‘Almost’ snake oil


‘Almost’ is the snake oil that lazy writers use to spice up their stories. That ‘almost’ is a lie, smoke and mirrors to distract you from an otherwise boring story. What am I talking about? The ‘almost’ smell.

What is it?

Many a story is riddled with situations where characters almost do something. They think about doing something, sometimes in much detail, then decide not to do it. So, actually, nothing really happened. It almost did, but not really, because it was all in the character’s head.

In the right circumstances this creates tension. We all run into situations where we are imagining all kinds of scary things that could happen, which usually end up not actually happening. We worry we’ll get shouted at when we report we didn’t make a deadline. We fear people will laugh at us when we give a presentation. We worry that our babies are severely injured as soon as we’re not with them for five seconds.

In writing, this can lead to weak storytelling, because what actually happens is much less exciting than what almost happened. An anti-climax, in other words. Instead of increasing the tension, the ‘almost’ snake oil actually undermines it.

Some examples

“You’re fired,” Foley said.

I looked at him, mouth falling open. After all these years? I could feel my anger build. I wanted to slap him. Just pull my hand back and let go, leaving a red hand-print on that smug face. I controlled the impulse.

“You’ll pay for that,” I said instead.

The ‘scene’ above is not as exciting as it could have been. Unless the story is about a person struggling to control their impulses. Somebody who later becomes a serial killer, for example. If that’s not the case, this scene is just less exciting than it could be.

Another example: it turns out to be a dream. Remember all those TV shows, books, and even comic books where something terrible happens and… it all turns out to have been a dream. Usually that’s the episode of a show where everybody dies. Again, this isn’t wrong in all cases, but it sure does smell of a cliche.

Such a dream sequence can work, if it is used as a tool for foreshadowing and characterization. In that case it’s used to explain character motivations, not to do cool things and then rewind the clock. A good example of this is the starting sequence in Star Trek: First Contact. A dream sequence showing Captain Picard dreaming of being a Borg drone. This nightmare shows us his deadly fear of the borg, which is pivotal for his character arc in the movie.

How to fix it?

There are several options to make ‘almost’ cases work better. Let’s look at the example I gave.

“You’re fired,” Foley said.

I looked at him, mouth falling open. After all these years? I could feel my anger build.

Before I knew what had happened, my hand shot out. The slap left a red hand-print on that smug face.

“You’ll pay for that,” I added.

Yep, that’s the easy solution. Just change ‘almost happened’ to ‘did happen’. If this is not possible because of the way the story works, ask yourself this: ‘do I really need this?’ If the answer is ‘yes, otherwise it would be boring’, then you’re in trouble. You need to revise your story to make it more interesting without the use of this snake oil.

Dream sequences can form a role in foreshadowing, but if they are part of the resolution at the end of your story, you have a problem. TV shows seem to relish killing off characters then bringing them back ‘because it was all a dream’.

It takes guts, but here it can also pay off to just let it stand. Don’t kill off all the characters, but don’t shy away from killing some of them. The threat of an actual death can improve the tension for the other characters. A good example of this is in the first season of Angel, where Doyle dies halfway through the first season.

Alternatively, either remove your dream sequence, or change it so that it becomes characterization or foreshadowing. Again, if you need it because otherwise your story would be boring, then definitely scrap it.


This entire post was just a bad dream. Almost snake oil doesn’t exist. Continue as before.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands