Writing smells

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.

Style

The smells below apply to writing style.

Word level

Name: Adverb Fever

Summary: You use too many adverbs in your writing.

Fix: Remove the adverbs, replace the verbs, and show-don’t-tell.


Name: Duplication

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’


Sentence level

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.


Paragraph level

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.


Scene level

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.


Name: Melodrama

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’.


Story level

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.


Structure

The smells below apply to the elements of the story.

Characters

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: 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: 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.


Plot

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: 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.

Setting

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.


Theme

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.