Sometimes, writing smells. Something is wrong, but what is it? Learning to recognise what problem your writing is smelling of and knowing how to fix it is an important writing skill.
This page presents a (growing) list of such smells, and briefly summarizes how to correct them. There are links to the blog posts where I talked about them more extensively.
I’ve ordered the smells to make them easier to read. I explain how I ordered them in this blog.
The smells below apply to writing style.
Name: Adverb Fever
Summary: You use too many adverbs in your writing.
Fix: Remove the adverbs, replace the verbs, and show-don’t-tell.
Summary: The same word is used multiple times too close together.
Fix: Remove one of the copies of the word, or find a synonym.
Name: Said bookism
Summary: Using different words than ‘said’ too often. This draws attention to the dialog tags, while the attention should be on the dialog itself.
Fix: Replace the offending dialog tags by ‘said’
Name: Purple prose
Summary: Writing that is so flowery and complicated that it pulls attention to itself.
Fix: Simplify the writing by removing adjectives, splitting sentences, and removing run-on sentences.
Name: The Passive
Summary: Sentences are written in the passive voice, e.g. ‘he was hit by a branch’
Fix: Change the offending sentences to active, e.g. ‘a branch hit him’
Name: Bad analogies
Summary: A bad comparison between two things is used.
Fix: Make sure the reader understands the analogy, because it’s common knowledge or foreshadowed, and clear from the context.
Name: End of the Line
Summary: The line endings are in the wrong places.
Fix: Make sure that there line endings at a change of viewpoint, change of speaker, change from description to action, and any other change where you need the reader to pay attention.
Name: ‘Almost’ Snake Oil
Summary: Letting something almost happen, but not really.
Fix: make it happen for real, or leave it out.
Name: Drifting Viewpoint
Summary: The viewpoint in a story drifts from one viewpoint to another.
Fix: Make sure the viewpoint is used consistently throughout a scene, or switch to third person omniscient.
Summary: A scene is too over-the-top trying to be emotional.
Fix: To turn your melodrama into drama, ensure empathy, subtlety and foreshadowing.
Name: Telling instead of showing
Summary: Telling the reader about something, instead of showing them directly.
Fix: Rewrite the offending ‘tell’ to a ‘show’.
Name: Chimera stories
Summary: Starting a story as one type of story, then switching to a different type midway through.
Fix: Use correct foreshadowing and ensure your pacing and style are consistent throughout.
Name: Plot-character mismatch
Summary: A story has a plot that doesn’t push the character arc forward in the right way
Fix: Change the plot to work differently and better match the arc, or change the character to be different and match the plot.
The smells below apply to the elements of the story.
Name: A Flock of Headless Chickens
Summary: When a group of characters are all acting too stupid to be believable given their situation.
Fix: Make some of the characters reasonable and smart, or ensure the background of the characters explains their stupidity.
Name: Agency deficiency
Summary: one or more of the your characters have too little agency.
Fix: Give the characters their own agenda and choices, or make the character less important.
Name: Character Overdrive
Summary: A story tries to bring emotion across, but the character context is insufficient to do so.
Fix: Either ensure the build-up is sufficient, or change the scene to convey something different.
Name: Sock Puppet Characters
Summary: The writer’s hand shines through the characters and they behave like the writer would, not like the character would.
Fix: Edit. Make sure characters have a consistent personality and have a consistent style throughout the story.
Name: The Mary Sue / Marty Stu
Summary: When a writer creates a story where their main character is a stand-in for themselves, and too good to be believable.
Fix: Give the character some flaws, or split them into multiple characters that are more believable.
Name: Chekhov’s Gun
Summary: You draw attention to something in your story, but never come back to it.
Fix: Don’t draw attention to it, or make sure it does come back.
Name: Deus ex Machina
Summary: A conflict in a story is resolved by a ‘rabbit pulled from a hat’.
Fix: Either remove the deus ex machina, or set it up so that it flows logically from the rest of the story.
Name: Fake Plot
Summary: A scene doesn’t add anything to the story.
Fix: cut it, or rewrite it.
Name: Idiot plot
Summary: a plot hinging on a character doing something out-of-character to steer a plot somewhere the writer wants it to go.
Fix: change the set-up of the plot event so it makes sense, or change the plot itself so it makes sense.
Name: Info dumps
Summary: Background information is dumped on the reader in a way that jars them out of the story.
Fix: Remove information, stagger it, or find a clever way to provide it to the reader.
Name: Miscommunication-driven plots
Summary: The plot of the story hinges on two characters miscommunicating, but it feels contrived.
Fix: Change the plot or make sell the miscommunication better.
Name: Tangled Yarn
Summary: The plot is too complicated to follow
Fix: Make the plot easier to follow or less complicated
Name: Talking heads
Summary: There is so little context in a dialog scene that it feels as if the speakers are talking heads floating in a void.
Fix: Add dialog tags and actions to characterize the speakers and surroundings.
Name: Unfazed World
Summary: Something that should affect the story world greatly, doesn’t affect the world at all.
Fix: There are three: change your world, counter-balance your world-changing effects, or simply ignore the problem.
Name: White Room Syndrome
Summary: The description of a scene environment is so scarce it feels as if it takes place in a white room.
Fix: Sprinkle the scene with description to make it clear where things are happening.
Name: Straw man theming
Summary: Presenting a story’s theme through the use of a straw man villain or straw man characters.
Fix: Present the villain’s side of things fairly, even if you as a writer disagree with it.