#1. Edit out as many prepositional phrases as possible; where you have two prepositions back to back as in OFF OF, strike one of them….for example “look down deep into…make look into. Simplify to clarify. No one needs read the word UP ever in your story. He stood up becomes he stood. He spoke up becomes he spoke.
#2 . The number one sin in writing is being unclear. Prepositions are directional words; stringing too many together at once is confusing and so not good. Example: In the wake of the sternwheeler at the break of day before anyone aboard had eaten breakfast in the galley…etc. It makes no sense but it is an impressive string of prepositions.
#3. Another killer of clarity that feeds a reader’s confusion is the simple pronoun…be it he, she, they, it etc., it can quickly become confusing as to what it is or who he is or who they are if these simple substitutes for nouns and names are overly relied upon. Example: There were two of them, a cop and a lawyer, and when he said to him that he didn’t known anything about the law…well, I as a reader had no idea who said what to whom. Pronouns get fuzzy real quickly as to who they are referring to…who or what or what IT stands for anymore. One can always return to name the person, place or thing he/she is referring to.
#4. Another killer of clarity is when a pronoun gets all tangled up with a question as to who is being spoken of as in: Mary told her mother that she was fat and ugly. Now in reading that, we have no idea who told what to whom or why. A big of judicious use of quotations marks makes all the difference as in: Mary shouted, “Mom, I am so fat and ugly!” Or as in: Mary said, “Mon, you are so fat and ugly
#5. The Unintended Result which comes straight away with misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers as in: The fat lady climbed up on the horse in tight jeans. Or: The professor chased the dog down the street in his underwear. Who or what has the jeans and the underwear on? When prepositional phrases get slapped in the wrong place funny comical things result. In dangling modifiers, the subject of the sentence is left out as in: In the church foyer, the ringing of bells was heard. Ask yourself where is your character in that last sentence? Who is hearing the bells? Don’t drop your character out of your scene.
#6. Another way to lose your reader and cause confusion is to go in and out of verb tenses—past, present, past without real good reasons to do so, and even then transitions better be perfect; you must take the reader by the hand when making major shifts in time, and verb tense is about time—present, past, past of the past, future, etc. Time confusions are a killer, too. At all times in your story, time must flow like a river and be clearly understood. A time clock for the entire story must be running and if you are doing a Quinton Tarantino deal of gong to and from between two time zones or more, it is even more so important that time is working well in your story and is understandable.
#7. Don’t kill or weaken your story to being on life support via qualifying phrases and qualifiers as in such words as vey, often, sometime, mostly, maybe, perhaps which depict a voice that is totally wishy-washy. Instead you use words that are called absolutes. Instead of saying the fog is perhaps lifting, you state the absolute certainty that it IS lifting. She was not very pretty….She was not pretty in the least.
#8. Don’t kill your story by failing to utilize all your five senses in each scene and each page. Filter every person, place, or thing being described through the mind and five senses of your main character. Keep in mind whose story it is at all times—and filter everything via this character. If the scene “belongs” to another character filter all via this character’s mind and senses.
#9 We also kill our story when we fail to nail down whose story it is; when we fail to have a central character. A story and a novel rely on its being truly one person’s story even in a multiple point of view novel. All other characters are there in the web of characters as an ensemble to support the character at the center of the web. When we lose sight of this, the story becomes unwieldy and our readers ask “Whose story is this anyway?” Even in a shared lead, one of the leads leads…so to speak.
#10. When we allow the Voice of the narrative to falter, change, become inconsistent, we confuse the reader. Voice is the culmination of all the various parts and should form a strong, powerful voice that sets a tone and sticks firmly to that one tone throughout…from beginning to end.
See if I live up to the ten avenues to NOT kill your story…the ten avenues to success by picking up a copy of my latest work, DEAD ON. My wife, Miranda’s The WELL MEANING KILLER displays the same positive attributes, the ten ways to success in being clear. A true pinnacle that a writer strives for: being clear and maybe even making it sing a little on every page.
Happy Writing and please feel free to leave a #11 or #12 etc. as a comment. Would love to hear from you.
"Dead On takes the reader's capacity for the imagination of horror to stomach turning depths, and then gives it more twists than a Georgia backroad that paves an Indian trail." - Nash Black