Stupid Writer Tricks: 10 Writing Tricks to Avoid

January 19th, 2007

Here are ten writing tricks and techniques you sometimes see in amateur manuscripts that I think it’s best to avoid. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, some of which I’ve noted below; there will always be exceptions to the rule. But in general, if you hew to these guidelines except in very special circumstances, you’ll be a better writer for it.

Let’s use a football analogy here. Sure, once or twice a season, you’re going to try a wacky, off-the-wall play that will completely take the opposing team by surprise. But your win/loss record is going to be largely based on how well you master the fundamentals: running, passing, blocking. The smart coach knows that the aim of most plays is to advance the ball a few yards down the field, not to make the spectacular 95-yard touchdown.

What I’m trying to say is this: If you find yourself using one of these tricks, give your story a close look to see if there’s some other problem you’re trying to compensate for. That’s all.

1. The unreliable narrator. This little sleight-of-hand has been done to death, and it doesn’t really add anything but cheap tension to the story anyway. Now, biased narrators are perfectly okay; everyone’s got a point of view and there’s no reason a narrator should be any different. But narrators that outright lie to the reader solely to throw a wrinkle in the plot should be avoided. Notable exception: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

2. The typographical special effect. Prose is not a visual medium. Yes, the look and feel of the book in your hand can add to the experience (or detract). But I believe that typographical special effects and font changes should be used sparingly in most works of prose. Just like you don’t judge a wine based on the type of glass it’s served in, the ink and paper are just vessels to get your story across to the reader. Notable exceptions: Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.”

3. The intruding author. Inserting the narrator as a secondary character in a fictional story is boring, boring, boring. We’ve all seen a million examples of the wall between author and reader breaking down a la Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo and half of Stephen King’s novels. Richard K. Morgan had one of his characters at the end of Market Forces read a novel whose plot matched that of his Altered Carbon series, and I found that it temporarily jarred me out of an otherwise absorbing story. (Keep in mind that there are plenty of good fictional stories authors have written about themselves; but that’s not the same as chucking the author into an otherwise traditional fiction just for the surprise value.) Notable exceptions: Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Breakfast of Champions.

4. The fictional character who knows she’s a fictional character. Similar to #3, if you’re going to write a story about characters who know they’re characters in a story, make sure you’re versed enough in metafiction to tell that you’re not just retreading over old ground. We’ve all seen this trick before, so make sure you’ve got a damn good reason for pulling it out of your hat. Notable exceptions: Most of John Barth’s novels.

5. The throwaway topical in-joke. “‘I can’t seem to find the weapons of bass destruction!’ shouted King George from the prow of the fishing boat. ‘Can’t anyone help me?’” Lame lame lame. What seems like the road less traveled today is going to be the ultra-paved, six-lane, mega-highway of narrative in five years after the late night comics, bloggers, talk show pundits, etc. get a hold of it. Try sticking a Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill in-joke in your story and you’ll see what I mean. (Now, of course, if you’re writing a topical satire, this rule doesn’t apply.) Notable exceptions: Just about anything by Christopher Buckley, Joe Klein’s Primary Colors.

6. The confused chronology. That’s not to say that everything you write has to naturally follow a direct timeline from A to B. There are a number of commonly used structures (frame tales, for instance) that mix and match chronology. And obviously when you’ve got multiple story lines, sometimes you’re going to need to jump back and forth to keep everyone on the same footing. But putting narrative events out of chronological order specifically to be coy and mess with the reader’s expectations is an annoying trick best left to the amateurs. Notable exceptions: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow.

7. The total surprise ending. Surprise is usually the author’s friend. But not when it’s completely unforeshadowed and tacked on simply as a gimmick. The reappearance of Saruman in the Shire at the end of Return of the King was a good use of surprise: it makes perfect sense with the loss-of-innocence vibe of the book. The sudden appearance of Jack Half-a-Prayer in the final few pages of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, I felt, was not: here’s a peripheral character, barely mentioned and inconsequential to the larger story, who pops up suddenly to lend our heroes a helping hand. Notable exception: Jay McInerney’s Ransom.

8. The sudden cliffhanger. Occasionally a cliffhanger ending is all right, if it’s for a good reason. But in general, it’s an artificial construct that has nothing to do with the actual point of the story. Example: “The accused trembled as the jury foreman stood before the judge. ‘Have you reached a verdict?’ said the judge. ‘We have,’ replied the foreman. ‘We find the defendant…’ [Chapter Break] It was a sunny day three thousand miles away in Shanghai.” (Now, having your character fall off the cliff at the end of a chapter is okay. But leaving them stuck in mid-decision or mid-action is often a sign that the author doesn’t have enough confidence in the natural tension of the storyline.) Notable exception: Can’t think of one offhand. Anybody?

9. The second person fictional narrative. The second-person narrative is to writers what “the aristocrats” joke is to comedians. It’s something you do backstage with fellow practitioners of the trade to show off your chops, but it generally doesn’t work in front of an audience. Why? Because second person is an awkward and unnatural construction that readers have a difficult time identifying with. If your story has a reason to use second person, then by all means give it a shot — but in most circumstances, it will only distract from the story you’re trying to tell. Notable exceptions: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

10. The retelling in a new setting. If you’re going to dust off an old classic and rework it (“Pinocchio set on the Bizarro planet!”, “Hamlet in a Muslim theocracy!”, “the legend of King Arthur as told by headlice!”), make sure you’re not just repeating the old classic. Make sure you have some new and intriguing angle or point of view. We’ve all heard these stories before, and unless you have a good reason for updating them, you’re just going to make your reader pine for the originals. Notable exception: Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.

36 Responses to “Stupid Writer Tricks: 10 Writing Tricks to Avoid”

  1. Alex Piperon 19 Jan 2007 at 2:56 pm

    …is it wrong that now I really want to read ‘The Heroic Tales of Pendragon Headlice’ or whatever, half out of morbid curiosity? Evidently, someone needs to write it…!

  2. kateelliotton 19 Jan 2007 at 3:32 pm

    “The legend of King Arthur as told by head lice”! I can’t wait!

  3. Marie Brennanon 19 Jan 2007 at 4:21 pm

    I find #9 ironic since I just sold a second-person story to Electric Velocipede. But I freely acknowledge that it’s a gimmicky story (both in its content and pov), and that one’s appreciation or dislike of it will depend entirely on how much you choose to be on board with the gimmick. (I almost didn’t send the thing out, not wanting to wade through the nineteen editors who would hate it to find the twentieth who would love it, but it got lucky and found a home very quickly.)

  4. Jameson 19 Jan 2007 at 4:44 pm

    The unreliable narrator: Christopher Priest is a master at this. After reading one his books any writer that tries it has to be very brave!

  5. Mitch Wagneron 19 Jan 2007 at 4:26 pm

    For an example of the cliffhanger that works: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It starts: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Marquez doesn’t even mention that firing squad again for around 100 pages.

  6. sherwoodon 19 Jan 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Mordred the Louse:

    Do it.

  7. David Louis Edelmanon 19 Jan 2007 at 4:35 pm

    Mitch: Good one! A very unconventional cliffhanger that works. Thanks.

    There’s also a Truman Capote story I remember reading once, where the first paragraph talks about this girl who gets hit by a bus. Then he goes on to tell an entire story about her until you’ve completely forgotten about the bus — and wham! she gets run over right when you least expect it at the end of the story.

    At least I think it was a Truman Capote story…

  8. Jeff VanderMeeron 19 Jan 2007 at 8:16 pm

    I think the problem with the unreliable narrator is when it renders the writer permanently unreliable. Patrick MacGrath used to have *every* novel be narrated by some unreliable first-person narrator. After the third time he did this, I stopped reading him because I knew exactly how every damn novel was going to end. Jonathan Carroll gets in this rut sometimes, too.

    JeffV

  9. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 20 Jan 2007 at 2:11 am

    Notable classic exception to #8: The penultimate chapters of Through the Looking Glass, “Shaking” and “Waking.”

    Of course Tenniel’s illustrations of the midgetized Red Queen match cutting to a kitten certainly help the effect, but it’s certainly an effective cliffhanger ending to a chapter.

    Carroll also uses typographical tricks with a row of asterisks every time Alice advances a square on the chessboard. Quite effective and entertaining.

  10. Jellyn Andrewson 20 Jan 2007 at 9:13 am

    Lemony Snicket came to mind while reading a couple of these.

  11. [...] 4 – Stupid Writer Tricks: 10 Writing Tricks to Avoid “What I’m trying to say is this: If you find yourself using one of these tricks, give your story a close look to see if there’s some other problem you’re trying to compensate for.” (tags: mistakes literature tricks advice writing story fiction) [...]

  12. Nicole L.on 21 Jan 2007 at 10:22 pm

    A variation on the unreliable narrator:

    Using the POV of a character that never appears again in the book to open the story, either to show something none of the primary characters would see about themselves OR to depict the primary characters as something they definately are not. If it were a prologue, maybe it would be ok, but as the first chapter, the author is playing tricks with the reader.

    Does that annoy anyone else?

  13. Sarahon 22 Jan 2007 at 2:38 am

    #8 is why my boyfriend (and the majority of the U.S.) could read The DaVinci Code, and I wanted to pitch it on the floor. I couldn’t believe the utter cheesiness of those gratuitous cliff hangers. Combined with the ludicrous 3-page-long chapters, it made for a very frustrating reading experience.

  14. Gypon 22 Jan 2007 at 5:58 am

    Just wondering if, in y’alls opinion, this would be better than #8 above:

    “The accused trembled as the jury foreman stood before the judge. ‘Have you reached a verdict?’ said the judge. ‘We have,’ replied the foreman. ‘We find the defendant… guilty.’ [Chapter Break] It was a sunny day three thousand miles away in Shanghai.”

    At least you get the decision first. Ideally, Shanghai would be where another main character is that you’ve been swapping chapters with, and you’d get to the aftereffects of the verdict in the next few chapters or so. I see this happen a lot in books. Even LotR: I would be gonig crazy about what was happening with Frodo and Sam while reading about the Ents, and crazy about what was happening with the Ents when I was reading about Aragorn, etc. But most common thriller novels completely misuse this idea, which is what you were talking about. Do y’all see this same difference?

    Also, question about #3: I haven’t read any Stephen King novels, so could you elaborate on what you mean with this? Like, would he have a character named Stephen King in it, or someone that was obviously him, or what?

  15. David Louis Edelmanon 22 Jan 2007 at 9:22 am

    Gyp: Re #8, I totally agree with you. Leaving the reader with suspense to push them to the next chapter is fine, as long as it’s not suspense that’s completely derived from the fact that the author chose to cut off the chapter there.

    Re #3, I may be exaggerating Stephen King’s use of this trick. But apparently in the later Dark Tower books, the writer Stephen King did appear as a significant character, and I believe he was actually writing the book he was appearing in too. As for Vonnegut, at the end of Breakfast of Champions, he shows up as a sort of god and sets his protagonist free.

  16. Muneravenon 22 Jan 2007 at 11:33 am

    I’m not sure they are quite traditional cliffhangers per se, but John Varley’s book “Steel Beach” ends many chapters with an event or statement that is shocking and FORCES you to turn to the next chapter just to understand what is going on. And I have to say it worked on me . . .I think I said “WTF” while laughing more with that book than with any I’ve ever read, lol.

    I agree about cliffhangers in general, but for me, when a cliffhanger is so well contructed that it shocks me, well, then it works. I just don’t think most writers can pull that off. Varley, I think, is good at that sort of thing.

  17. Patrickon 22 Jan 2007 at 12:12 pm

    What do you think of Gene Wolfe in regards to unreliable narrator? I think it works very well in Books of the Foo Sun.

  18. David Louis Edelmanon 22 Jan 2007 at 6:39 pm

    I must plead ignorance, insofar as (gasp!) I’ve never read Gene Wolfe. Heresy, I know.

  19. Gyp Orienson 23 Jan 2007 at 2:35 am

    “As for Vonnegut, at the end of Breakfast of Champions, he shows up as a sort of god and sets his protagonist free.”

    I don’t see how that could EVER be done and not be a cheap move. -_-; Up till now I was blissfully unaware that anyone did that except–well, that anyone did that at all.

  20. David Louis Edelmanon 23 Jan 2007 at 8:18 am

    Breakfast of Champions is kind of unique. It’s told in this childish tone of voice and it’s full of childish scribbled illustrations. Basically the whole thing is a disillusioned Vonnegut trying to make sense of a Watergate-era America gone insane, and so he deconstructs everything — including the book itself — down to the point of absurdity.

    Admittedly it’s not for everyone.

  21. Jesper Svedbergon 23 Jan 2007 at 12:05 pm

    I don’t think you can do a good first person narrative without making it to some extent unreliable; it’s comes naturally with a limited perspective.

    I also can’t see how one can say that having a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter is any more artificial than not having a cliffhanger there. They’re two different ways of telling a story, but both are pure artifice.
    That’s not to say that there are people who handle cliffhangers poorly, but one example of someone doing it often and well is George R. R. Martin in his series “A Song of Ice and Fire”.

  22. David Louis Edelmanon 23 Jan 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Definitely some good points, Jesper. I’m tempted to say that bad cliffhangers are like pornography — you know them when you see them.

    You’re right, GRRM generally does cliffhangers well. One place where I think he’s done a bad job at them occurs at the end of A Feast for Crows — it’s the last scene in the book involving Brienne. (If you’re read the book, you’ll certainly know what I mean.)

  23. John Scalzion 25 Jan 2007 at 10:46 am

    To echo what Jesper Svedberg says, a narrator may be unreliable not because he’s being deceptive but because he simply doesn’t know all the details of his situation and may not be in a position to find out. The narrator of “Old Man’s War,” for example, is an unreliable narrator about the nature of some aspects of the universe he finds himself in, because he’s basically fed a particular line of information, and he doesn’t have the resources to discover more (nor would it be appropriate to diverge from his point of view in fill in the audience with what he doesn’t know, because the book is written in first person).

    I think this sort of unreliable narrator is fine (naturally, because I wrote one) because I think it’s fine to have ambiguity and not have everything explained at the outset or even at the conclusion.

  24. David Louis Edelmanon 26 Jan 2007 at 5:20 pm

    John: Agreed. I’m not sure if my distinction between “biased” and “unreliable” narrators is a good one. But I think there’s a difference between the first-person narrator who’s not presenting the full story because it’s impossible for any one person to ever present the full story… and the first-person narrator who’s not presenting the full story because the author is trying to shoehorn him into a severely limited position strictly to ratchet up tension or make a cheap point. The narrator of OMW I think clearly falls in the former camp.

  25. Derek Loweon 29 Jan 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Good points, all – and it’s honest of you to include the honorable exceptions. The usual response to advice like this is to cite the good works that don’t follow it, but (to quote, of all people, Rickie Lee Jones), “you can’t break the rules until you know how to play the game”.

    The Truman Capote story you mentioned is, I believe, “Children on Their Birthdays”, and you’ve remembered it correctly. But he sure didn’t try that trick very many times. . .

    Another honorable exception in the mixed-up chronology category would be some of the Cordwainer Smith stories, where the main event of the plot is mentioned in the first paragraph or two.

  26. Fayeon 13 Oct 2007 at 7:26 pm

    Gyp: I think ending the story with “We find the defendant…guilty.” and then switching to Shanghai would be an effective use of a cliffhanger — and why we have the name for that type of ending at all.

    It reminds me of when I read Phillip Pullman’s Shadow in the North and one of the characters is in a burning house. Right as he gets to a window to escape, the house collapses. And the chapter ends. My mind did the equivalent of “oh shit! what just happened?!” and of course I wanted to go on to the next chapter to see what happened to him. However I was younger and my dad dictated my bedtimes and had said I could finish the chapter before I turned my light out, but not more. I spent the entire time before sleep imagining continuations of the chapter. And I’ve remembered that cliffhanger for years while I’ve forgotten most other’s I’ve read.

  27. Mimion 28 Jan 2009 at 10:50 pm

    I think that when you have to flip through pages to get to another chapter is annoying. (EXAMPLE: “*Page 87…Harry finally did it. He finally told her!… *Go to page 36* {Then you flip to page 36, read that chapter, and at the end it says: *Go to page 4*} …..And so on!)

    So, avoid that, too! It’s okay for middle schoolers, but truthfully, it’s a little boring and frusterating.

    POINT: Don’t Do It.

    Thanks!
    ~Mimi K.~

  28. G.VanC.on 31 Jan 2009 at 6:09 pm

    what is wrong with you? are you a failed writer taking stabs at those who have been successfull? stephen king, gene wolfe, why not shakespear in you’re next rant?

  29. G.VanC.on 31 Jan 2009 at 6:11 pm

    as for stupid writers…where are you published?

  30. David Louis Edelmanon 31 Jan 2009 at 10:51 pm

    G.VanC.: Try as hard as I might, I can’t find a single stab at Stephen King or Gene Wolfe on this page. I’m not taking stabs at anyone, just pointing out writing techniques that have had their day. You don’t have to agree.

    As for my publishing credentials, click on my name in the byline and you’ll find them. Admittedly, I’m not Stephen King or Gene Wolfe, but I’ve got some major award nominations under my belt. And I can spell successful, your and Shakespeare without having to look them up.

  31. Colinon 11 Mar 2009 at 11:44 pm

    Re: 8.

    The consumate cliffhanger: The Lady and the Tiger

  32. FlossieTon 19 Nov 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Ooh, doesn’t this kind of post make you itch to find the ‘notable exceptions’??

    Mine:

    - cliffhangers: Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians. Not a great book overall, but he opens with, “So, there I was, tied to an altar made from outdated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians.” I don’t want to spoil the fun, so all I will say is the payoff comes many, many pages later. Classic.

    - second-person narration: Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help. Works with the title, fits the narrators to perfection.

  33. Kevinon 09 Oct 2011 at 9:08 pm

    I enjoy the hints – I have so many great stories in my head but I’m certainly no writer.

    I do, however, feel you need to re-write the opening paragraph to this blog. I may be wrong, but it should read:

    “Here are ten writing tricks and techniques…that/which I think are best to avoid”… :)

  34. [...] A list of stupid writer tricksasserted this: [...]

  35. [...] For the more adventurous, David Louis Edelman runs down a list of 10 Writing Tricks to Avoid. [...]

  36. Joe Mon 17 Feb 2012 at 3:57 pm

    A lot of the cliffhangers here are used as hooks to open the story. I tend to differentiate these from cliffhangers at the end of chapters. Twilight starts with Bella contemplating her death, and the passage ends with the hunter about to strike.

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