August 30, 2016

The Importance of Setting the Scene in Your Writing, Part 1

Setting, the place or places where your story occurs, is as important as character development.  My writing group hones in on this quickly when someone fails to show us the setting. This happens more than you realize because writers often start a scene with two people interacting but fail to establish where they are.

What is Setting?

Setting describes the room or place where the story occurs.  One question it must answer is whether the characters are indoors or outdoors.

If the character is outdoors, some of the basic things the reader needs to know quickly are:

  • Day or night
  • Climate
  • Landscape

If the characters are indoors, the reader wants to know where they are. They could be in:

  • A house - which room?
  • A store - what kind?
  • A church - what faith?
  • An office or manufacturing floor?
  • Etc.

Within the first few sentences of your scene we should get a feel for where we are. Depending on the location, we might need to know a bit more.  For example:

  • Is there any furniture?  What kind? Fancy? Old? Beat up?
  • What colors dominate the room?
  • Is it comfy or sterile?

Why is this important?

Readers picture your character somewhere when the scene begins. If you don't provide a few clues, they will unconsciously visualize a place. Then, when your character sits down in a chair, they might be confused because there were no chairs in the room they imagined or they assumed your character was already seated. You don't want your reader to stop reading and say, "Wait. Where are we?"

Setting prevents them being pulled out of the story.

Next week, I'll share a few examples of setting the scene and how to achieve it without being obvious.

Meanwhile, I would love the hear what you're reading and how the author sets the scene.

August 23, 2016

4 Ways to Identify Problems With Plot and Flow

When I edit another writer's work, one of the areas I focus on is plot and flow of the writing.

What is plot and flow?

According to, plot is the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story.  It is overarching and follows the story arc.

Flow is related to plot but looks at the work on a smaller scale.  Sections don't connect well, are awkward to read, or choppy. It could be a transition issue between words, paragraphs, sentences, sections, or chapters. If something in the piece makes you stop and re-read it in order to discern what the writer meant, it could be a flow problem.

How can you recognize plot and flow issues?

Short answer? It's not easy. Why? We know what we meant to say, so that's how we read it.  Our brains fill in the gaps.

I've found four ways that help me find plot and flow issues in my own work:
  1. Ask someone else to read it and identify any areas that confuse them or make them lose focus on the story.  This option works well if you know someone who understands how to write creatively. It shouldn't be your mother, aunt, uncle, etc. unless they excel in providing helpful writing feedback.
  2. Put it aside for a month or longer if possible, then pick it up again. If you start reading and find yourself asking, "What did I mean by that?" you probably have a flow issue.
  3. Read it out loud. It's amazing what you'll notice when you do this. You will stumble over the awkward parts and find problems you didn't know existed.
  4. Identify the plot and ensure each scene contributes to that plot. Each scene should move the plot forward. If you can't identify a purpose to a scene, you should delete it or change it to focus on the plot.

Writing critique groups can help you with most of this. A rule of thumb, for me, is to revise a section if several people in my writing group identify a problem with it.

Have you found a method for identifying and/or fixing plot and flow issues? Please share them in the comments section, below.

August 16, 2016

Recognizing and Eliminating Adverbs in Your Writing

Image courtesy of
Don't use adverbs!

Ok, that's all I should have to say on this topic, but I'm sure most of you have questions, so I will expand.

Why Can't I Use Adverbs?

When we use adverbs (those lovely -ly words and a few others like very), we weaken our sentences.


Because it's seen as a crutch.  Rather than take the time to select a strong verb that says the same thing, you copped out and went with an adverb.  Active verbs provide a stronger sense of the action and the story.

  • She spoke softly as she walked gingerly out of the baby's room.
  • She whispered as she tiptoed out of the baby's room.

In the first sentence, what are the adverbs?
  • softly, gingerly

In the second sentence, I changed spoke softly to the verb, whispered, and I changed walked gingerly to tiptoed.

The second sentence provides a stronger image of the woman as she leaves the baby's room, with the added bonus of reducing the word count.

How Do I Get Rid of Adverbs?

Once you become accustomed to eliminating adverbs, getting rid of them will get easier.  Until then, follow these procedures:

First, perform a search for adverbs in your document.  Common ones are:

  • very
  • always
  • never
  • words with -ly endings

When you find very, always, and never delete them.  Your sentence's meaning should not change in most cases. If deleting the word doesn't work, look for a better word. I found the image of the list of substitutions for "very" on Pinterest, which offers many guides to eliminating adverbs.  Note:  Image used with permission from Jessica M. H. Smith.

When you find -ly words, pick a stronger verb that means the same thing as the verb+adverb combination.

But I Like Adverbs

Many people enjoy using adverbs.  They provide a melodic flow to our words, but today's writing world frowns on the use of adverbs.  If you want to succeed in your writing, eliminating adverbs will help.

When Can I Use Adverbs?

I knew a guy in college who I nicknamed Basic Tim.  Why?  He used the word "basically" in most of his conversations.  In fact, he might use basic or basically several times in one discussion.  If your character speaks with adverbs, like Tim, then  leave them in the dialogue. It develops your character.

Another reason you might keep an adverb is the overall sentence structure. Sometimes, removing the adverb creates an awkward sentence.  In that case, leave it. As long as you are aware of the need to limit your use of adverbs, you can use a few.

But in most cases...

Don't use adverbs.

This post is part of a series on what to look for while critiquing or editing yours or someone else's writing.