Writing’s Aphorisms

Over the past couple weeks I have passed along a list that my instructors mentioned in class. It is a list of some mistakes that beginning storytellers (like me) make.

Top Ten Mistakes Newbie Writers Make
10. Flat writing with weak verbs
9. Setting and description delivered in large chunks

8. Telling instead of showing

7. Talking heads instead of narration

6. A book that begins with a flashback or dream

5. Too far removed from the inciting incident
4. The characters lack yearning the “hole in the soul”

3. Limited conflict or attention

2. Head hopping

1. No scene structure and action is episodic

Other Rules and Strictures

There are other “rules,” such as James N Frey’s ten rules and Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, which includes: “never open a book with weather,” “never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’,” and “keep your exclamation points under control.” I can’t show you all of them because, Elmore Leonard now has written a book around his aphorisms. It’s $15 and I probably will pick up a copy.

I admit that I like rules and, by nature, I’m not a rule breaker. I have some friends, who I have met through youwriteon.com, and they love to point out writers when they don’t follow the rules. “Look,” they say, “so and so started with the story with…” One such example of rule ignoring is JK Rowling and her Harry Potter books, he asseverated knowledgeably! One of them steered me toward an entry on Emma Darwin‘s This Itch of Writing blog – “Demandingly ‘wrong’-headed,” that started with the “rules” and ended with being taught how to write.


One dismisses standards at one’s peril. Check out this one example on JA Konrath’s blog, “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” titled “Bad Stories.”

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Reason #2 – Head Hopping

Head hopping

Head hopping is where the point of view for the characters is not fixed and hops from head to head. One of the things we look for when we read is a narrator who’s voice we like. The narrative voice chosen to tell the story affects the tone of the story and how the story is perceived. Without a fixed POV the tone and perception is muddled. The POV is slippery and elusive.

Peter Selgin says in the August 2007 issue of The Writer, “NO POINT OF VIEW = NO STORY.” He goes on to say, “Of all the problems plaguing amateur works, none is more common or fatal than mishandling of viewpoint.” Not because the chosen viewpoint is wrong, “…but because no viewpoint has been firmly established to start with, so there is nothing to violate.”

No POV is not the same as Omniscient POV. There are lots of definitions of OPOV, Crawford Kilian says there are three types of Omniscient Narrative:

  1. Episodically limited. Whoever is the point of view for a particular scene determines the persona. (Italics added for emphasis)
  2. Occasional interrupter. The author intervenes from time to time to supply necessary information, but otherwise stays in the background.
  3. Editorial commentator. The author’s persona has a distinct attitude toward the story’s characters and events, and frequently comments on them.

I’m not here to argue that there aren’t scads of examples of head hopping in the classics. I know some who say that there are, and I like them. One such critic is my friend Lexi. Dickens and Shakespeare rolled around in heads like peas bouncing in and out of coffee cans .

Whether it used to happen (and still does for published authors) is beside my point. I’m saying today there is an industry bias against HH. Agents, editors, and contest judges want to see unpublished writers demonstrate tight control of POV and not jumping around within paragraphs or scenes. In his Flogging the Quill blog Ray Rhamey, “surveyed a number of New York publishing pros…and asked for their views.” One responded, “If you tell your story with recourse to everyone’s head at all times, you’re basically throwing out all the rules and permitting yourself everything.” That’s playing fast and loose with the rules. Click here to read his full post.

I liked the take Me, My Muse, and I blog had on the subject called “Why I Can’t Head Hop.”

Rules are made to be broken, the saying goes. Just wait until you’re published and a bestseller to do so.

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The #1 Mistake – No Scene Structure/Episodic Action

No scene structure and action is episodic

Why would scene structure matter?

Have you ever noticed how things work better when the work is organized? Whether it’s a space launch or a pancake breakfast, organizing makes the whole thing work more efficiently. Certain people have certain tasks.

Organization applies to stories too. Communication is underpinned by organization.

Over the millennia, human thoughts have coalesced into words. Certain words had specific tasks they performed. These words were organized into sentences. By agreeing on what the words mean and the pattern and order in which these words are presented we communicate everything from “what’s for lunch” to abstract ideals. Sometimes we communicate through organized symbols—writing.

Concept, encode, transmit ????receive, decode, reconceptualize

Whether spoken or written, the key to communication relies on people knowing the system. When the process is short-circuited, dismissed, or not used, then the message becomes garbled. I don’t understand Portuguese. Someone may speak perfect Portuguese, but I will not be able to decode and reconceptualize the words to know what the person meant.

Stories communicate and therefore have structure. For instance, most genre stories and probably 99% of movies use some form of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (Hero’s Journey).

  • The hero leaves the world of the everyday and enters into a mythological woods where he or she is tested
  • The hero has a death and rebirth experience
  • The hero has a confrontation with “the evil one,” and so on.

In his book, THE KEY: Using the Power of Myth to Write Damn Good Fiction, James N Frey demonstrates how these fictional motifs are used in modern novels and films. Each of these pieces is made of one or more scenes.

Scenes advance the story by showing conflict, introducing characters, etc. Scenes have a structure so that we know when they’re complete. It is when the structure is incomplete that the message becomes garbled.

What structure should scenes have?
I have heard of others but the most often used is Jack Bickham’s method. In his book Scene and Structure, Bickham outlines a scene as:

  • Statement of goal (which should relate to the story question)
  • Conflict developed in attempt to reach goal
  • Failure to reach goal
  • Repetition of attempt to reach goal
  • Goal reached/not reached
  • Twist or tactical disaster

Episodic Action
Once the scene is complete a transition is needed. It is the lack of transition that makes a story episodic. Transitions (according to Bickham) are labeled as segues or sequels.

A segue is generally brief narration that moves the story forward in time, space, and place and provides new information.

A sequel is generally longer and is the character’s analysis of the situation. First come the character’s emotion, then thought (including review, analysis, and planning), a decision, and finally action based on the decision (and we are back into a scene).

For more on scenes and transitions:

For other story structures see:

There you have it. A list of the top ten mistakes new writers make as provided by two professional editors. They only provided the list. I have teased out what I think each point meant. Any misinterpretations of their list are mine and mine alone.

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