Category Critique Technique

Critique Technique, Part 46 — Padding

A filled packing box
Photo by slideshowmom via

There are times when padding is acceptable, even desirable. When preparing something fragile for shipping, for example. Or filling out a Santa Claus suit. But in writing? Not so much. Not today, anyway.

Back in the day, that is before Ernest Hemingway, padding was acceptable, even expected. Check out anything written by Henry James, for example. Since writers were paid by the word, “Never say in ten words what can be said in fifty” must have been their motto...

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Critique Technique, Part 45 — No Story Arc

Let’s begin by describing what a story arc is, since it’s a good bet new writers in particular won’t know. Story is conflict, and the longer the story, the more conflict there needs to be. Story arcs plot the trajectory of each level and layer of conflict. Just as a map lets you see the layout of the terrain of a place, the story arc lets you see the layout of the conflict in the story.

An arc is a curved line, perhaps a part of a circle or some other figure, like an ellipse or oval. For our purposes, the best image is part of the outline of an egg, taking in the pointed end and part of the sides leading toward the flatter end. The sides aren’t even and the whole thing is tipped over, something like this (pardon my poor drawing skills).

The story arc, annotated with key points

The longest part of the cur...

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Critique Technique, Part 44 — Pop Goes the Reader!

A toy jack-in-the-box
By United States Consumer Product Safety Commission [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This article starts a series on general story-telling problems and how to identify and critique them.

One of the worst things a writer can do is to write something that “pops the reader out of the story,” in other words, write something that so distracts or surprises them that they fall out of the “fictive dream,” the world of the story, and think, Wait… what?

Pop Starts

This can happen in many different ways.

The author can use an unusual term. As I discussed in Part 17, “unusual” can mean several different things.

  • A foreign or slang word or phrase, a jargon term, or writing in dialect, especially if such words have not been part of the story before.
  • A made-up wor...
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Critique Technique, Part 43 — Telling, Not Showing

Hand painting flowers
Image courtesy of PANPOTE /

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest dicta in all of writing, although one prominent writer growled, “I’m a story teller, not a story shower.”

That, of course, misses the point: we illustrate or exemplify—in other words, show—a character’s emotions or attitudes by telling the reader what they did or how they behaved. Showing applies to inanimate objects as well, by describing the effects the object had on the other objects or the people or animals in the scene.

Showing, then, is a specialized form of telling.


The best way to explain this, of course, is not to tell you about these differences but to show them to you, starting with a couple examples about people.

Telling: Alice felt sick.

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Critique Technique, Part 42 — Too Many Notes

Violin bow over music score
Image courtesy of Luigi Diamanti /

Perhaps you remember this exchange from the movie Amadeus:

Emperor Joseph II: “My dear, young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

Mozart: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”[1]

Wow. Talk about a perfect response to an ignorant critic—never mind that the critic happened to be an Emperor! I guess that would qualify as a 3-star review. (It’s worth noting that a few lines earlier, the orchestra’s conductor had set the Emperor up by feeding him that criticism. Talk about helping throw someone under the bus! But I digress….)

The truth is, it is possible to have too mu...

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Critique Technique, Part 41 — The Dreaded Expository Lump

Old car stuck in the mud
photo credit: Toronto History via photopin cc

Ah, the dreaded expository lump, that moldering mass of minutiae, that exhausting example of authorial excreta, that soggy swamp of supercilious sentences that sends the reader straight into the Slough of Despond. (Yeesh, enough with the purple prose, already!)

You know what the expository lump is, of course: that paragraph or page—or worse yet, pages—in which the author stops the story to tell you everything he knows about a particular character, setting, situation, etc. His intent is good—there are things the reader needs to know—but not all of them, not right now. And not all at once.

Unfortunately, this lump, also known as an info- or data-dump, isn’t the exclusive province of the novice writer. We all risk writing it...

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Critique Technique, Part 40 — What Was That Again?

Cartoon confused man

Ever had one of those moments when you’re reading through a story or article and the author’s description of a place, event, or person makes you stop and say to yourself, “Wait, did I miss something?” Sure you have. We all have.

It’s OK for an author to confuse a reader if he’s doing it intentionally and in a way that makes them want—no, need—to read more. But confusing descriptions that stop the reader and interrupt the flow of the story are another matter.

When these kinds of problems show up, it’s a good bet the author either knew what she meant but didn’t realize it hadn’t come out that way on the page, or she didn’t know how to say what she was trying to express...

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Critique Technique, Part 39 — The Gray Haze

Fog over a village

Painters have a lot of different tools at their disposal to create an image: oils, watercolors, acrylics, computer graphics. Photographers have light, composition, angle, framing, the capabilities of their camera and film or electronics, and of course Photoshop® and its cousins. Sculptors have stone, wood, found objects, metal, even sand.

We writers have words—hundreds of thousands of them in the English language alone—so there should never be a problem with creating a clear image, right?

Alas, we know that’s not true. It’s not how many or how few tools we have at our disposal, it’s how we use them that matters...

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Critique Technique, Part 38 — Pace: Speed It Up, Whoa It Up, or Change It Up

Racing horses
photo credit: dawvon via photopin cc

In the last article, I identified the general questions critiquers want to ask about scene and story pace—does it vary, is it appropriate, and if not, what needs to change—and eight factors that affect pace: sentence and paragraph length, active or passive voice, dialogue versus narrative, tone, language, description, complexity, and what’s happening.

Now let’s apply the factors to the questions.

Does the Pace Vary?

As I noted last time, even the shortest piece may have a varying pace but once you get beyond the flash-fiction story or filler article, the pace has to change. Readers need changes of pace to keep their interest...

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Critique Technique, Part 37 — The Pieces of Pace

The pace of a story is how quickly or slowly it seems to pass for the reader. It may flash by like a fighter jet at an airshow, crawl along at a speed that makes glaciers seem quick, or do something in between.

Fast carnival ride

You already have a sense of pace as a reader, even though you might not be thinking about it. This article and the next one will help you be more aware of a story’s pace so you can evaluate it as you critique the work.

Genre and Pace

While we can make some general statements about pace in different genres in fiction and types of work in non-fiction, at best they’re poor guidelines...

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