Ditch the Gimmicks & Tell the Story

I would like to give a big warm welcome to my friend and fellow writer, Steven James. Hope you enjoy his words of wisdom. :) Also, note to all of you. Be sure to come to my new website for fun, inspiring posts about writing, life, traveling, and health. I will be moving there permanently and would love for you all to join me! P.S. I am giving away a book for free… and all you have to do is sign up to be on my mailing list.

In fiction, story matters more than anything else.

Yet, all too often, authors forget this and in their zeal to impress readers or wow editors, they end up peppering their writing with distracting gimmicks that undermine the story.

Never let anything get between your story and your readers. Here are six ways to remove some of the most common stumbling blocks:

#1 – Tone down the symbolism

A few years ago I picked up a literary novel that everyone was talking about. In the first chapter there was a storm; in the second, someone was washing his hands; then a character was crying; then there was a baptism. I remember thinking, “Okay, I get it. Your image is water, your theme is cleansing, now get on with the story.”

And from that point on, guess what I was doing?


Looking for the next way the writer was going to weave a water image into her story. And she delivered, scene after predictable scene.

As a reader I was no longer emotionally present in the story. I’d become a critic, an observer. And that’s definitely not what a storyteller wants her readers to do.

The more your readers are on the lookout for your images, your theme, your symbolism, and so on, the less they’ll be impacted by your story.

Rather than building your story around a theme (love, forgiveness, freedom, etc . . .) or advice (“Follow your dreams,” “Be true to your heart,” etc . . .) or a cliche (“Every cloud has a silver lining,” “Time heals all wounds,” etc . . .) drive your narrative forward through tension and moral dilemmas.

So, instead of using the theme “justice,” let the story ask the question “What’s more important, telling the truth or protecting the innocent?”

Rather than giving the advice “You should forgive others,” let your story explore the dilemma “How do I forgive someone who has done the unthinkable to someone I love?”

Let your story do more than reiterate the cliche “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.“ Instead, challenge that axiom by asking, “When do the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many?”

Respect your readers. Assume that they’re as smart as you are. If you can identify imagery, symbolism, theme and so on, expect that they will too. And as soon as they do they’ll be distracted from the story itself.

#2 – Stop trying to be clever

There’s nothing less impressive than someone trying to be impressive. There’s nothing less funny than someone trying to be funny. Eloquence doesn’t impress anyone except for the person trying so hard to be eloquent.

So look for places in your story where you were trying to be funny, clever or impressive, and change those sections or remove them.

Some writers shoot for humor by using speaker attributions like, “she joked,” “he quipped,” “he mentioned in his usual fun-loving way,” and so on. Don’t fall into this trap. If your story is funny, you don’t need to tell your readers. If it’s not funny, you don’t need to draw attention to the fact.

Some authors resort to using a profusion of speaker attributions. Their characters chortle, grunt, exclaim, reiterate, gasp, howl, hiss and bark. Whenever I read a book like this I find myself skimming through the dialogue just to see what the next synonym for “said” will be. Readers get it. They know you own a thesaurus. Just tell the story.

In the same way, inserting your authorial voice intrudes on the story.

Drop those antiquated, obscure or uncommon words unless they’re necessary for character development or for maintaining the narrator’s voice. This isn’t to say that you can’t write intelligent, incisive, challenging stories, but any time the meaning of an unfamiliar word isn’t immediately obvious within the context of the story, choose another word that won’t trip readers up. This is especially true as you build toward the story’s climax since the pace of the story needs to steadily increase.

Also, avoid the temptation to impress your readers with your research, your vocabulary, your plot structure, or your knowledge of the flora and fauna of western North Carolina.

When readers pick up your book, they’re not preparing for a spelling bee or a doctoral dissertation or a medical exam; they’re hoping for an entertaining, believable story that will transport them to another world and move them on a deep, emotional level.

It’s your job to deliver.

#3 – Avoid contrived literary devices

Writing something like, “She cautiously closed the closet door and crept across the carpet,” might have impressed your high school English teacher, but it does nothing to serve readers in today’s marketable fiction.

As soon as readers notice the alliteration they’ll be distracted—whether they’re counting up the number of times you used the letter “c,” or rolling their eyes at your attempt to be clever, you’ve caused readers to momentarily disengage from your story. And that’s the last thing you want to do.

You don’t even want readers to admire your writing; you want them to be so engaged in the story itself that they don’t notice the way you use words to shape it. Anything that jars readers loose from the grip of the story needs to go, even if it seems to make the story appear more “literary.”

Weed out figures of speech that don’t serve the mood of the scene. During an airplane hijacking you wouldn’t write “the clouds outside the window were castles in the sky.” Castles carry a positive connotation and undermine the suspense in this story sequence. If you were to use a figure of speech, perhaps choose one that accentuates the tense mood: “the jet plummeted through the dungeon of clouds.”

Over the years I’ve heard of authors who’ve written books without punctuation, or without using the word “said,” or without quotation marks, or novels that contain an exact predetermined number of words. But by becoming more important to the author than the reader’s experience with the story, those artificial constraints handcuff it.

Whenever you break the rules or keep them, it must be for the benefit of readers. If your writing style or techniques get in the way of the story, cause readers to question what’s happening, analyze the writing, or page back through sections they’ve already read in order to understand the context, you’ve failed.

You want your writing to be an invisible curtain between your readers and your story. Any time you draw attention to the narrative tools at your disposal, you insert yourself into the story and cause readers to notice the curtain.

In order to improve their writing, most authors need to cut back on the literary devices they use (whether that’s assonance, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, overwrought similes, or whatever), rather than add more.

#4 – Keep readers from asking “why?”

A plot flaw is, simply put, a glitch in believability or causality. When a character acts in a way that doesn’t make sense, or when one scene doesn’t naturally follow from the one that precedes it, readers will stumble.

Imagine that your protagonist hears that a killer is in the neighborhood and she decides to go make pasta. Readers will think, “What? Why doesn’t she lock the door, or call the police, or run to her car and get out of the area?”

Do you see what happened? At the very moment in your story where you want your readers to be drawn deeper into the narrative, they’ve pulled away and started to question your character’s actions, and, to some degree, your storytelling ability.

As soon as an event isn’t believable it becomes a distraction, so ask yourself, “Is there enough stimulus to motivate this action?” And then make sure that there is.

Always anticipate your readers’ response.

Try to step back and read the story as objectively as you can, through the eyes of a reader who has never seen it before. If you come to a place where you think, “Why doesn’t she just . . . ?” or “What?! That doesn’t make sense!” you’ll know you have some editing to do.

Pointing out the story’s plot flaws can often solve them. Have your character say something like, “I couldn’t believe she would do such a thing. It just didn’t compute.” Readers will think, “Yes, exactly! I thought the same thing! There’s more going on here than meets the eye.” The more you admit that the scene has a believability problem, the less readers will hold you responsible for it.

Make sure every special skill or gadget needed in the climax is foreshadowed earlier in the story. Coincidences drive a wedge in believability. Foreshadowing removes them. So if the diver suddenly needs a harpoon gun to fight off the killer barracuda and he reaches down and—how convenient!—has one, readers won’t buy it. Show us the harpoon gun earlier so it makes sense that he has it at the climactic fish battle.

#5 – Reevaluate your “hook”

Many well-meaning writing instructors will tell you that you need to start your story with a good “hook” to snag your readers’ attention. And they’re right.

To a certain extent.

While I was teaching at one writers conference a woman gave me her story for a critique. It started with an exciting car chase. I said, “Great, so this is an action story.”

“No,” she told me. “It’s a romance. The woman goes to the hospital and falls in love with the doctor.”

“But it starts with a car chase and explosion. Readers will expect it to escalate from there.”

“I had a different opening,” she admitted, “but my writing critique group told me I needed a good hook.”

It may have been true that her story needed a better hook, but she landed on the wrong one. Hooks become gimmicks if they don’t provide the platform for escalation.

An effective hook needs to do seven things:

1. Grab the readers’ attention.

  1. Introduce a character they care about.
  2. Set the story’s mood.
  3. Establish the storyteller’s voice.
  4. Orient readers to the world of the protagonist (and enable them to picture it).
  5. Lock in the genre.
  6. End in a way that is both surprising and satisfying.

Too many times a writer will grab readers’ attention early on, but not introduce them to the characters or setting of the story. Consequently, she’s forced to insert excessive backstory that undermines the forward movement of the story. Take your time, trust your readers, orient them to the world of the story, and then drive the story forward without having to explain why you started it the way you did.

#6 – Answer readers’ questions as they arise

Never annoy your readers.

Sometimes I read books in which the author withholds information from readers “to create suspense.” But failing to give readers what they want doesn’t create suspense, it causes dissatisfaction.

For example, don’t leave a point-of-view character in the middle of an action sequence.

So, if, during a chase scene, you write (about your protagonist), “She careened around the bend and crashed into the cement pylon jutting up from the side of the road,” and then you close your chapter, readers will obviously want to find out if the woman is conscious, dead, etc . . .

But some writers will then jump to another point-of-view character, often in a less stressful situation, then come back to the woman in the car (or maybe she’s in the hospital by then) a chapter later.

If readers are tempted to skip over part of your story to get to a part they want to read, you need to fix that section. That means that as you write you’ll constantly ask yourself what the readers want at this moment of the story.

Then give it to them, or surprise them with something even better.

799bb96230fe0e8c3cb120093b8266a9Steven James is the award- winning author of 30+ books including the critically acclaimed Patrick Bowers thriller series and the newly released Jevin Banks series. He has an MA in Storytelling, is a contributing editor to the Writer’s Digest, and has taught writing and creative communication around the world. When he’s not writing or speaking, you’ll find him trail running, rock climbing, or drinking a dark roast coffee near his home in eastern Tennessee.

Quick FUN before I DIVE back IN!

Photo Credit: Johan Joubert

Photo Credit: Johan Joubert (Check out Johan’s art at his website!)

(Story about picture above: For my 25th birthday my boyfriend did such an amazing thing. It was a gift any writer would love to receive! While, I was still in Australia I finished my novel and printed it out for us to read through. Once I left, he had started reading it. I wasn’t aware that he was actually reading as much as he was. I didn’t know for sure if he’d actually read it all. But then, he told me he was doing something exciting for my birthday gift. I was excited, but I was even more excited when I opened it. Inside the box was a three-ring binder with my edited manuscript. He read it and left his edit marks. He also took a bunch of pictures, playing around with his camera. He loves art and photography. Then he created a cover to inspire me. A small box was also a part of the gift. When I took the lid off, I found this. [below])

Photo Credit: Devin Berglund

Photo Credit: Devin Berglund

It was The Mason of Hearts. My very own… lol…

Title of Book?

The Mason of Hearts

Where did the idea for the book come from?

I got my first idea about this book from a dream where these evil people were not happy with how they were created, that they wanted to change everything about themselves. They heard about this beautiful girl who held many powers and secrets. A rumor was that, if she was killed her powers would give them the ability to change who they were into who they wanted to be.

I got the idea earlier this year, while writing the original book, The Created Ones. When I finished that book, I realized that I didn’t really feel like I knew some of the characters well enough. They were dark shadows in the corners of my mind, so I decided I needed to find out more about these characters before going back over my first book. This book, The Mason of Hearts, is book one of the trilogy and The Created Ones will be book two. It’s just funny I wrote book two, before book 1.

What genre does your book fall under?

Definitely Fantasy Adventure. (It could be placed in either the YA or the NA genres… just haven’t figured that out yet.)

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Since, I have quite a few characters in my book… I will show you three of them. :)

Photo Credit: www.imdb.com

Photo Credit: http://www.imdb.com

Dustin – Benjamin Stone

Photo Credit: www.imb

Photo Credit: http://www.imdb.com

Sara – Evangeline Lilly (with shoulder length hair)

Photo Credit: Fanshare

Photo Credit: Fanshare

Evangeline – Niomi Watts

What is a short synopsis of your book?

A maleficent witch kills many of the Preventer warriors, throwing the world into a panic. Dustin, one of the last Preventer warriors starts training when the King calls upon him to protect his daughter and unborn grand children. The witch adds hearts to her collection which she stores in her necklace. She uses their gifts and talents as she needs– her necklace The Mason of Hearts, when filled with the most powerful and innocent of hearts would give her unlimited power to manipulate the world. Dustin is captured by a stranger with a dark secret – an affectionate bond forms between the two, and they must enter the witch’s game of hide-n-seek with life and death to protect the king’s grandchildren and to save people’s lives or many will die, including them.

Will your book be self-published, or represented by an agency?

I am shopping for a literary agent to rep me and my book.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

The Mason of Hearts took about 9 months to write. I am currently in a rewrite/edit stage.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It would probably be compared to C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia tied with The Hobbit with a touch of Harry Potter.

What else about your book might pique the readers interest?

This book is set in it’s own world, but the extraordinary adventures and situations will be relatable with readers lives. In The Mason of Hearts, My top goal is to  make readers see a little of themselves in my characters. I also want my readers to see how special they, themselves are.

Does it interest you? Would you want to read it? 

Featured Short Story at the Realm

It’s been so busy lately I decided to share a link where my short story is featured on a blog! Check it out and I hope you all enjoy it! Take a trip to her blog to read it and let me know what you think! :)


Critique My Pitch

I’m participating in a pitch contest! :) Whether you are a part of this contest or not please feel free to read it and let me know what you think about it! I have two listed below… they are both for the same story… so, let me know what you think… what you like… what you think works or what would work better! Thank you!


Dear Agent,

When an evil witch deceives young men and manipulates them to do her will, the king calls on Dustin. The talented young orphaned warrior sets out to protect the king’s unborn grand-children, whose hearts would make the witch undefeatable. On his journey to find the king’s daughter, he is kidnapped by a stranger with a dark secret and together they are thrown into a game of hide-n-seek with life and death to protect the king’s grand-children and restore the land and it’s people.

My young adult novel The Mason of Hearts, will appeal to readers of both fantasy and paranormal. I hold a B.A. in English/Mass Communications and a Certificate in Publishing. I have a good online presence and founded a writing blog for writers called Blue Monkey Writing and have also guest blogged for “Write It Sideways”, “Writing Forward”, and countless other writing blogs.

Thank you for your time and consideration!

Thank You,

Devin Berglund


2nd pitch (same story)

Dear Agent,

The king calls upon Dustin, a young, orphaned warrior to protect his unborn grandchildren, as an evil witch manipulates and deceives young men-one of whom, is Dustin’s long-lost brother. The king’s unborn grand-children’s hearts would make the witch undefeatable. Dustin is captured by a stranger with a dark secret – an unlikely bond forms between the two as they enter a game of hide-n-seek with life and death to protect the king’s grandchildren and to restore a lost kingdom to its people.

My young adult novel The Mason of Hearts, will appeal to readers of both fantasy and paranormal. I hold a B.A. in English/Mass Communications and a Certificate in Publishing. I have a good online presence and founded a writing blog for writers called Blue Monkey Writing and have also guest blogged for “Write It Sideways”, “Writing Forward”, and countless other writing blogs.

Thank you for your time and consideration!

Thank You,

Devin Berglund

The Collectibles

The Collectibles

by: Devin Berglund
Four were still needed to complete his collection. He had already collected a few. They looked at him from on top of his desk. He gently tapped each of them on the head with his crooked finger. Their heads bobbed back and forth to life until they weren’t moving anymore. He laughed and grabbed his white phantom mask and his black cape before leaving the house.
Earlier Adriana, Justice, and I helped Mom string the fake cobwebs from one side of the room to the other, but some had to be real, because this house had been vacant for a long time. The wooden steps creaked as I made my way down the stairs. The Jack-O’lantern in front of the door reminded me of my last Halloween Party many years ago. One could barely compare it to this party though because my last one was a 5th grade party in our classroom where three of my classmates came wearing the same costume as me.

Most of my childhood memories were of playing with kids we had just met in RV parks and studying on the road. I think that is why Dad decided to have a Halloween themed house warming party. He felt it would be an exciting event for us. He was right, but I think he felt bad we hadn’t had the pleasure of slumber parties with friends and school plays like most other children had. My cat sneaked up and rubbed her head on my leg while looking at me before disappearing down the steps.

I looked over the banister and tip toed down the rest of the steps into the music room where Adriana’s harp and Justice’s guitar sat in one corner. Mom had placed some new furniture in the other corner just to make sure that people wouldn’t think our house was empty. The pumpkin pie scented candles flickered. Where did everyone go? I asked myself. Suddenly loud music started drumming through the door leading to the backyard patio.

Oh, maybe they are outside. I answer my own question. My high-heel shoes clink on the wooden floor as I reach the kitchen. A knock came from the front door.

“I’m coming.” I pulled the door open to find a tall slender man with a black cane in his right hand. He resembled the Phantom of the Opera with a black cape, white gloves, and a matching mask.

“Uhh, hi!”

“Hello Tessa! How have you been” his voice was deep. He leaned in while speaking to me.

“Hi…uhh, good…” I tried to hide the uncomfortable feeling that was rising inside of me, so I bit my lip.

“Who are you?” I cocked my head to the side. His eyes were surrounded by the darkness inside his mask.

“I was the music and choir teacher at Lake County Middle School. Your brother attended many of my classes.” He offered his hand for me to shake. The hair on the back of my neck stood up straight. I was experiencing the same instinctive feeling that I imagined the cave men in my history book had felt when a saber-tooth tiger stalked them. Fight or Flight. I shook his hand. He gripped my hand tightly while smiling, and didn’t let go.

“Yes, that sounds a lot like Justice.” I said while shaking his hand awkwardly. I resisted the urge to rip my hand from his clutches and slam the door in his face. I need to be polite, but something is strange with this man, I need to find everyone else.

“Speaking of which, I need to go find him and my sister.” Chills crawled up my spine as he let go of my hand.

“But it was nice meeting you again. I think they’re on the patio.” I smiled while pointing towards the door. I heard him behind me as I slid the patio door open, my cat ran out.

I escaped to the patio after my cat while covering my eyes from the blazing torches on the edge of the grass. The music was blaring so loudly, that my ear drums were ringing. I hit the power button as silence filled the patio.

“How can you all stand the music this loud?” I said as everyone sat around the table quietly as though they didn’t hear me. I recognized my mom in her Cruella de Vill costume, but something was wrong with her face. Her mouth was gaping open, her cheeks were hallow under her skin. Her eyes were blood-shot and her skin was pale and it wasn’t from the make-up on her face. I ran up to my mother and set my head on her chest.

No heart beat.

“Mom! Come on, you can’t do this to me!” All the others around the table had the same sullen and frightened look on their faces. I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye. No one was moving. Who are all these people, I wondered while I backed away from the table. Someone did this to them. Where is everyone else? I looked around for the Phantom, but he was no where to be seen. I thought he followed me out here.

My heart pounded faster. It felt like the world was shrinking around me, entrapping me like a snowman in a snow-globe. I couldn’t see anyone moving or hiding in the trees, but as I turned my head I saw a shadow run across the yard toward the garden shed – it was my cat. I jumped when I heard the steps creak and ran toward the shed where my cat was sitting.

“Kitty, Kitty…” I called. My cat would have usually responded when I called her, but she didn’t. Instead she sat there with her fur on end, while oddly purring calmly. Her tail went slowly back and forth without shifting her tranced stare from the second storey bedroom window.

“Psst…” a quiet voice from behind the shed called to me. I turned to see who it was.

“Jason? Is that you?” I remembered him, but his face had changed a lot since the last time I had seen him. He became my first crush when he helped me hide my string-beans in my milk container at the cafeteria for lunch.

“Yes, it is me. Come here!”

“What is going on?” I kicked off my high heel shoes and ran toward him, “Do you know where my brother and sister are?”

“No, but someone here can not be trusted.”

“Do you know who?”

“Not really, but he had a white mask and gloves.”

I gasped as the face of the Phantom came to my mind. He was the last person I had spoken to and fit Jason’s description perfectly.

“So what are we going to do now?”


“What about my brother and sister?”

“They probably already escaped with some of the other people, while I hid here.”

“Do you know what happened?”

“Just a little. I hid to see what was happening, and wish I hadn’t seen it. The Phantom was back here. When he lifted his cane, everyone around the table screamed, but it was covered with the blaring music.”

The patio’s door slid open as I hid behind the shed with Jason. I peeked out and saw the Phantom. He walked to the table and chuckled at the people. He started humming to himself and turned to look the other way. Jason and I ran to another clump of trees when all of a sudden pain shot through my legs and I couldn’t move them anymore. Jason grabbed one of his legs too.

“I can’t move.” He whispered.

“I know… I can’t either.” I felt like I was running in a nightmare, but couldn’t get away from the evil that was chasing me. I peeked to see if the Phantom was still on the patio.

“He was no longer there!” I gasped, “Where did he go?”

“Right here, dearie.” A hauntingly familiar voice responded as I looked back at Jason, who was now in the Phantom’s arms. His white gloved hand covered Jason’s mouth muffling his screams.

“Oh silence.” The man spoke.

“What do you want?”

“You… Tessa. All of you kids.” He stretched his cane out towards me, my head spun. Everything around me became larger. I must have been thrown into my snow-globe after all.

His collection was finally complete.

“It’s a pity you don’t know how talented you are.” He spoke to them.

But the time would come for them to know their destiny, but for now they were mere collectibles that sat on his desk approving his future plans whenever he’d bobble their heads. When he’d need them, he’d call on them and they would obey.

© 2012 Devin Berglund