5 Red Flags Your Story Needs Revision

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Original image via Jenny Downing Flikr Creative Commons

This week, we’ve talked a lot about some fundamental errors that can weaken the writing. Most all of us make one or more of these errors, especially when we’re new. Hey, that’s called “being NEW.” No one is born with the natural ability to write brilliant, perfect novels coded into their DNA. It takes time and practice, so give yourself permission to make mistakes…then learn, suck it up and back to work.

It writes the words or it gets the hose *pets fluffy white dog*

Today I’m again donning my editor’s hat to give you a peek into what red flags agents (and even readers) see in those first five pages.

Red Flag #1

If Your Novel has More Characters than the Star Wars Prequels, You Might Need Revision

Don’t even get me started about Jar Jar Binks.

Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies (good ones, NOT the SW prequels). If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part.

I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals.

Only name them if you plan on getting us attached.

We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.

And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Just (as I mentioned on Monday) don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.

Red Flag #2

If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision

Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.

Lola leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Fabio. She needed her twist-ties and lucky purple rabbit’s foot if she ever was going to diffuse the bomb in time. Sweat ran into her eyes as she reached out for Malfio’s hand. They only had minutes before Juliette would be back and then it would all be over for Katy, Skipper and Mitzi.

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?

We don’t care. We (the readers) aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. On this blog, we’ve discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure (or might be trying to “reinvent it”).

Thing is, three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.

It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.

Some other picky no-nos… .

Red Flag #3

Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts? Time for Revision

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow…the carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

Red Flag #4

Too much Physiology? Time for Revision

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more. Get a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus.

Red Flag #5

Too Many Evil Adverbs? REVISE!

Most of the time, adverbs are a no-no. Find a stronger verb instead of dressing up a weaker choice.

She stood quickly from her chair.

She bolted from her chair.

Also be careful of redundant adverbs.

She whispered quietly…

Um, duh. The verb whisper already tells me the volume level.

She can, however, whisper conspiratorially. Why? Because the adverb isn’t denoting something inherent in the verb. To whisper, by definition is to be quiet BUT not necessarily to conspire. The adverb conspiratorially indicates a certain quality to the whisper.

Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing and help you more easily spot what and where revision is needed.

Some books to help you clean up your prose and become a master at your craft? Story Engineering by Larry Brooks is a MUST HAVE in your library. I LOVE ANYTHING written by James Scott Bell, but my favorite is probably Plot & Structure. Hooked by Les Edgerton. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Buy these and study them.

You will thank me later.

What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!


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  1. Newbie pitfalls are the start of a learning journey and mixed messages flooding the internet! Thank you for your wisdom yet again.

    • Borednicole on March 22, 2013 at 9:05 am
    • Reply

    I love Stephen King’s segment in “On Writing”, about The Stand. He had so many characters he wound up blocked, in his words the story had become “dangerously overcrowded – a veritable Calcutta”. His solution, he blew half of them to “smithereens”. Guess that only works for certain types of stories though. 🙂

  2. I may have missed it, but have you already discussed the difficulties of dialogue? It’s the one thing that always frustrates me. I love looking at the whole picture of a story, but writing dialogue freaks me out. Also was going to say another book I love about writing (aside from Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’) is ‘The Writer’s Compass’ by Nancy Ellen Dodd – great book!

    1. We can discuss dialogue. I don’t believe I’ve written a post about that, so should be fun :D.

  3. Reblogged this on Wendy Reis Editing (Blog) and commented:
    Another winner from Ms. Lamb.

  4. Great advice! I’m currently writing a novel, and after reading this post I’ve realized I have made some of these red flag mistakes – Opps! Time for revisions! 🙂

  5. Great post! Thanks for the book links, I’m definitely going to check those out.

  6. Love this, Kristen! LOL, I still remember you talking me through *breathe* my 15-page revision, where I named everyone in the room in the first scene. Great reminders, thanks!

  7. Here’s one that drives me nuts and appears to be gaining unwanted steam: flash backs. I’ve read several novels of late the resemble a tedious tennis match. To say it’s a bit maddening, would be an understatement. Any thoughts?

  8. Tense switching. It makes me want to cut someone.
    Great tips. Can’t wait to cruise your blog.

  9. I still think those 75 main characters in my first manuscript were indispensable. I mean, look at what George R.R. Martin gets away with, and he doesn’t even write dystopian-literary-sci-fi-post-apocalyptic-thriller-romance. You’re just too harsh, Kristen.


    1. I know, right? After all, you could include a pocket-sized character guide for the reader… 😉

  10. I’ve always heard “too many characters up front is a no-no,” but if you don’t name them is it okay? My first scene is necessary to have the entire family there to do something important. It starts off in someone else’s POV because the main character is late, therefore, by her being late, it starts her inner and outer journey…I’ve never written a story starting like this before, but it feels right… CP’s haven’t complained, so I hope I’m good.

  11. Thank you for the very good advice. Writing is a constant learning experience.

  12. Kristen, my critique partner, Tamara LaBlanc, suggested I visit your blog, and I’m so glad I did. Your posts are filled with must reads. Have you thought about doing your own nonfiction book on writing? I would love to read tips on how to develop character arcs throughout a story. I write romantic suspense, so when I try to show a character’s weakness in the opening pages, I get comments like your FBI agent isn’t strong enough to do her job.

    My creative juices tend to bog down because I don’t write every day. One of favorite books is the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She suggests doing daily pages of free writing. This keeps my creative channels open and allows me to challenge the obstacles that keep me from going after my dreams. It’s an ongoing process, but the tools inside the Artist’s Way help me deal with my self-doubt, perfectionism, and a critical inner editor.

  13. I discovered your blog through a friend’s facebook post about a month ago. Your posts are great motivator for me in my journey as a novice writer (who works full time as a nurse and has three kids!). I look forward to each one. Today’s cracked me up. My husband (who writes screenplays) and I have been walking around this morning saying “It writes the words or it gets the hose.” Oh, too funny. Thank you.

  14. My writer’s group has been discussing these points lately. We recently had a hilarious discussion about all the painful possibilities of #3. 🙂 Good to know we’re on the right track! Thanks for another helpful post!

  15. I will check out those books. Thank you for your wonderful advice.

  16. I suppose it’s a matter of degree but I’m not sure I agree with number 2. If we are supposed to grab the reader in the first few paragraphs and introduce our protagonist in the first chapter a bit of action helps set that stage.

  17. Wow these are great! Adverbs are my weakness.

  18. I always enjoy your posts. This one’s clever humor gets your points across well! Shared on my FB page!

  19. I’m with Yvonne about #2, but I think this varies by genre. In thriller, action-adventure, sci fi, sometimes fantasy, and sometimes mystery, everybody wants an action scene straight off the bat. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a major action scene, but there needs to be central thematic tension from the first paragraph. Is it hard to do this well and make the readers care about the action scene? Yes. Will they complain if you leave it out? Yes. For that matter, so will editors.

    1. I write fantasy, Lynn. Perhaps that is the reason for my comment.

      1. Lynn, I have been giving this some thought as a basis for a post on Indies Unlimited. May I quote your comment here? I’ll post a link to your blog with it.

        1. Sure, go for it.

          On another pen name I am writing a family drama, and an action scene at the beginning would just be silly, though I do throw the main character into some confrontation with other people right away. I think most books that start with narrative summary won’t capture many of today’s readers, who are used to instant tension from TV and movies. Either you need to have action or something that sparks a strong emotional response.

          1. Thanks. It will post Mon. Mar 1 on Indies Unlimited. 🙂

  20. Wonderful post, Kristen. I got snagged on a couple. Oh, dear.

  21. Great tips, here. I’m finding as I write that I’m much more action driven than character driven. I want to get on to the next scene as quickly as possible. I don’t think that’s a bad thing on its own but I wonder if I’m shortchanging the reader and my characters’ development. I’m 43,000 words in, but it’s something I’m going to keep in mind when I go back to re-read and revise. Do you have any advice about character-driven novels versus action-driven novels? And maybe that’s not even the right terminology. Newbie novelist!

  22. Lawdy, I have “tic words,” and even though I am aware of them, I still will find them scattered throughout my draft. It’s because we often write like we talk, and we often talk with lots of unnecessary words 😀 – so, I have to scour my draft over and over again. It’s a pain in the butt

    1. Kat – Just start making a list of the words somewhere (mine is in Google Drive), then go through the list and do searches for them using “Find” when you are editing. I add to my list with each book. I also use Autocrit.com to find repeated words.

      1. I always say I’m going to make a list and I never do – you’d think after five books and a novella I’d learn? *duh kat*

        (never heard of autocrit before!)

  23. Recently I decided that it’s not about having time to follow blogs and articles on writing, it’s about making the time. Yours is certainly one I’m making time for each day now. Thank you so much for sharing.

    I have a question about your second red flag. Several months ago I began sending off my query letters to agents, looking to see about traditional publishing before delving into the world of self publishing. I received a very helpful letter back from one agent that offered some advice on the opening to my novel. He encouraged me to start in the middle of the action in order to catch interest. I’ve since reworked the beginning and even had some fellow writers on a site that I frequent take a look to see if it was something they would want to continue on with. I did have positive feedback from it.

    I suppose my question is this: Do you think there are exceptions to this depending on the style and genre of the story?

  24. Great post! Sometimes, even when we’ve read about what not to do, it’s good to get a refresher and even a different perspective. I just bought the book “The Emotion Thesaurus” so thank you for that recommendation. Never heard of it but sounds fantastic.

  25. Love the adverb caution — sometimes they are necessary, but. . .

  26. Thanks so much Kristen. It’s good to be reminded of these things, particularly the evil adverbs. Just wondering how you get an edit on your manuscript when you are starving in a garret and have no money to pay for an edit?

    1. Join a critique group. Trade help. Save money. It’s vital. Editing is life or death.

      1. Thanks Kristen!

  27. Love “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks! I’ll have to get the others you recommend. Thanks, Kristen!

  28. Great newbie tips! Much appreciated, Kristen! 🙂

  29. Thanks for this post, Kristen. I struggle with revision so much.
    I’ve written plenty of stories, but I’m beginning my first novel. Revising stories is bad enough. Comes the time I must shine the big enchilada, I’ll need all the help I can get.

  30. I see number 3 a lot when editing other writer’s works. Like, his eyes rested on her breasts. That would be a neat trick.

    Some of the more prolific writers tend to name just about every character and sometimes add a little about them even though they are there one moment and gone the next, never to return. I see that a lot with, for example, Clive Cussler. It does seem odd each time I see this.

  31. Good points to cover, by the way. Thank you.

  32. Oh, how I’ve tried to weed all this out. I’m sure there are still a few of theses pests spreading through my WIP, but I’ll work of getting them all next go round. Thanks for the reminder!

  33. Ha! #3 makes me laugh every time I see it, and I’m guilty of #4.

  34. All I can say is bravo. Wait…didn’t you ask me to thow up?

    • JeriWB on March 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm
    • Reply

    Even with boatloads of training, teaching experience, and a couple of degrees related to writing, I still find myself making all the newbie mistakes a writer can make when it comes to writing my first novel. It’s just an inherent part of the learning process. Kinda makes me feel like a hypocrite for all the classes on writing I used to teach, but life goes on as does the writing. Theory is great, but putting theory into practice, now there’s the rub!

    • Thomas Linehan on March 22, 2013 at 12:29 pm
    • Reply

    Damn! Now I have to throw everything out and start all over again. lol

  35. Wow! What a great post. I totally agree with you about the Story Engineering book and the Plot and Structure book. Both of those have helped me to better understand story structure. In fact, I have you to personally thank for knowledge about James Scott Bell because you recommended him. He rocks! Thanks again for the great information!

  36. Plot and Structure and Save the Cat are two books that are opened and read regularly in my writing/reading room. If I re-read it enough, I’m hoping it sinks in! 🙂

    • becca puglisi on March 22, 2013 at 1:03 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve added Hooked and James Scott Bell’s book to my TBR list. Your posts are always helpful on so many levels, Kristen. I don’t know if this subject is too far outside of your wheelhouse, but as someone who is currently looking into the foreign rights question, it would be nice to see some posts on the different subsidiary rights and how to handle them.

  37. thanks, just a quick perusal through my stories shows me a few of these. I am particularly guilty of naming any character that intrudes into the scene with the Main characters or is about to Die. LOL the reverse of the Star trek red shirt syndrome I guess.

  38. Great advice. I’ve never thought about the painful body movements before but you made me smile. That’s one I’ll now remember!

  39. This is great. I am not currently writing a novel but found these points to be extremely helpful should I ever decide to. Thanks for the useful instruction and advice. 🙂

  40. Extremely helpful as always. Let’s go with a follow up question as per point #2. It used to be a writer had a chapter to engage and keep the reader/editor/agent. Lately, I’ve heard we have a paragrapgh. There seems to be a fine line between the hook and too much action too early. Would you suggest getting to some drama by chapter 2? Chapter 3? How do we avoid too much too early and work within the possibility of a flea sized attention span?

  41. Thanks for the recommended reading links (had to think about that one, I almost typed ‘recommended suggestions’ ha!). Have you blogged on changing perspectives already?

    I love reading your blog. You are an invaluable source of advice! 🙂 Thank you!

    • Harv Mayerowicz on March 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm
    • Reply


    I worry that you’re almost daily blogging has come at the expense of your other writing. On the other hand, if you are using your increased blogging as an approach to release any impediments to your other writing, then go for it!

    1. Not at all. I’m about to release a new book . Wrote 60,000 words of new material in less than 8 weeks. Travel and a toddler? That’s another story? LOL but thanks!

    • Jody A Kessler on March 22, 2013 at 2:35 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for the great advice! If only I could remember all the tips when I’m writing and rewriting. And thanks for the book suggestions as well, I’ll check them out. Cheers.

  42. Think Hollywood and movies (good ones, NOT the SW prequels).
    This killed me. Well, not literally or I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this. But I did laugh out loud (yes, literally!) when I read it. 🙂

  43. It seems that we all must go through these pitfalls and discover them for ourselves. 🙁
    My question is this: Is there any point in rehabing my first darlings or should I start fresh and hope I’ve gotten at least some of these debacles out of my system? It feels like I’ve been rewriting the same great-idea-but-poorly-executed piece for so long that it is a pile of unraveled threads that can’t be rewoven into anything comprehendible.
    I love the reading list and see that I have all but one of these already read.
    Thank you for the reality check – and the inspiration.

  44. Another terrific post Kristen! I recently discovered Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet and will look into the other books you mentioned. Thanks for the helpful tips.

  45. i love this. I would add to the adverbs thing “Whispered Loudly”. Sometimes the opposite adverb helps imply something in the character, like that she was trying to get your attention and demean you by whispering loudly to someone else…

    1. Personally, I’d use the term “stage whisper” for that situation as it implies that you WANT other people to hear you. And guess what? No adverb. I get your point, though, and it makes sense. Just like Kristin said, the descriptive word is not an inherent quality of the verb.

  46. Great post. And I agree completely with your recommendation of Larry Brooks’ book. Story Engineering is exactly what I needed. I didn’t have the first clue about story structure other than it had to have a beginning, middle and end.

    How the beginning ended and became the middle, what events separated the three parts, their relative lengths – all a mystery that he (and others) solved.

  47. One other book to read would be THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. It’s not a craft book,per se, but it gives you a basic idea of the hero’s journey and the points he/she should hit along the way. Not every single point needs to be hit in every single story, but if one is missing that should be there, the story won’t find resonance with the reader. Will you be writing a blog post about that, perchance, Kristin?

    • catherinelumb on March 22, 2013 at 4:50 pm
    • Reply

    Your posts are fantastic. I am currently trying to edit my first novel and am half way through my first read back – I’m identifying big issues (inconsistent viewpoint, story arc and character development) but would love it if you would give some tips on how to approach the actual process of editing (if you haven’t already?). So, for example – should I start by looking at narrative structure, then once that is done, examine character motivations followed by individual scenes for ‘evil adverb’ use?

    Any advice would be most appreciated – even if it’s just a list of what ‘type’ of edits I should go through before I even think of submitting it anywhere!
    Thanks, Cat x

    1. What I do is the spell check route first after I reached my word count finish line, and then the FIND with the search text box. By the way I use MS Word Documents. Active verbs and passive verbs are always argued in many articles on writing so I tried searching for the linking verbs and then I questioned it because it sometimes sounds so much better with the linking verb. Of course the adverb use with FIND, I use when I think necessary.

      But the FIND with search helps me edit so much faster.

      I just recently started to keep in mind the FIVE Ws during my outline to write a new work.

      Who is it about?

      What happened?

      When did it take place?

      Where did it take place?

      Why did it happen?

      It goes back to wanting to write articles to end poverty at my birth country during not NaNoWriMo months. But the Philippines has improved so much that I am just repeating myself with “domestic tourism and domestic trading” strategy like the fifty states so I decided to try the Five Ws on my writing novels.

      My theory is if I capture my outline, then the non grammar stuff should already be in the details when editing.

      Forbes Magazine lists Filipino Billionaires, which are needed to jump start the economy of ending poverty – market economy ends poverty.

      When I first arrived on December 2, 2004; the Philippines did not even have someone with a net work, with half a billion dollars, so the poverty is ending.

      Believe me with my freelance articles submitted to real newspapers at the Philippines, I had written to encourage Filipino Billionaires in American dollars with the new venture capital to start a:

      Top Six of publishing books in the World by sales 2012

      1. Pearson
      2. Reed Elsevier Corp.
      3. The Woodbridge Company Ltd.
      4. Wolters Kluwer
      5. Lagardère
      6. Grupo Planeta

  48. OMG… I just about died laughing while reading point 3. (Speaking of which how do you feel about hyperbole? Is it the best thing ever or to be avoided at all costs?)

    1. Hyperbole is useful. I use it writing humor…um attention span of a meth-addicted squirrel? 😀

  49. Another great post, Kristen, and thank you for the additional book titles for me to add to my library.

    When I was working on my very first book I began with a bit of ‘normal world’ before I dumped my protagonist into the conflict. I was promptly swatted on the hand by my first critique group who said “no, no, no! Too slow! Begin with the action. Drop him right into the mess and that will grab your readers”. Obviously, that didn’t feel right either.
    Now wiser, I do not make those errors on either side.

    Fun little tightrope we sometimes walk, isn’t it?

  50. Red Flag 1 – I am trying to follow the magic 7 of only seven main characters. It is one reason that I am writing novelettes pre-NaNoWriMo months when not finishing a WIP. I did not want to drop down to 2K short stories, but I thought 12.5K would include enough main characters for a 50K novel and later add 3 more 12.5K to have a 50K, if I wanted to.

    Word count is very important to me. It is a finish line to shoot for. I follow another blog of an Australian writer. Years ago before I dove in the deep waters of writing novels, we communicated by E-mail and she did research for me of the best names and most lucrative writers. The well-paid in the multi-millions write around 70K to 90K, especially the suspense thrillers.

    But because of someone like you, Kristen, the marketplace had changed to self-publishing to E-books and the word count is dropping to even 20K or less for an E-book on Kindle and Nook (tablet readers) and upload. Good or bad, I do not care. I am writing 12.5K to 150K plus so I have something for the “hula hoop” and “yoyo” and “pet rock” (fads) and the sustainable marketplace.

    Red Flag 2 – The early scene dumping is to get the attention of an editor. Based on research, the process of getting published with the BIG Six or the Top 6 in worldwide sales is this. A submission first enters a gauntlet before it is brought to an editor who can make the big decision. Then it is brought to the market department to determine if it would sell and who to (word count and style). It is why I really do not worry about marketing when targeting the Big Six because they will decide where it belongs. It helps to suggest it in the query letter, YA adult of eight graders in a private school planning to go to the best universities in the world. Of course, self publishing, you are the editor and marketing genius. Revision might be considered if it did not get you to read the next paragraph.

  51. Oh those ‘ly’ words! I’m very wary of them, take them out, then decide to put some back on revision. Some in my critique group automatically note them for change, but I often ignore their advice because each and every adverb is pondered upon and decided upon with some deliberation.

    • Vicki on March 22, 2013 at 7:47 pm
    • Reply

    My biggest problem is the first page of a new story, I have the hardest time getting started, I write a sentence, delete it, write a paragraph, delete it, ugh. I know the first page is supposed to draw the reader in, but I struggle with that. Just getting that off my chest, lol.

    1. I remember when I wanted to start every paragraph with “THE” and I read somewhere not to do it. It helped in getting started. “A” and “An” and a “name” and a “prepositional phrase” or an “introductory dependent clause” and more became options to start the novel. Because of it I was able to get started. You can always re-write or touch it up on the drafts or editing stage.

    • Nancy Ferguson on March 22, 2013 at 8:02 pm
    • Reply

    They’re the basics, but sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the plot or character and forget to check for the -ly words, the body parts moving or the over-naming. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  52. Hi Kristen. It is so easy to forget the fundamentals of writing so thanks for the tips.

  53. As Helen Ross stated, it really is easy to forget the fundamentals… I tend to write whatever’s in my heart, and forget to write with my head. Half the time, I probably couldn’t point out an adverb if it was scratching me in the face. Looking at your examples will likely help me to identify them in the future. As always, thank you for your advice!

  54. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Great Post! I see these problems in the books I’m receiving for review all the time. Watch out for extreme back story and sections of telling, too. Right now, I’m reading a self-pub book that right in the middle of the story, stops to do an unnecessary back story dump. So annoying. I think the author was so proud of the history he/she came up with for the main character that they couldn’t resist plugging it in somewhere. *Rolls eyes and groans* Let go of those darlings and only use the info that applies to the story.

  55. I devour anything I can find that will help my hone my craft! Thank you so much for this!

  56. Hi Kristen, I found myself agreeing with a lot of this, but stopped and wondered at
    “Thing is, three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.”

    Sure, but people were writing (and making up stories) long before Aristotle, and in a lot of cultures the linear three-act route is not the preferred choice. For example, a lot of middle eastern material uses a chiastic structure in which climactic events and significance is placed at the centre of the work (whether verse or prose) and the concentric layers around that serve a variety of thematic purposes to support that.

    Do you think that perhaps your comment is quite culturally bound? I mean, sure if one wants to sell millions of airport books then three-act with a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter is pretty much the only way to go, but perhaps there are other routes that can be explored? Is there a risk of a) avoiding legitimate innovation and b) ignoring large segments of literature which don’t follow this paradigm?

    Of course, editors might well not like that… 🙂

    1. Well, if your goal is to sell books in the Middle East, go for it. There is strong evidence that three-act structure is hard-wired into the human brain. Most of us want to sell books to people in the Western culture, so why not use the dramatic structure our culture expects?

      Beginning, middle and end?

      You can do anything you want to, but we need to understand the culture we want buying our books. Our books are for the readers, not us. Thai people eat all kinds of scorpions and beetles. Hard sell in the West. I think a lot of writers are more interested in breaking rules and being clever than just learning the craft and telling a good story. In my experience, most writers who want to “break rules” don’t understand them in the first place. There is a reason three-act structure works. The further we deviate, the more we risk frustrating the audience.

      Deviate from three-act structure and it’s like putting an American in a British car and telling them to drive on the opposite side of the road. Cumbersome, unpleasant, and they likely will just prefer changing back to what they are used to.

      But in the end, write what ever you want.

      1. I do accept your comments about not breaking rules for the sake of it. I am not disagreeing with that. However, over here in England we are perhaps already highly multicultural in ways that may seem odd to American readers. Middle eastern readers, and habits of thought, are around us all the time. And far eastern, for that matter, though I don’t know so much about conventional patterns that originate from there.
        My point was really that there is more than one way to structure a narrative, and people in different cultures have not always used the same methods that have been common here in Europe and the US. Do you think they are worth exploring to see the inherent value and logic in them?

        1. I believe in what Picasso said. “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” Sure, break rules, but do so with a fundamental understanding of your craft. Also, it goes to what are your writing goals? Are you wanting to make a living or make a statement?

          And just because something is 3-act structure doesn’t mean it’s commercial mind-candy with no artistic value. Shakespeare, Hemingway, Jane Austen all broke rules but worked within 3-act structure.

          The cool thing about the new paradigm is it does allow for more experimentation. Creating new genres, etc. I have no issues with writers wanting to break rules, but they should understand them first, or that’s just laziness and ignorance.

          1. Writing using the Hour Glass method, but are the beginning and the end more important or should the middle where the sand passes through be the focus of the novel? Hummm, and should it be a diamond where the points at the ends are pointy? Important characters or naming the characters (numbers) is one rule I try not to break to reduce confusion along with the first letter rule or sounds like. An example would be: John and James would break the rule for fictional novels, because of the J. To me rules to be followed is to get one to write the novel. It is working for me. Like the names, taking the time to make sure inspires more creativity. The Hour Glass and the Diamond leads to making an outline.

          2. Three-act eight-sequence structure is fantastic for film and some books but I’ve found a number of inexperienced writers have problems maintaining tension or thrust through Act 2, so it’s also good to be familiar with 5-act structure (used most famously in Shakespeare) when those problems arise which is also used in a lot of other works as well.

          3. Act II is always the hardest and technically movies employ a four-act structure. Normal World is it’s own thing and the inciting incident introduces Act One, since that is technically where the story begins.

          4. I am planning four sections for my next novel after the three acts in the past, after I write my 12.5K novelettes already planned since Valentine month. But five acts seem intriguing. I will GOOGLE search to learn more on the five acts and see if it will work for my novel ideas already outline to be started on for 2013.

            I use structure to get me to write the novel. I cannot just sit down and start writing.

            Vida Boyd Jones from Joplin, Missouri taught me the “bubble gum” on how to write mysteries; it was during a Writers For Children conference. She was our guest speaker.

            The structures are excellent for writing mysteries, if you like doing the “bubble gum”. Let us say that you decided to have three suspects to eliminate until you drop the bomb on who did it. The four sections would work and so would the five acts, but the three acts might be condensing on Act 2.

            It helps me write the story. You can always re-write and re-write and re-write later on in life, but you have a completed novel.

          5. You can have as many Acts as you want if you’re defining them as choices your character makes that they cannot go back on. Most films have 3 or 5 – never heard of a 4 (at least a successful 4 at least 🙂 The inciting incident comes at the end of the first sequence if you’re breaking it down that way. But Kristen is totally right – whatever you choose is good as long as it makes you comfortable and you are maintaining tension and thrust. Best to master one form before experimenting with others.

          6. Larry Brooks in Story Engineering (if I recall correctly) refers to the 4 act structure. This helps the writer wrap their minds around Normal World being separate so it can be shattered, then restored by Act III (IV, technically). I agree. Learn the basics and go from there :D.

          7. I try to tailor the novel idea to the structure. The four sections developed because I was outlining a YA high school basketball winning the championship novel. It starts out the summer before my hero entered his senior year. My critics will tell people that there will not be any action in the novel; it will be all basketball. I thought about mentioning asking a female cheerleader for prom while the team was warming up for the big game and the coach yelled at them to focus on the game. I want to write the novel like those hardback books collecting dust in school campus libraries written back in the 1940s to 60s.

          8. It might be a new self-help book for Kristen – The Kung Fu for Writers. Master the “crane” before moving on to the “tiger”. When I get an idea to write a novel, during the outline phase I decide on the structure to achieve the word count. The Five Acts, I am trying to see if it can still meet my story idea from beginning to end or point to point. It was why I decided on doing sections for the more word count novels of 90K plus.

        2. Valuing other cultures does not necessarily equate to under-valuing what works in our own. Most of this group appears, at least to me, to be interested in writing for American/Canadian/British etc markets. If we do not write what is wanted by our readers, we have books without an audience.

          I for one, want my books to be read.

          1. I worry more on writing the novel to satisfy me and hope an editor likes what I wrote. The marketplace is vast. With the Internet as the bookstore, billions are the potential readers.

  57. :-))))) Kristen, I don’t know if there’s ever been a comedy routine about some of these “newbie” errors, but there should be! Great advice!

  58. Ach, I feel sure that adverbs will be the death of me. Agents must forgive the odd misplaced or badly-used adverb if the story is great and magnetic from the first page (or is even one bad choice in word use enough to make them throw the manuscript down, no matter how good the story? Is it that cut-throat?! I worry), but it’s still cringeworthy to think of the mistakes with language that could dock points off your work.

    I know when it comes time to edit I’ll work especially hard on what you’ve advised, which I think is great advice but it’s hard to employ in the midst of writing a first draft and you’re in that ‘flow’ – the point you make about changing a weak adverb to a stronger verb. In fact this whole post is getting printed off and stuck to the wall so I can keep referring to it when it’s time to edit and rewrite and edit some more. Only that way will I be vigilant about it 🙂 Thanks for the great insight on those red flags!

    • Yvette Carol on March 23, 2013 at 4:05 pm
    • Reply

    Ah…right, I’m working on the sequel to my first book at the moment, and it starts with a funeral…and double oops, the character cries too! Egads. Now, you’ve got me rethinking it. Must ask writing partner…

  59. Great advice, as always.

  60. Great words of wisdom. Thanks

  61. Some great advice. I might have to go edit my stories now.

  62. I’ve just discovered your excellent blog, Kristen. All great tips, these. I’m putting some over on my site, too, from time to time, but one thing I thought worth mentioning – that’s podcasting. I podcast my first novel, Bone Machines, over at podiobooks.com. Not only did the recording help me polish and improve the writing (it’s amazing what you can find out when you read your work out loud), but it led to my work being discovered by Blackstone Audio, which then led to my first two books being released as commercial audiobooks, with a Hollywood actor, Robin Sachs, narrating.

    So, in short – read your work aloud, if only to yourself. You might find ways to make it work even better. Oh, and on the subject of adverbs, mentioned above, can I draw people’s attention to a clever short story by Brian Aldiss. Not on the subject of adverbs, but rather adjectives, which can be just as tricky. In “Cousin Lem’s Wonderful Adjective Cellar” a failed writer finds a magical salt cellar which he accidentally spills on one of his manuscripts – it erases his adjectives, and suddenly his work starts to sell!

  63. I hate to read adverbs. I think on a first draft they’re okay, but need removing when you refine your work. One multi-million selling author still litters his prose with them. I suppose it’s his style, but I shout at my book when I read them 🙂

  64. Great points! I think I’m overdoing physiology in my current WIP. Some “hammering” will get edited out in the first revision (also known as “The Chainsaw Massacre”).

    I loved that first red flag you pointed out. I recently read a book that did exactly that, and it drove me crazy. There was a scene a few chapters in that named and discussed the background of characters who never once appeared after that. I was like, “Whaaaat?” We definitely need to think Star Trek here (and in a lot of other places in life); the expendable “red shirt” does not need a name or a long history. He’s just there to beam down and take the phaser hit.

    1. I love that and am totally stealing–“red shirts” Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

  65. Feeling guilt and shame.

    1. Don’t. It’s called “being new.” We are learning and we need permission to be an apprentice before we expect to become “master” :).

  66. I like that: “Only name them if you plan on getting us attached.” Great advice!

  67. Hi Kristen,

    I enjoyed one of your presentations at the Tucson Festival of Books two weeks ago.You’re even funnier in person than I had imagined from reading your blog, and your mind goes faster than just about anyone I’ve ever met. You’re up in Robin Williams’ neighborhood!

    Do you have any suggestions for how to differentiate dialogue between characters who are similar in many ways? Meaning same age, ehtnic background, schooling, economic status, cultural background, etc. We aspiring writers have been told that each significant character we have in a story should be distinctive enough in their dialogue as to be identifiable without their speaker attribution.

    An example might be four or five characters from a small southern town who all drawl, say “Y’all” and basically speak the same language and share the same backgrounds and upbringing. What can we do to make each of their voices distinctive?



    1. Let me think on it and see if I can help. I have been asked a couple times to discuss dialogue, and I don’t hink I’ve done that before so will be a good challenge.

      Thanks for the compliment! When I was a kid I used to study Robin Williams over and over and over. By the time I was 11 I could recite most of his stand-up. Don’t know where my parents were, LOL.

      1. Looking forward to your dialogue ideas, Kristen. Williams is one of my all-time faves, up there with George Carlin and Rodney Dangerfield.


    2. “An example might be four or five characters from a small southern town who all drawl, say “Y’all” and basically speak the same language and share the same backgrounds and upbringing. What can we do to make each of their voices distinctive?”

      As one of those ‘small southern town’ girls I assure you we do not all sound alike lol. There are differences in speech patterns, in how much ‘drawl’ is in the drawl ha.

      A workshop by the inimitable Kristen on the subject would be great fun.

      1. Oops, hoisted on my own culturally biased petard! 🙂

        Didn’t mean to single out the south, because we caucasian Minnesotans suffer from the “Ole and Lena syndrome” that every single resident sounds like Marge Gunderson in the movie “Fargo.” Of course, we don’t all sound alike, but enough of us fit the stereotype for it to ring true in a general way. The funny part is, most of us think we speak with no accent at all. Ya sure, you betcha. .

      2. I don’t know. I might have to kidnap Les Edgerton or James Scott Bell to guest post. They are masters of fiction.

        1. Sounds great however you choose to approach the subject. l enjoy all your posts and helpful tips.

  68. Great tips Kristen and resources to help us get it right more of the time. Is there any chance you can do an article on fist chapter dos and dont’s ? As if we don’t hook our reader there we are lost.

  69. Oh, pick me! pick me! I’m raising my hand!
    I’ve posted on my site Seeley James with a reference to your book.

    Seriously, this is a great post as proven by the number of comments. It reminded me to send my editor a thank-you note. I recommend professional editors even to the traditionally published authors who ask me to review their work (recently read this quote from a book published by Grand Central Publishing “From the angle she was at, she couldn’t see into the breakroom.”)

    I make all those mistakes in my first draft. I trim a lot of them out by the second, and more by the third, but I still grapple with expository dumps. I write thrillers and see exposition a lot more in my genre than others. My editor beats me up about it even after I point to major authors doing it. How should that be handled?

    Peace, Seeley

    1. When you write certain types of thrillers, you have some of the same challenges as sci-f/fantasy authors in that there is a certain degree of world-building. The trick is to blend it seamlessly into the story where readers don’t notice. Anything that pulls the reader out of the forward narrative is generally bad. We want the reader to become and then STAY immersed.

      1. “The trick is to blend it seamlessly into the story where readers don’t notice. Anything that pulls the reader out of the forward narrative is generally bad. We want the reader to become and then STAY immersed.” I will keep it in mind. I write novels of saving the president from a made-up world government or keeping the peace. There are times when you want to tell people what they are all about right away, but like you wrote “the trick is to blend it seamlessly”.

  70. Thank you so much for such great posts for newbie writers. Like others have mentioned, I too would like a post on dialogue. I’m now about to rewrite the beginning of my novel thanks to this post. 😀

  71. Thanks for recommending “The Emotional Thesarus.” I have a hard time describing emotions effectively.

  72. good stuff. I watch out for baby puppies, quietly whimpering.

  73. I write a character naming blog, and I’m always looking for inspiration to riff on. This was a great post. Thank you.

  74. Reblogged this on moniquerockliffe and commented:
    Once again some great advice from a very talented lady, Kristen Lamb. Enjoy!
    Sorry I’ve been scarce, guys, but seeing my baby (Book Three: The Sword Bearer’s Awakening) off to the publishers has been my top priority, so until I’ve triple-checked all the galleys and my baby is gurgling, grinning, and drooling with happiness I won’t be returning for the personal touch. I think after Easter Weekend you’ll see me again and partake of my fabulous prose 🙂 Until then, keep writing and learning and growing into an even more incredible author than you already are and we’ll chat soon. Mwah!

  75. I stumbled here from Pinterest and needed to read some of these reminders. Thanks for offering the advice! If you’re trying to decide on the next blog topic, I second the idea about dialogue…it’d be a big help.

    • RachelB. on April 3, 2013 at 4:04 pm
    • Reply

    Loved this article!

  76. Reblogged this on Kristin King Author and commented:
    Oh my…nailed!

  77. I find myself intrigued with the Emotion Thesaurus you mention. I tend to describe facial responses to indicate emotions a lot.

    Also–this is good timing, b/c I’m considering killing a character that I didn’t name before which I’ll definitely do now.

  78. Loved the discussion about avoiding adverbs! Stephen King has a line I love: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

  79. Another great post! Very timely for me 🙂 Thanks Kristen.

  1. […] Lamb: 5 Red Flags Your Story Needs Revision. Excerpt: “Today I’m again donning my editor’s hat to give you a peek into what red flags […]

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  3. […] This week, we’ve talked a lot about some fundamental errors that can weaken the writing. Most all of us make one or more of these errors, especially when we’re new. Hey, that’s called “being NEW.” No one is born with the natural ability to write brilliant, perfect novels coded into their DNA. It takes time and practice, so give yourself permission to make mistakes…then learn, suck it up and back to work.Today I’m again donning my editor’s hat to give you a peek into what red flags agents (and even readers) see in those first five pages. Red Flag #1If Your Novel has More Characters than the Star Wars Prequels, You Might Need Revision  […]

  4. […] and one that was driven home yesterday when I stumbled upon another writer’s blog post entitled 5 Red Flags Your Story Needs Revision (Kristen Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone). Number 1 on her list was: If Your Story has More […]

  5. […] before it’s done, but how do we know what exactly needs to be revised? Kristen Lamb shares 5 red flags that your story needs revision, and Linda S. Clare tells us how to make your self-edits […]

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