Category: On Writing


One of the biggest problems I’ve had with my writing is excess flab.  I have a bad habit of putting in scenes that I like (important, wonderful, fantastically written scenes) just because I like them, and not because that’s where they should actually go (or be in the novel at all). This led to really big, unsellable books full of tension killing, sacred cow scenes that went nowhere. It took me a lot of editing (and a lot of bad feedback) to finally learn my lesson: just because a scene is good does not mean it has a place in your novel. The good ship book is a small vessel. There’s no room for scenes that don’t pull their weight. But I’m an author. I generally like everything I write on some level (otherwise, why would I write it?) So how do I know what DOES belong?

To combat this problem, I created a checklist I call “the three hooks”. Whenever I am planning a novel, the first thing I do is write out everything that happens. If I don’t know what happens, this is when I figure it out. Some authors can just get an idea and go, and I do that a lot, too, but in the end novels always come back to their essence: a pile of scenes leading the reader from the beginning to the end. Once I have this pile of scenes, either in finished or outline form, I take each scene and I apply a set of standards. For the scene to pass, it must:

  • Advance the story
  • Reveal new information
  • Pull the reader forward

Without all three of these elements, a scene, no matter how good or beloved, is just wasted words. A scene that does not advance the story, like a flashback revealing character information that is not pertinent to the story, may be brilliantly written, but it does nothing for the book. A scene that does not reveal new information, say a talking head recap scene, may be chock full of snappy dialog, but it does nothing for the book. A scene that does not pull the reader forward, say a break in the narrative where everyone is happy and all their needs are met, may be very cathartic for the author, but it does less than nothing for the book. In fact, I’d say a scene like that would give you negative progress. Resolved tension leads to put down books, and that is not what we want!

These hooks don’t have to be obvious (in fact, the more creatively you can hide them, the better things get), but they do have to be there to keep the story rolling. These are the hooks that keep your reader reading, the tiny little claws of interest you constantly need to wiggle into the reader’s brain to keep them turning pages. If every scene in your novel moves the plot ahead, reveals new and important information, and gives the reader a reason to turn the page and move on to the next scene, then you’ve got a book that a reader can not put down, and that is what it’s all about.

This is the first of what I hope will be an informative series on the author toolbox. The little mental story tricks I use when I write to help achieve desired effects.

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about this before, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The knife test is something I put to all my characters. Nerd that I am, the idea comes from an anime called One Piece, which is just about the greatest show ever. If you can get past its cartoony nature and corny humor there is an amazing story there.

So, in the show there’s a character named Zoro who wants to be the greatest swordsman in the world. Around the end of season one, he comes across the actual greatest swordsman in the world, a man named Mihawk. Now, Zoro KNOWS he is too short for this ride, but he knows he might never get this chance again, so he challenges Mihawk to a duel. (Because, of course, the only way to be the greatest swordsman in the world is to beat the guy who’s already at the top.)

Mihawk refuses at first, but then he sees how determined Zoro is, so he agrees to fight, but only with a small dagger. Zoro is insulted, you’re going to fight swords with a dagger? Mihawk says the dagger is all he needs. They fight, and Zoro goes all out, but is defeated in one stroke. Mihawk stops with his tiny dagger lodged in Zoro’s chest. After the strike, they stand there, Mihawk’s dagger in Zoro’s chest, and Mihawk says,  “This dagger is an inch from your heart. Why don’t you step back? Do you want to die?”

Zoro looks him straight in the eye and says, “If I were to take even one step back, I’d never be able to stand before you again.”

Mihawk says, “Yes, it’s called losing.”

And Zoro answers, “That’s why I can’t step back.”

That’s the knife test. When the knife is scraping your heart and you can either step back, give up, and live, or step forward, not give up, not turn away from your goals, and probably die, what do you do? It’s the ultimate test of conviction, and all my main characters have to pass it, and I have to understand (and more importantly, make the reader understand) why. I put my characters through this test in the initial world building stages, and then again over and over throughout the novel. I keep making them prove that they mean what they say. Because it’s not enough for Miranda to be dutiful, she has to prove that she will put herself on the line for her duty over and over in a dozen different ways. She has to face that dagger over and over again, and always give the same answer, always step forward.

I admire conviction, I think everyone does, and I love it in characters, both the ones I write and the ones I look for in other stories. The knife test gives me a vehicle to show off that conviction. I don’t just say “Character X cares about Y more than his life”,  I make him prove it over and over again.  Though, of course, I try not to actually kill the character, because then the story would be over! But it doesn’t really matter. We all know the hero isn’t going to actually die, but we love seeing how close he or she cuts it and, even better, how on earth they’re ever going to get out of this mess. The knife test is just a tool, a mental construct to help frame tension needed for character development.

Every writer has their own tricks, this is one of mine. I hope you find it useful, or at least interesting!