chiefly because at the halfway point there’s been no crime committed and as yet there’s still no mystery to solve. However, I realized that the primary reason I’m not engrossed is due to the author’s over-reliance on narrative.

The moment something exciting happens, Dame Ngaio pulls back the camera, so to speak, and relates the event in summary rather than letting the story action take place in moment-by-moment conflict. This unfortunate tactic, coupled with a lack of “real trouble” for the characters to handle, has created a slow, rather circular plot that’s stalled. And all the lovely scenery, vivid characters, and likeable protagonists are insufficient to hold my attention.

I’m going to finish reading PHOTO FINISH, even with gritted teeth and sheer determination, because I think it’s intriguing to see a notable author’s final works as well as her early efforts, but I am having to work much too hard to suspend disbelief in order to stay involved. Unfortunately, this particular story has become a curiosity for me rather than a novel that can carry me away.

Summarize too much of a story, and you end up with readers who just don’t care.


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Dialogue Don’ts

Another misstep that can jolt readers from suspension of disbelief occurs when a character’s dialogue sounds phony, contrived, or inconsistent.

Developing an ear for dialogue takes practice. It’s helpful to read aloud a character’s lines to make sure they flow well and make sense. However, dialogue should also work visually by being quick and easy to read. Divide it into small paragraphs, breaking to a new paragraph each time a different character speaks.

     “Are you happy now?” she asked. “Will chocolate ice cream satisfy you for just this once?”

     “Okay. Guess so. Black walnut mocha is better.”

     She sighed, tired of his whims, and slammed down the bowl in front of him. “Just eat.”


By contrast, consider this mash-up:

     “Are you happy now?” she asked. “Will chocolate ice cream satisfy you for just this once?”  “Okay. Guess so. Black walnut mocha is better.”  She sighed, tired of his whims, and slammed down the bowl in front of him. “Just eat.”  “Tyrant.”

The separate paragraphs seem like such a small, obvious detail, and yet inexperienced or careless writers tend to overlook this element of readability flow. Certainly it makes following the conversation difficult for readers.

Phony Dialogue

When a character speaks in a stilted, unnatural way or delivers what is known as dialogue of information, it comes across as false and implausible.

For example, consider this:

     “Darling, darling, darling, I just LOVE your hair. It’s so brown today, catching all those delicious little highlights in the sunlight. And it curls so prettily. Do you wear colored contacts? I think you must because your eyes exactly match that pale streak of color at your temples. And never let anyone tell you to wear pastels, my dear, because they would wash out your skin tones. Leopard prints are what you need. Leopard and jewel tones, always.”

Gushing and flamboyant? Yes.

Over-the-top? Yes.

Dialogue of information? Unfortunately, yes.

Viable? Possibly, if the speaker is a gushing, insincere, middle-aged babbler.

However, sometimes dialogue seems phony because the cadence and vocabulary of the speaker just don’t match his or her design. Let’s say we have a character who is shy, reserved, highly educated, and cultured.

She’s probably not going to say lines such as these:

“So, uh, like I was there, but it was seriously lame. So I bounced, and I wasn’t at the club when the fight broke out.”

Or these:

     “Yeah, I saw the fight. What about it? I hated being a witness. I didn’t notice anything. So why don’t you go pester somebody else?”

Or these:

     “I most certainly did witness the altercation. Unfortunately I had just happened to stop briefly in that den of iniquity to say hello to my dearest friend, a sorority sister if you must know. However, I left promptly since I had no desire to be jostled by the hoi polloi or have cheap beer sloshed across my Armani skirt.”

What’s best is to let the character’s personality shine through without beating readers over the head with it. Therefore, a shy, reserved character would probably answer without mugging or embellishing. Her level of education would come through the use of correct, albeit casual, grammar and an absence of slang:

     “Yes, officer, I went there. I don’t normally go to clubs, but a friend urged me to go with her. I said I would for a short while. But I was needed at home, so I left after about twenty minutes. I didn’t see a fight.”

Contrived Dialogue

I am a fan of the classic THIN MAN series of films featuring Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. But near the end of the third film, ANOTHER THIN MAN, [SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!] the murdered man’s adopted daughter Lois suddenly switches her dialogue and manner in a way that is jarring and entirely implausible. Up to this point in the movie, she has been cultured and refined, an entirely gracious and charming person. In the climax [SPOILER!!!!], her vocabulary and tone become harsh and lower-class.

It’s an extremely crude and awkward transformation that gets the director’s point across, but with such contrivance that I dislike the entire movie.

Inconsistent Dialogue

This can happen when a writer is using dialect, habitual phrases, or a distinct speech pattern to tag a character and make him or her stand out from the rest of the cast. At some point in the story, especially in a novel, said writer is prone to forget those speech tags and allow the character to start talking like some of the others. Somewhere in the swampy middle of a book, writer fatigue sets in. And if multiple viewpoints are being used, or if some of the secondary characters disappear for a while and return after the midpoint, it’s easy to lose track of their individual voices and speaking styles.

So, for example, let’s say that on pages 12-30, Ezra Honeycutt has been cutting a vivid swath across the storyline like this:

     “Now see here, son! I ain’t standing for no foolery when it comes to property lines. I know how much land I own, and that dratted skunk Jones can take me to court all day long and it won’t make no difference. What’s right is right, and I’m darned sure right!”

As you can see, Ezra is testy. He’s not too concerned with proper grammar, through his usage of “ain’t” and double negatives, yet although he’s angry he’s avoiding the curse word “damned.” These are little clues to his personality and upbringing, or even his personal code. He prefaces many of his remarks with “now see here.”

However, Ezra is a minor character. He vanishes from the story for a while, and when he returns on, say, pages 96-117, he speaks this way:

     “Now see here, you! I thought I made myself clear when I took Mr. Jones to court last month, but it would appear that I need to explain this property squabble once more.”

Although one of his phrases remains, the rest of his speaking pattern–the rhythm of it, if you will–has changed. He is no longer consistent. He has become less vivid. He doesn’t appear to be quite the same as he was before. Depending on how remarkable, feisty, and bold he was the previous times he appeared, he may not break the bubble of suspension of disbelief, but he’ll affect it.

If needed, take the trouble to create a speech tag chart for each of your characters and keep it near your computer–or even in a computer file–for a handy reference.

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Grammar Time: antecedent agreement

Once upon a time there existed the grammatical convention of using the pronoun “he” as a common reference.

Therefore, sentences such as Each student knows he is responsible for filing his assignment as soon as it is written were based on this standardized rule. Noun-pronoun agreement was simple. One student equated to the singular “he” pronoun.

Anyone violating noun-pronoun agreement in writing something such as Each student knows they are responsible for filing their assignment as soon as it is written created a glaring grammatical error.

Correcting such an error was also simple:

Acceptable option 1:  Each student knows he is responsible for filing his assignment ….

Acceptable option 2:  Students know they are responsible for filing their assignments ….

Twentieth-century feminist activists campaigned for equal rights and pay for women and argued against using “he” as the default pronoun.

Writers wishing to be sensitive and PC incorporated the awkward construction of “he or she.”

As we all know, that approach grows cumbersome quickly in formal writing. For example, When a student is left to make his or her choice between salad and chocolate cake, he or she will probably select a sweet.

However clumsy it seems, such a sentence construction is grammatically correct. Yet it has created two less-than-fortunate results.

The first is that the concept of “he or she” has generated a mental image of multiple people. The phrase is singular, referring to either a man or a woman (or a girl or a boy), but to the most casual American imagination it conveys plurality. Why should that matter? Because “he or she” incorrectly becomes an antecedent to “they.”

Incorrect example:  When he or she understand they are responsible for filing their assignments on time, they will be more efficient.

Correct example:  When he or she understands he or she is responsible for filing his or her assignments on time, he or she will be more efficient.

Ghastly, isn’t it? Correct or incorrect, this is not good writing.

The other unfortunate result I want to address is that the concept of plurality has spread, like mustard-algae taking over an improperly maintained swimming pool, to other types of noun-pronoun agreement. In other words, agreement itself is in danger of becoming extinct.

Incorrect example:  When the reader sees viewpoint handled well, they enjoy a story more.

In this horrid sentence, the antecedent “the reader” is singular. Yet because PC training has hammered the concept of “he or she” into people’s heads, the plural misconstruction comes into play and as a result the pronoun used in the second part of the sentence is plural. That violates the grammatical rule of noun-pronoun agreement. If a noun is singular, the pronoun must be singular.

We have two correct ways of dealing with this error.

Correct example 1:  When readers see viewpoint handled well, they enjoy a story more.

In this solution, if you’re thinking plural then go all the way.

Correct example 2a:  When the reader sees viewpoint handled well, he enjoys a story more.

Correct example 2b:  When the reader sees viewpoint handled well, she enjoys a story more.

My preference in writing is to alternate between “he” in making some of my points and “she” for others. That way, the grammatical standard hasn’t been butchered, both genders have been given equal attention, and the sentences remain clear and easy to follow.

However, there has arisen another issue among certain individuals who wish to avoid any gender label whatsoever. Their activists dislike being referred to as either “he” or “she.” They advocate that a person be referred to in the plural, which is grammatically incorrect and inaccurate. By conveying erroneous information, it generates confusion.

A single person standing on a street corner cannot be referred to as “they” because a lone individual is not more than one person. If a police officer needs to issue a report, that officer cannot say, The perpetrator picked up their stolen clothes off the floor and fled the store with three coats and a pair of shoes.

Such a report would confuse other officers trying to make an arrest because would they be searching for one thief or several?

Some might argue that language needs to change with the times and that adhering to old grammatical rules is ridiculous. However, I believe that the adaptability of language comes not through abandoning standards, rules, accuracy, and coherence but in creating new terms that accurately and precisely convey meanings for new concepts. (Of course, English has a pronoun already in place that will stand for anyone entirely gender-neutral, but most people reject being referred to as “it.”)

The English language is complicated, quirky, challenging, and wonderful. Work with it, and it will support you through any ideas you wish to write about. Work against it, and it quickly transforms into a stilted, awkward beast that refuses to cooperate.

The rules serve us well, if we let them.


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The Implausibility Factor

Another way–besides gotchas and inconsistent characterization–an unwary writer can break a reader’s suspension of disbelief is through plot events that are simply unbelievable.

Sometimes I deal with students that defend their highly improbable storyline by saying, “But it really happened!”

While real-life events or news stories can spark ideas in a writer’s mind, that doesn’t mean you can chronicle them exactly as they occurred.

The old adage of truth being stranger than fiction means that fiction is a conservative art medium. It brings more order and organization and purpose to a dramatized event than a real event will have. That’s because it must fit into a story. It must serve to advance a plot that’s focused on the protagonist’s goal and is actually helping move the protagonist toward a climax and resolution.

Real life doesn’t necessarily work that way. And therefore real events have to be reshaped and reconfigured in order to be dramatized.

Sometimes, a writer will be too heavily influenced by the spate of what thriller writer David Morrell calls “idiot plots” that have dominated major motion pictures in Hollywood since the 1980s. While action-packed, fast-paced, stunt-laden movies can be exciting to watch, a novelist trying to emulate them can push a high-concept storyline into absurdity.

Granted, no one expects a James Bond film, for example, to be realistic, much less offer character depth or development. Audiences go to Bond flicks expecting a high degree of implausibility. As long as the people running the Bond franchise can keep topping themselves, the exotic locales, hot babes, and wild stunts will continue to make audiences say, “Wow.”

However, an over-the-top movie that spits rapid-fire visual eye-candy at its audience should not be a template for a novelist trying to plot a story. In prose, we have our words, not cinematography or CGI. We can aim for a fast-paced story, of course, but it will never move as rapidly as a film. Therefore, our readers have more time to think, Wait a minute. Wasn’t there a hunch-backed dwarf following the heroine down that Paris street? Where did he go? Why did he stop tracking her? Wasn’t there a reason for that? If he’s not going to show up again, why was he mentioned in the first place? Also, movies keep going so even if someone in the cinema thinks, hold on, an action stunt or locale change onscreen will distract or obscure audience doubt. However, in a book a dubious reader can stop and flip back a few pages to check some authorial misstep.


It takes a lot more effort and disgust for an audience to walk out of a film than it does for a disgruntled reader to toss a story aside.

Staying plausible involves keeping up with your hooks, threats, plants, questions, and details. Playing fair with readers means you must not mention or include or feature anything that isn’t in the story for a valid dramatic reason.

Declaring, “Oh, I just thought I’d describe that girl in the clown costume, holding a red parasol while trying to flag a taxi because I wanted some vivid imagery. She doesn’t have any bearing on what’s happening between Gertrude and her mother,” is akin to announcing you plan to go sky-diving for the first time at noon but don’t expect your family to take any notice of it because you’ll be home in time for dinner.

Implausibility can also occur when you fail to plot through your protagonist’s sequels. In other words, if you simply push your character from one event or scene to the next as you would check off items on your errands list, the character’s actions resemble those of a contrived puppet.

Instead, follow up each scene with its immediate sequel–or the aftermath where your protagonist processes what just went wrong, reacts to it, analyzes it, weighs options for what to do next, and chooses a new course of action.

Inexperienced writers can be impatient with sequels, but these dramatic building blocks make an enormous difference in your story’s logic and your protagonist’s motivations. Sequels are key components to a believable plot no matter whether it’s a family drama set in a Virginia suburb or a military thriller set in the Adriatic Sea.

And, finally, your story can become implausible if you neglect the consequences of your characters’ actions. Your story people aren’t confronting each other, arguing with each other, betraying each other, or pursuing each other without result. Every character action worth depicting in a scene should create a later effect on someone or something in the story. If you overlook this, your plot becomes a random montage of character actions that lack an evident purpose and don’t seem to connect.

Such errors and omissions result in readers pushing the story away in disbelief, no longer willing to pretend with you.

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