Monthly Archives August 2013

Critique Technique, part 21–unclear plot

Today we start a 3-part series on critiquing a story’s plot, or the lack thereof.

Signpost: puzzled, unsure, confused, etc.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

The basic concept of plot is simple: it’s the series of events that the characters experience and are involved in. Every story–fiction or non-fiction–has one. In a so-called “literary” story, most of the “action” may be internal to the characters (emotional and/or psychological) rather than external, so it may seem like there isn’t much plot, but there has to be some. A perfect example is Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Not much happens in this story: two couples sit around a kitchen table drinking gin and talking/half-arguing about and around life and love...

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Critique Technique, Part 20—Too Much Setting Detail

Cluttered bedroom

Image courtesy of Bill Longshaw /

The flip side of providing vague or insufficient setting detail is providing too much. Drowning the reader in the minutiae of a setting not only kills the momentum of the story, it causes readers to lose interest. For the lucky author, the reader will just skip ahead—a few times, anyway.

But for the unlucky author, or the one who insists on describing the three green sateen ribbons on the head of the second Pekinese from the left, the one with the ghost-grey patch of fur on its back that looks just like a giraffe if you look at it from the right rear, which was hard to do because the dog insists on spinning around, always clockwise, never counterclockwise, to face you, but is now asleep in the brown wicker basket with the braided ...

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Critique Technique, Part 19—Vague Setting

Foggy scene

Image courtesy of Dan / 

Last time I wrote about authors not providing setting information at all, or not providing it soon enough. Not providing enough detail about the setting is a similar problem, but different enough that it gets its own post. Next time we’ll go to the other extreme and discuss providing too much information.

It’s easy for an author to fall into the vagueness trap: after all, his mind’s eye sees the setting the characters are in. That knowledge becomes so ingrained that he forgets the reader isn’t right there with him: she doesn’t see what he sees, know what he knows, etc. In the end, details get left out, even when they’re new and important, and the poor reader becomes a member of the Fugawi Tribe (see Part 18 for an explanation...

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Critique Technique, part 18—Lost in Space

Landing on a mystery planet

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick 

This is the first of three posts on setting.

Remember that old TV show, “Lost In Space”? Neither do I, really, but that’s OK. The title’s the important thing. I used to be in the Air Force, and there was a joke among us aviators that navigators were members of the Fugawi Tribe. (This was true for Naval aviators, too.)

“Why is that?” you ask.

“Because,” I reply, “you could often find them huddled over their paper charts (this is back in the day—today they huddle over GPS displays, mostly) with their compasses and protractors and special rulers and rotary slide rules...

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Critique Technique, Part 17: Dialect, Foreign Languages, and Jargon

Confused person

Photo by Jeroen van Oostrom, via

This is the last post in the series on characterization. Next time we’ll move on to setting.

If you’ve traveled around the country, or watched TV or the movies, or done just about anything other than live under a rock, you know that people speak differently in different places. They have different accents, different slang terms, different styles of speaking (compare the laconic Mainer or cowboy to the fast-talking New Yorker). And that’s just in the United States! Canadians (eh?), Britons, New Zealanders, Australians, and some Indians and Kenyans (to name just a few!) speak English, too.


England’s WWII Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill famously described America and England as “two nations separated by a common ...

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