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The Fiction Editor's Pharmacopoeia; diagnosing symptoms & treating the disease

The Society for Editors and Proof-readers is and does exactly what it says on the tin (and if you're thinking of self-publishing, it would be a very good place to start looking for proper professional help.) So I was delighted to be asked to speak to their Editing Fiction conference, exploring and explaining the decisions that we writers make, so that in tackling writing where the decisions aren't producing a good result, writers and editors can have a common language.

As I was discussing in my post about giving feedback, it's one thing to recognise a problematic symptom: over-writing, say, or a saggy middle. But it's quite another to be able to move on from that to diagnosing the cause of the symptom, and then start to apply a cure. And don't forget, we are all our own first editor, so it may well be that you recognise your own saggy middle, but still need help to understand its causes.

So first I hopped and skipped through a list of the decisions we make at the beginning of writing a novel or story: about character, voice, narrator, tense and structure. And then I talked about the ongoing decisions that we re-make on every page: character-in-action, the structure of scenes, showing and telling, point-of-view, the close-up of prose, and above all psychic distance. And I finished with a list of symptoms and some suggestions of possible causes. Most of the problems are solved by attending to those basic questions (psychic distance, as ever, winning the prize for near-universal efficacy), but I've added in others where I can.

voice not compelling: possible causes: narrator’s character not developed; character’s or writer’s reason for telling their story not strong; psychic range too narrow and/or too distant; bad showing/telling choices; no contrast of narrative and dialogue voices; 

I don’t care enough about the characters: possible causes: what’s at stake (hopes and fears) not evoked in a way that clicks into readers' empathy; the wrong pressures for this character; voice flat; psychic distance not close and not individual enough to the character; actions/reactions not grounded convincingly in character and what’s at stake; main character too quiet and passive.

too quiet: possible causes: character’s stakes and actions not clear, or not made to matter enough; not enough small-scale tension/conflict; problems resolved too easily; psychic distance not vivid enough; prose not intense enough

too slow: possible causes: story-moving scenes diluted with scenes full of static information or description; whole of every scene written out and fully dramatised; scene changes laboured; everything Shown; every action and scene cluttered with filtering, reasoning, explaining

too long: possible causes: starts too early in the story with tons of backstory and setting up, instead of that being slid in as the real story gets going; finishes too late; same stuff as “too slow”;

too short: possible causes: problems and conflicts are solved too easily; scenes and problems too summarised i.e. Told, not embodied in character-in-action and Showing;

too rushed: possible causes: same as “too short”; big things set up then not worked out fully and weightily enough; jump-cuts crash-land us too often in a new drama, with breather-scenes or narrated move from scene to scene to give us time to absorb and process.

too noisy: possible causes: never a breather-scene or link between scenes; psychic distance relentlessly close with no variations; all Show and no Tell; expanding and compressing storytelling not used to vary the pace; turbo-charged language all the time, so we never get a chance to do our own maths and read between the lines.

jerky storytelling: possible causes: constant jump-cuts; psychic distance jerks instead of slides; head-hopping (see below); scenes start too late and finish too early

saggy middle: possible causes: zingy opening postponed lumping in the back/sidestory till now; the structure of what’s-told-when needs re-thinking; what’s-at-stake hasn’t got worse (bigger obstacles, bigger hopes, bigger fears); character isn't learning/changing in any way

fizzles out: possible causes: the beginning's well worked-out but later problems are too cursory, short or rushed; everything's summarised or Told; changes not big enough, or not fully embodied in the storytelling and characters' actions; similar problems of not learning/changing as saggy middle, just later; (the best book I know about structure is John Yorke's Into The Woods, and based on that I dissected one novel's structure here)

competent but dull: possible causes: everything here; psychic distance too remote; language, ideas or characters are off-the-peg and second-hand (scroll down a bit) 

well-written but same-y: possible causes: everything here.

over-written: possible causes: everything here

under-written: possible causes: things and feelings not embodied in all the senses; reader needs more help to experience them; the characters' actions and reactions aren't underpinned by reasons,

head-hopping: possible causes: wrong choices about point-of-view; point-of-view moves not handled successfully; different characters' circles of consciousness don't interact; the writer doesn’t understand how to convey non-viewpoint characters’ thoughts & feelings through character-in-action.

repetitions: possible causes: writer hasn't taken down the scaffolding; writer keeps reminding us of things, instead of showing (or explaining) something once really fully, then just referring to it enough to recall from the reader's memory; sentences tend to repeat a bit of the previous sentence before moving on, because writer isn't using long sentences

too much description: possible causes: description not controlled by voice and psychic distance so it's not supplying what the story needs; also general over-writing (see above);

too much introspection: possible causes: thinking loses touch with the actuality of the character's present moment; writer hasn't thought about the change that this unit must lead to; are we led steadily through it, one thing leading to another? Or does it zig-zag, repeat stuff, get bogged down?

inconsistent storytelling strategies: possible causes: the way the book works isn't set up early, in terms of all those decisions we make at the beginning? Does it stay consistent? If there's a big change late (a character-narrator suddenly appears, say), is there a really strong reason for it? How does the book teach the reader to read it?

There are posts on all these topics and more in The Itch of Writing Toolkit, and in Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction I work through them in a more coordinated and progressive way: it has a lot more about big structure than I seem to have blogged about, and it's by no means only useful for Historical Fictioneers.


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Mary Tod

What a wonderful and horribly daunting list, Emma. It should be on every writer's bulletin board. Now if we could just sprinkle magic pixy dust on our writing to fix each one ...

Mary Tod

PS - Emma, each of the share buttons takes me to Typepad ... did you intend that? I wanted to share on Twitter but was directed to Typepad ...

Emma Darwin

Ah, don't feel daunted! It's more meant as a flowchart, than a checklist, if you like: "If you're feeling that the story is X, the Y or Z might be the cause"...

Emma Darwin

Oh, thank you! I hadn't spotted that the buttons had vanished! Thanks, Mary. Back now!


It's hopeful when the fog lifts and you see the mountain range ahead. This looks like the High Sierras. We can just refer to this as TDL, the daunting list. Much more than the usual tips for "fixing" your fiction. Thanks very much!

Emma Darwin

Laurel, you're welcome. With any luck, it will only be a few of these symptoms which you identify. Plus, of course, the same cures crop up several times. Applying psychic distance, for example, should cure all sorts of problems in one feel swoop, conceptually speaking!

Jessica Norrie

I thought, not another list of same-old, same-old ways to cure a saggy middle (and that's just the book). But then I read your points, have saved them, will apply them - and when I get a publishing contract you'll be first in my acknowledgements. Thank you so much for this.

Emma Darwin

You're so welcome, Jessica. I'm really glad it's so useful, and very best of luck for the next stage!

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