Three Writing Cheats To Avoid (Maybe)

I recently read this post on A Writer’s Path about writing pet peeves. In it, the author describes three practices that are irritating, namely cliches, Mary Sues, and sloppy grammar/spelling. Scroll to the comments and you’ll see a handful of others provided by other readers/writers (including yours truly).

man-390339_1280After I wrote my comment, I got to thinking about why certain practices become pet peeves. The grammar one is straightforward – sloppy proofreading gets in the way of a smooth read. The others, though, are a bit more subjective. What makes pet peeves for me are things I would call writing cheats – those things that either read terribly awkward or are indicative of weak writing. And since I’m a blogger and we bloggers love lists, I’ve compiled my top three pet peeves/writing cheats that a writer may want to avoid.

Cheat 1: Broken scenes to create new chapters

Chapters have a few jobs to do. They reveal characters, introduce conflict, and ask or answer questions. They should also end with a hook – that thing that makes the reader turn the page. It can be a new question or a tense moment. What it should not be is an interrupted scene. That means the author simply took a tense part in the scene and put the chapter break there. The scene continues in the next chapter as if nothing happened.

When I see this as an editor and I know the author well enough to get away with it, I comment with “dun dun dunnnn!!” at a broken scene. It’s an artificial chapter ending created for tension, which, in my opinion, is also artificial. I’ll forgive this practice once or twice, but if it’s an ongoing pattern in a novel, I usually stop reading.

The fix: End the scene where it naturally ends and create an authentic hook. If the interrupted scene break hook is just too good to let go, skip a bit of time so the break isn’t so obvious.

Cheat 2: I know something you don’t know

There’s a tried and true practice in writing called dramatic irony, wherein the reader knows something the character doesn’t, which creates tension. This is not that. This is the other way around – the character knows something the reader doesn’t.

If the POV (point of view) character has learned something crucial to the plot, the reader gets to know as well. We are in the character’s head, after all. So withholding such information is an irritating cheat that, like the interrupted scene, is artificial when it comes to creating tension. I will forgive this only if the discovery is known to the reader pretty damn quickly after the character discovers it.

The fix: When the POV character discovers something, describe it for the reader through the character’s eyes. The tension will come from the character’s reaction and questioning what to do with the discovery.

Cheat 3: “As you know, Bob” dialogue

If you clicked over to the linked post at the top and read the comments, you’ll notice this was my comment. This dialogue occurs when one character relays information to another character that both characters already know. It’s a trick to relay back story to the reader.

Here’s the thing with character-provided info dumps: no one in real life talks this way. You tell people things they don’t know. Or you shoot the breeze about a common interest. You don’t proceed to tell your friend all about the party you both attended as if she weren’t there, because she’d think you’d lost your mind.

The fix: Any information important enough for the reader to know that shouldn’t be relayed through dialogue (as is the case here) can be written out in the main narrative. Make it an internal for the POV character if you like. Or write a short descriptive paragraph. The current trend is to avoid descriptive paragraphs almost at all costs, but trust me on this: readers can handle back story that’s weaved in when it’s relevant. Putting it into dialogue is awkward and unrealistic.

You may have noticed I said “maybe” in the title. I say that because there are exceptions to every rule, and I don’t want to be accused of boxing writers in. I only ask that developing writers be aware of cheats like these and use them sparingly. And as always, when in doubt, consult a critique partner/writing buddy/beta reader.

What cheats/pet peeves would you add to this list? 

46 thoughts on “Three Writing Cheats To Avoid (Maybe)

  1. Pingback: What Did You Like? 2016 In Review | Allison Maruska

  2. The biggest one that gets me is the introductory list of character traits.

    “John is brave, hard-working, dedicated, and loyal, but he’s also hot-headed, rash, unforgiving, and sloppy. Okay, done!” And then John proceeds to demonstrate none of those traits throughout the rest of the novel.

    It feels like a lot of writers think that if they tell the audience what type of person they’re characters are at the beginning, then everything those characters do gets modified with the appropriate adverbs. “Since I said that John is brave, then obviously he drove to work in the morning bravely, and so look, John is being brave!”

    Too often, character traits that are set out at the beginning seem to be then immediately forgotten, and are never seen or heard from again. Sorry, but if you don’t demonstrate kindness throughout the entire novel, you’re probably not a very nice person, no matter what your bio says.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Showing rather than telling is crucial for character development. I try to have a third person narrative that hints at evil in a character or perhaps conversely generosity of spirit. Descriptive character qualities at the beginning do lock you in to a stereo typical portrayal. I tend to go for descriptive picture painting in words, with place and scenery for the novel-beach, sea, sky, description of activities. The characters actions and speech then further defining personality and character trait. On re-writes you can amplify these still further, with that pressing need to confront the reader with the unexpected- before they fall asleep and don’t turn the page!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Concerning Cheat #1, Broken Scenes: Let’s say you have two subplots going on at the same time. Can you break a scene and jump to a scene for the other plot, then, when that’s done, jump back to the next moment in the first scene? I’d say yes.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What really catches my eye when reading is when multiple sentences or multiple paragraphs start with the same word. Takes me right out of the flow. Sometimes it can be used for dramatic effect, but if every sentence starts with the or she or anything like that it drives me up the wall.

    Liked by 1 person

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  7. Here’s another fix for cheat #3 (as you know, Bob): Add an ignorant character to the conversation. I don’t do it often but here’s an example with a dumb politician added to the mix:

    Honock, the politician, perched beside them. He was smaller than the others, and three decorative bands sparkled on his legs. “What? What happened?”

    In her relief, Marbecka ruffled her feathers. “The computer signaled a new confluence rift and set off an alarm—”

    “Then why is everyone so calm? Shouldn’t we be doing something?”

    She pointed to the bulletin holo. “That info, there, tells us that this rift will not affect our universe. It’s an imminent rift between two other universes. The alarm goes off for any upcoming collisions, even those that will not affect us. Yes, we’re a little too cautious.”

    On Sat, Sep 10, 2016 at 5:33 PM, Allison Maruska wrote:

    > Allison Maruska posted: “I recently read this post on A Writer’s Path > about writing pet peeves. In it, the author describes three practices that > are irritating, namely cliches, Mary Sues, and sloppy grammar/spelling. > Scroll to the comments and you’ll see a handful of others provi” >

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Does this count as cheat #2 (character knows what reader doesn’t):

    “Okay,” Bob said. “I’ve got a plan.” He huddled with the others, and laid out his idea.

    I hope that’s kosher, because I always enjoy that.

    On Sat, Sep 10, 2016 at 5:33 PM, Allison Maruska wrote:

    > Allison Maruska posted: “I recently read this post on A Writer’s Path > about writing pet peeves. In it, the author describes three practices that > are irritating, namely cliches, Mary Sues, and sloppy grammar/spelling. > Scroll to the comments and you’ll see a handful of others provi” >

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Some writers have serious description problems. They either are to vague or too flowery. There should be enough detail so the reader can mentally use their senses but not get bored by having too much. An author who is on the best seller list gets so flowery, I refuse to read any of her books, Danielle Steele. There isn’t any dress in her books that are described with just three details. She goes on and on for a lengthy paragraph boring me to death.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I prefer less flowery description too. I read a book that included very detailed descriptions of the geography of Cairo. It wasn’t even important to know for the story. I think the author just wanted to show how much he knew about the topic. Skim city for me.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. All relevant and very helpful observations. Thank you. Chapter endings are important. Definitely need to get the reader into being curious, excited, pent up with anxiety, expectation? About what’s going to happen to the protagonist, for example, when he’s had his mouth taped and hands tied to together with flex by his girl friends brother- after telling him that he’s leaving her for another woman or similar dire situation. That’s the cliff hanger one.
    I find shorter chapters help to create pace when there’s a lot of action, but agree that you need to watch just deciding to end a chapter, because its reached perhaps 1500 words in length? I tend to go for line breaks when I want to create a fresh scene within the action of a chapter– when perhaps it appears too short. The chapter endings and adjustments are perhaps for the second re-write. The points made are really helpful.
    Chapter headings or not? Again it depends. They might help to move the plot along, but risk giving too much away. In my first novel I kept chapter headings, because the novel was set in the sixties and I felt it helped with describing the period. In my second novel- set in 2015 I just stuck with chapter numbering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know an author who strategically writes shorter chapters near the beginning to give the fast pace feel. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the chapters are complete. I read another book recently where the chapters were so artificially broken up three consecutive chapter breaks could have been taken out and the narrative wouldn’t have been affected.
      Chapter headings are a matter of preference, I think. I don’t use them but I don’t think they hurt anything.


  11. I know two people in real meat space who do #3 all the time. They are jerks of the highest order. They are the people who really really want everyone to think they are the smartest person in the room so they give these deeply insulting “summaries” of stuff everyone knows. I just assume that the author is communicating that person is a jerk and expositing the information.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Rule 2 is most annoying in whodunnits and crime fiction. I read an old Lawrence Block thriller last year, In The Midst Of Death, in which the protagonist practically says, “I figured it out,” and then the chapter ends without telling us what he’s figured out. It’s SO ANNOYING. And it’s cheap. We need to know what the protagonist knows – unless you’re going for an unreliable narrator, but that’s a whole other kettle of worms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right, unreliable narrators are a whole different thing. I’ve read a few of those that were done quite well. On the point of the cheat, I read a story where the chapter ended with something like “And then I saw it,” and then the story jumped to a new POV! Argh.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. one that bugs me a lot is when the writer isn’t careful about dialogue attribution. For example….
    “Shazam.” Bob and Neil watched as Tina shook the rug.
    Who in tarnation is talking? Bob? Neil? Oh, after I read four or five more lines and count it out I discover that was Tina speaking. But now I’ve fallen completely out of this lazy writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is so true. I don’t know what the solution for movies/TV is, since they don’t get the luxury of a narrative. There was a rather blatant example in the beginning of Big Hero 6, and when it happened I wanted to yell, “Noooo!!” 😉
      Thanks for reading and commenting!


      • One solution for movies/TV/stage is for one of the characters to forget some of the information in the dialogue. For example, let’s say Bob and Janet are discussing their co-worker, Lisa, who has just returned to the office after having a baby. Bob and Janet know where Lisa has been all these months, but the audience does not.

        BOB: Now that Lisa is back, I can actually take a coffee break!

        JANET: Isn’t that great? (Pause) So what did Lisa name her baby? She told me, but I can’t remember.

        BOB: Atkins. You know, like the diet. It was her mother’s maiden name, or something like that.

        JANET: Atkins! Yes, I remember now.

        Liked by 1 person

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