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Exclude Us From Novels

August 11, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 14, 2014

Novels contain thousands of words and dozens of elements arranged in ways that writers hope will work best for the story—for plot and characters, for pacing and flow and dialogue—as well as work in an entertaining and clear way for readers.

But not every story has to contain every possible word or every element we’ve come to connect with fiction.

So writers can be picky. Should be picky. Some options can weaken a story or drain the punch from a sentence or paragraph. Some sentence constructions or phrases or even single words can undo all that you’ve tried to create with other options.

Some combinations of items may not work well together or may not work paired in particular genres.

I’m not going to go into too much detail with this article, just suggest a list of items you may want to reconsider including in your stories. I’m not saying that sometimes an item from this list will not be the exact item you need to include, but I am saying that many times you won’t need them. Many times at least one of them is the very problem area weighing down your story.

The inclusion of even one item from this list might undo what you’ve created with other choices.

The exclusion of all or any of these items may never be missed.

Cutting one or more of these items from your manuscript may move the quality of your story up a level or two, from so-so to striking.

Assume that each is safe to exclude. Go through your works in progress (WIPs) and see if cutting out one or more of these items doesn’t produce a significant and positive change in focus or impact. See if changing at least one doesn’t give you fresh ideas or a new approach, maybe change the way you’re looking at the events and characters of your story world.

~  Unintended word repetition

If you’re not repeating for effect or out of necessity, cut out repetition in the same paragraph or on the same page for common words and in the same scene or chapter for unusual words. For truly noticeable words—words such as gasconading, jouissance, or bouleversement—consider cutting any subsequent uses from a manuscript. The impact of the first use of an unusual word can be muted by multiple uses. At the same time, multiple uses of unusual words may have readers noticing the writer’s hand, which means the reader has been distracted from the fictional world by the story’s underpinnings. And in the majority of stories, you don’t want the reader noting a story’s framework or the writer behind the fiction.

~  Coincidence

Readers don’t buy coincidences in fiction. Cut them from your stories and rework the plot to do away with the need for coincidence. Never use coincidence to solve your main story problem.

~  Explanations of technology

Readers are quick and can catch on if you show machines and objects in use. Avoid long explanations of how unfamiliar objects—in either the past or the future—work. And resist showing a character’s delight in or curiosity with common objects in his or her world simply in order to point out such objects to the reader. If an object is common to the character, he wouldn’t go on about its properties. Not any more than a contemporary character would go on about a pencil or a phone or a car.

~  Too much character mind reading

Unless you’re writing a paranormal and your characters do read minds, you won’t want all your characters easily able to read one another simply by looking at each other. Maybe one or two might be good at reading someone they know well, but most of us don’t read others too well. Not without hints in facial expressions and in words and actions.

This means you typically won’t have viewpoint characters constantly concluding that another character is enraged or devastated or ticked off. Not without first showing something in the second character that would allow the first to draw such conclusions.

If the first character doesn’t see tears or a clenched jaw or shaking hands in the second character—if the first doesn’t see any response from the second character—the first character shouldn’t be able to conclude how the second is feeling. And definitely shouldn’t be able to conclude what another character is thinking.

Show character actions and responses so that other characters can see them before drawing conclusions about what another character is thinking or feeling.

Better yet, simply show character actions and responses and let the reader conclude what the second character is feeling or thinking based on those actions and responses. Rather than have the viewpoint character conclude another character is horrified, without including the word horrified, show the horror on the second character’s face and in his movements and let the reader conclude he is horrified. This way the reader can feel himself inside the story, gathering facts and reading clues just as anyone else has to.

~  Prologue

Prologues have fans and critics. Prologues have pluses and minuses. But unless you know your prologue is a plus and not a minus, consider dropping it.

A quick test for the necessity of a prologue—if you cut it, will readers miss anything critical? If not, you don’t need the prologue.

~  Play-by-play of events or actions

Unless readers need to see or understand each step a character takes or every single one of a series of actions—or you are listing each to create a particular effect—don’t include play-by-play actions. Be especially diligent to cut out common character behaviors that can be assumed. Use summary if absolutely necessary, but otherwise assume readers are familiar with everyday actions such as a person getting dressed and grooming himself or driving to work, and skip ahead to the next important character action.

~  Epigraph

Epigraphs are the quotations writers include at the beginning of a novel or chapter, typically quotations from other books or words spoken by famous people.

Do you need one for every chapter of your book? For what purpose? Is the reader supposed to remember them as they read the chapter, try to figure out your purpose for including them? Are they hints to tell readers what’s coming next? Are they simply distractions that pull readers away from your tightly woven story world and plot every twenty pages or so?

Chapter breaks are already places where the real world pushes into the story world—epigraphs can be a fist punch from the real world, disrupting the reader’s connections with the fictional landscape, its characters and events. Why chance pulling readers from the seeming reality of the fictional world to remind them of another world?

If epigraphs don’t add enough positives to counter their drawbacks, cut them out. If you can make them work and they add to the story rather than detract or distract, only then consider including them.

~  Song or poem references

While you can use song lyrics and you can quote poems that are in the public domain, there are prohibitions about using songs and poems that still have copyright protection. Do not quote copyrighted songs or poems—not even single lines—without obtaining permission.

And reconsider quoting poems or songs at all. Do you want readers recalling their associations with poems and songs, leaving your story world to entertain memories from their real worlds? Because you can’t control a reader’s memories of a song or poem, or where the connections with songs and poems will take him, encouraging readers to bring real-world connections into the fictional world, into even one scene, can be chancy. You risk breaking a scene or story’s mood, flow, or feel. You risk introducing elements that don’t belong in your fictional world. You risk disrupting the very tight threads you’ve been weaving to keep fiction and real life separate.

~  Expletives (grammar expletives, not cursing)

Expletives—there is, there are, it was, it is, there had been—often dull the effect of the words that follow them. They also serve as a delay to the meat of a sentence. Cut grammar expletives most of the time.

An example—

There was a man standing in the shadows.

could be changed to

A man loitered in the shadows.

~  Vague and/or bland verbs

Verbs do much of the heavy lifting in stories. Make sure yours are up to carrying the characters and plot from scene to scene and into a rousing climax and a satisfying resolution. Cut out vague or bland verbs that do nothing to make a story or a scene unique. Replace them with verbs better suited to your story’s characters and feel.

~  Thing

Every once in a while, thing is the only word that works. But most of the time it’s simply a placeholder word that adds nothing to a sentence. Root out placeholder or imprecise words and replace them with scene-specific words.

~  Dialogue tags paired with adverbs

You’ve heard plenty about not relying on adverbs and especially about not using them with every dialogue tag. Remember to practice what you’ve learned.

~  British English (BrE) words or spellings in American English (AmE) stories or for American characters

Characters who should be using AmE run the risk of sounding silly and highfalutin (especially in contemporary stories) if they use typically BrE words. Examples include whilst for while, amidst for amid, amongst for among. Even common nouns such as lorry for truck and petrol for gas could prove disconcerting for the reader.

Genre fiction doesn’t instantly become literary fiction with the inclusion of a few fancy-sounding words. Use words that your characters would use.

The same advice holds true for characters who should be using BrE.

~  Clichés

Unless a character is purposely using clichés, they aren’t necessary for your stories. They can make what should be a fresh story sound old and common, even tired.

~  Longs explanations of reasons a character acts as he does

If you have long explanations of any sort, consider cutting them completely and/or rewriting. Show a character’s motivations or rationale in action rather than telling through tedious explanations.

~  Overuse of unusual or noticeable punctuation marks

Even punctuation marks used correctly can distract, but the uncommon ones can be especially conspicuous. Limit uses of exclamation points, dashes, parentheses, and semicolons. Use them, but look for variety and other options as well.

~  Similes on every page

Similes can add depth and flair to your stories. They can also reveal a character’s mindset and personality, his or her quirks. But the use of too many can simply prove annoying or distracting. If readers are looking for the next simile, they aren’t lost in the fiction.

And not every character should use them, either in speech or thought. Restrict similes to a single character.

~  Your current favorite word

Whatever your current favorite word, make sure its use is warranted in your WIP if you include it there. If it doesn’t fit the era or genre or your characters, change it.


Clean up your manuscripts by getting rid of words and writing elements that don’t add to your stories. Don’t encumber your fiction with items that at best add nothing or that at the worst weigh down stories or interfere with or ruin all the elements that do work.

Write strong fiction not only by including strong and positive elements, but by removing weak or distracting elements.



Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style, Editing Tips

11 Responses to “Exclude Us From Novels”

  1. doriantb says:

    I’ve been needing this article, having had similar problems! Thanks for this great post! 😀

  2. Haydee says:

    Thanks. Great article, as always.

    I find epigraphs extremely irritating. Most times, they’re just bombastic and irrelevant bits of wisdom borrowed from other writers or famous people.

    • I admit that I often don’t understand a writer’s intent for including epigraphs; I just don’t get their relation to the unfolding story. Some do make sense, of course, but the great majority seem to miss their purpose, at least for me. Story epigraphs usually make more sense than chapter ones.

  3. Thanks so much for putting all the author “tips” I hand out in one succinct grouping that actually says what needs to be said – and that’s all!

    Great, great job. Thanks again!

    • I’m glad I got them all together in one spot for you, Maria.

      • I realize now that my post sounds kind of ‘no biggie’-ish – but hope you know that in my editing world it is a very big deal to have information gathered that isn’t just another re-hash of ‘to-do’ bits, which is what I usually see in blogs or columns. Since there is no ‘over-writers’ 😀 it’s really great to have someone present such sensible information.

        It’s printed and stuck on my wall, just beyond the top of my monitor where I stare trying to figure out how to explain (again) why I’ve given the direction I’ve given to an author. Your ‘list’ will keep me honest…

        Thanks again!

        • Maria, it didn’t come across as no biggie-ish at all. And I know what you mean about to-do bits. I was speaking with someone about that just last week. I want my blog articles to have useful and in-depth information for both what to try and what not to try.

  4. Great list. Loved the section on mind reading. Excellent advice that I’ll pass along to my writing students.

    • I see mind reading all the time in manuscripts, Carol. Alerting students to the practice is a great way to keep them from writing mind-reading characters and to instead show what those characters see so that the reader can conclude what’s going on. Here’s to successful students and their stories.