Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Meet Mary Sue Part Two: A feminist linguistic deconstruction

On the surface, Mary Sue doesn’t present much of a problem. Good writing requires careful execution, and Mary Sues are paragons of poor execution. In a nutshell, they are extremely poorly developed characters whose stunted development is so dense, it creates a gravity field the story cannot escape. The story becomes one of author wish fulfillment at the expense of story development. In short, she sucks so much that it is impossible for a story including her (which means a story revolving around her awesomeness) not to suck as well.

Problem solved. Mary Sues suck, don’t write them, end of story.

But it’s not. I have serious reservations about the label Mary Sue. Specifically, I have big-ass reservations from the term from a feminist linguistic perspective that make me hate the term. Unfortunately, I also have huge problems with most of the feminist discourse about Mary Sue, because it largely points to nonexistent problems to create a strawman (er, strawperson) argument. I’m not thrilled about picking their arguments apart, since I largely agree with the conclusions they are trying to reach. But there are much better and more straightforward ways to criticize the portrayal of women (or the reactions to those portrayals) than shoehorning them into Mary Sue through a logical fallacy. That, and they are completely missing the core problem the Mary Sue trope presents from a feminist/linguistic perspective.

The character development criticism the Mary Sue label attempts to assail –poorly drawn characters suck so much they kill innocent stories– is a valid criticism. Pretending it’s not misses the point entirely. And, since the standard feminist critique relies on a logic fallacy to criticize a legitimate argument about writing, it gives the false appearance that feminist criticism of Mary Sue is invalid. It also gives the impression that the feminist critique of Mary Sues –that strong female characters are often, if not usually, poorly portrayed and received in fiction– misses the boat, which it doesn’t. That’s a completely legitimate concern. It’s also a different concern, that gets lost when you try to make Mary Sue the core problem.

It’s not that I’m pro Mary Sue

Two things here. First, if you’re writing fiction for other people to consume, I have no problem saying you should never write a character who even comes close to being a Mary Sue. Nobody in her right mind is going to tell you that it is a good thing to put your own, overly idealized and poorly drawn author avatar into a story so that you can allow all other characters to fawn over you – er, her. It’s bad character development, it’s bad storytelling, there is no upside for the reader. Just, don’t.

Second, if you are simply writing for your own pleasure, feel free to write Mary Sue adventures all you want. This blog is about fiction writing for consumption by third parties. Some fiction writing is almost a form of therapeutic journaling, and a completely different set of standards apply. One standard, really, because you should just write whatever the hell you want. There is a pretty good argument to be made that, particularly for girls and women, writing Mary Sue adventures can be empowering and beneficial. Actually, that argument has already been made, in  (Re)Writing Mary Sue: E ´ criture Fe ´ minine and the Performance of Subjectivity. That is not the kind of writing I’m talking about. This analysis applies solely to fiction that will (at least potentially) be consumed by third parties.

The current feminist critique of Mary Sue misses the boat completely

The whole “every strong female character gets labeled Mary Sue” argument is bullshit. So is “Batman would be a Mary Sue if he were a woman.” I’m not saying that no idiot has ever posted an asinine opinion on a message board or Yahoo answers saying otherwise, but I have not found any serious review, criticism, or deconstruction of Hunger Games that actually takes that position. By way of comparison, I also Googled “Han Solo is gay” and found similar sources arguing that the guy who spent ten years trying to get into Princess Leia’s pants was really after Luke or Lando, so that’s the level of discourse those critiques are pointing to as an indictment.

BONUS MATERIALS: In case you’re wondering what Hunger Games would be like if Katniss were a Mary Sue, my friends at QueryTracker wrote it. It follows as the epilogue to this post.

The Batman argument is also just a logic fallacy wrapped in another logic fallacy and topped with a bunch of cherry picking. But you can still glean a little bit of the truth of the Mary Sue problem from the misused example. Using any objective measure possible, from box office receipts to critical and audience approval on Rotten Tomatoes to, my favorite, which movies Michael McDonagh thinks are awesomer, you get one result. The more conflicted and complex Batman is, and the more he must struggle to obtain his goals in the movie, the better everyone on the freaking planet thinks the movie is. I.e., the less those cherry-picked aspects of Mary Suism are present, the better everyone liked the movies. So, no, Batman did not get away with being Mary Sue because he’s a dude. The movies worked because he was decidedly NOT a Mary Sue. The less of a Mary Sue he was, the better the movies did.

Although they did make one movie that is pretty close to Batman Sue. The Green Hornet was essentially Batman without the psychologically conflicted, guilt ridden vigilante aspect. It also lost money. That movie gives us a pretty good point of comparison. Here is the difference between Batman and the Green Mary Sue(ish) kind of guy.




The Dark Knight




Green Hornet




BECAUSE THE POINT HERE, AND IT IS AN IMPORTANT ONE, WHICH IS WHY I’M YELLING, IS THAT NOBODY GETS AWAY WITH POORLY DEVELOPED CHARACTERS THAT SUCK. Ever. Even with a $120 Million budget and special effects and big name stars and shit. People loved Batman because of the decidedly non-Mary Sue aspects of the story.

So, please, cut that shit out. It isn’t adding anything to the discourse, and there is discourse that needs to be happening. Instead, we’re dinking around with flawed arguments, logic fallacies, and heated responses to things that nobody said in the first place.

Gendered Discourse: the part we should be pissed about…

If you haven’t noticed (and I kind of hope you haven’t, because that means I’m doing it well), I pay attention to the gendered use of language. My standard nongendered pronouns usually default to she, I wouldn’t consider calling any individual other than myself a bitch, etc. There is a spectrum of discoursive feminism, and for an American (and certainly for a hetero white dude from Idaho), I’m pretty far on the feminist side. I basically go right up to the point on that spectrum where I would have to stop using the word fuck if I took one more step. I stop there, because, fuck that.

So, to me, the biggest problem that exists with the Mary Sue label is its name. The name was an accident of history, and there was certainly no evil intent at play when a parody story was penned naming the main character Mary Sue. But it stuck. And I suspect some (a lot) of that sticking power comes from the fact that it was a tropey, intentionally gendered name. Standing in isolation, it wouldn’t cause me a lot of heartburn, but we live in a society that often uses the feminine in discourse in harmful ways. At best, it can be used to diminish (e.g., every word you’ve ever seen ending in the feminizing suffix “ette” meaning diminished or smaller). A step worse, is blatant classification according to gender (notice there is no such thing as a doctoress, and nurses get their job title from breastfeeding). Then it gets ugly, using the feminine to denigrate (if you have a sister you love, you should be annoyed every time you hear someone referred to as a “sissy”).

Had the main character been male, the level of disparagement associated with the label would have been significantly diminished. Odds are, the trope would be less associated with the particular character and we would call it a fanvitar or something. Originating with an exceptionally female name made it far more likely the name would become the label, because we live in a historically patriarchal society that freaking LOVES to use the feminine to denigrate. Political rhetoric (particularly rhetoric advocating for war and violence) relies heavily on denigration opposing views by feminizing them. If you have a Nexus account and want to see a study of that in practice where the shit really hits the fan, check out The Rhetoric of Sissy-Slogans: How Denigrating the Feminine Perpetuates the Terror Wars in the Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice.

So Mary Sue, having such a Mary Sueish name, was like glue for something bad in search of a name.

On the other side of the coin, language not only reflects social reality, it also creates that reality. “In other words, it shapes how we see ourselves and the world. If language use is constitutive rather than indexical, then it has the potential to help establish and maintain social and power relations, values and identities, as well as to challenge routine practice and contribute towards social change.” Goueffic, Louise, Breaking the patriarchal code, 1996.

That little bit of zing implicit in saying someone’s a “Mary Sue” instead of merely saying “poorly developed author avatar character that sucks” has a name. That name is sexism.

The problem with the Mary Sue label is not –as most of the feminist criticism currently claims –that characters who are not Mary Sues are being labeled that. From what I can find, that’s a fiction. But there is a very real problem in using such a distinctively feminine label as an insult cum criticism. That’s something we do all the fucking time, because our society has some pretty backward ass views on “feminine” and “insulting” being the same thing. And while I am all for eradicating characters with the poorly developed qualities of the character Mary Sue in the original Star Trek fan fiction, the criticism should not be wrapped up in the name “Mary Sue.”

This is where I circle back to where the original feminist critique landed. Although I think the rationale behind the criticism is, well, wrong, the potential harms they point to are legitimate. If anything, I think they are worse. Use of feminine labels to disparage things generally is bad. But the Mary Sue label, which is gendered as hell right out of the gates, is bound to more readily self-censor females writing female characters. And, since all of us write shitty, poorly developed characters who probably represent more self-fulfillment than we should for the first few (hundred) thousand words, the impact of that censorship could be severe. Particularly if it’s self-imposed.

Which puts women writing female action characters on a very narrow path. Maybe even a tightrope. On one side is Mary Sue, and on the other is the hyper-sexualized female action hero one writer dubbed the fighting fuck toy (FFT). There is plenty of room for well developed characters in there, and there is also room for legitimate criticism of poorly developed characters. There should, however, be no room for denigration based on the feminine nature of even those characters that stray over the line.

There are things to be concerned about with regard to the Mary Sue label. Batman and Katniss being Mary Sues are not among of them. That said, from a discoursive linguistic point of view, the trope and the label are almost certainly harmful and unnecessary. A shitty character who makes a book suck for that particular group of reasons doesn’t need a feminizing label any more than shitty characters who make books suck for any other reason. The focus needs to be on the quality of the writing.

Epilogue: The Mary Sue Hunger Games

By Bowden and Kodi

Scene District 12.  A cock crows.  Two girls rise from bed.

Prim:  Morning, Katniss.
Katniss:  Morning, Prim.  You’re looking lovely this morning.
Prim:  I wish I looked as lovely as you.
Katniss:  Oh, pshaw.  You’re like all blonde and pretty and stuff.  I’m like dark and skinny and crap.
Prim:  Oh, yeah?  Then how come I don’t have a bunch of hot guys following me around everywhere I go?
Katniss:  Them?  They’re just being polite and stuff.  They pity me because my dad dying and crap.  God damn, I’m hungry.
Prim:  Oh, no!  Why didn’t you say something sooner.  I’ll go milk my goat!

Mother enters

Mom:  Katniss.  How are you this morning.
Katniss:  (under her breathe) Well I’m cold and I’m hungry and I have a crick in my neck.  But if I tell you any of that, you’ll just be miserable worrying about me all day.  You deserve some happiness, so I’ll pretend I’m fine.
Mom:  What was that?
Katniss:  I said I’m fine.
Mom:  Are you sure?
Katniss:  Yes, mom, I’m sure.  Now leave me alone and think of yourself for a change.
Mom:  Ok, if you insist.  I just wanted to bring you this dress and draw you a bubblebath and brush your hair and give you a makeover with all this stuff that I just spent my life savings on.
Katniss:  Why?
Mom:  Because you’re the best daughter ever, and I can’t have people thinking I don’t appreciate it.
Katniss:  Whatever.
[An hour later there is a knock on the door]
Peeta: Wow!  You look beautiful!
Katniss:  No I don’t, but thanks anyway.
Gale:  Hey Katniss, I’m here to walk you to the quad.
Peeta: No, I’m here to walk her to the quad.
[Give each other dirty looks]
Katniss:  You can both walk me to the quad.  Peeta, can you, like, go get Prim?
[To Gale after he leaves]  I’m sorry I made out with Peeta.  I only did it to make you jealous.
Gale:  That’s ok.  I forgave you a long time ago.
Katniss:  Only, now, I’m like, starting to fall for him, so I can’t decide which of you I like better.
Gale:  Take all the time you need, Catnip.  I’m not going anywhere.
[Prim and Peeta return and they walk]
Peeta:  You know, Katniss.  You should consider becoming a career tribute.  You’d win for sure.
Gale:  Yeah.  Then we can all hang out together at the winners’ village.
Katniss:  No way.
Prim: Oh, come on.  The other tributes will surrender when they see how awesome you are.
Katniss:  You guys are so funny.
Prim:  Oh shoot.  They are drawing the names already.
Effie:  And the male tribute is:  Peeta Mallarky!
Peeta: Gack!
Gale:  Haha.  Guess who has two thumbs and is going to end up with Katniss by default.  This guy!
Prim:  Oh, snap!
Katniss:  Shush.  They are announcing the female tribute.
Effie:  And for female tribute:  Primrose Everdeen!
Prim:  No!  Oh, no!  They can’t pick me!  I’m the only doctor in the village!  What if Katniss gets sick!  I’m going to be so worried I won’t be able to sleep! I’ll lose for sure!
Katniss:  Fiiiiine.  I volunteer!
Prim:  Nooo!!!  You can’t take her!  I won’t let you!
Katniss:  Oh come, on Prim, you suck at fighting and you know it.  The guys are right.  I’m going to win for sure.

Scene: The Train Ride

A somewhat drunken man, a very enigmatic woman, and Katniss and Peeta sit eating:

Katniss: *gobbles everything*
Peeta: I wish I was you, Katniss. I’d love to eat everything and not worry about my figure.
Katniss: Oh, you look fine. I’m gaining weight! *is beautiful and skinny*
Haymitch: *drinks*
Katniss: Haymitch, stop drinking, we need to discuss strategies for the games
Haymitch: *Immediately throws the liquor out the window* Yes, whatever you say! But it won’t matter, because I’m sure you’ll win.
Katniss: You expect too much of me, I’m just a poor girl from district 12.
Peeta: *under his breath* Who has every boy trailing after her
Katniss: What Peeta? *flips hair*
Peeta: *twitterpated* Uh Gah
Katniss: Oh, we’re here, I guess we’ll meet our stylists now.
Effie: Like you’ll need them! You’re stunningly attractive as you are–the sponsors will fall over themselves to get to you! You on the other hand *side eyes a Twitterpated Peeta* will need some work.

[Katniss and the others enter the style room and the others are immediately shoved to the side by a hundred screaming stylists.]

Stylist 1:  It’s her!
Stylist 2:  OMG!  OMG!
Stylist 3:  Breathe!  Don’t forget to breathe!
Stylist 2:  [Hands Katniss a pen]  Will you autograph my shoulder?
[Katniss scribbles her name with a heart over the i]
Peeta:  I bet you’ll be never be washing that shoulder again.
Stylist 2:  Hardy har, smartacre.  It’s a tattoo pen.
[Katniss is mobbed by stylists stroking her arms and running their fingers through her hair]
Stylist 3:  How do you get your ringlets so perfectly tousled?
Katniss:  I dunno.  I kind of shake my head from side to side and it just falls that way.
Stylist 1:  Skin: Aphrodite Olive #2.  Hair: Dogwood Demigoddess #10.   [The other stylists furiously scribble into their tablets.]
Katniss:  I didn’t know I’d get so many stylists on my style team.
Effie:  [Laughs a high pitched laugh]  Don’t be silly! These are the stylists for the OTHER tributes.  They’re just here to try to poach some style tips from you.
Peeta:  Hey!  That’s cheating!
Katniss:  It’s ok, Peeta.  No sense in making this too easy for me.
Cinna:  Shoo. Get lost.  [All but three adoring stylists leave]  Hello, I’m Cinna, your wardrobe guy.  And these three are your stylists.
Katniss:  Charmed, I’m sure.
Cinna: I made you a charcoal-dust colored dress, but to be honest, I like what you’re wearing much better, so I’m just going to toss it in the trash.
Katniss:  This old thing?  Couldn’t you at least liven it up a bit.
Cinna:  What do you suggest?
Katniss: I don’t know, like maybe have flames shoot out of it, or something?
Cinna:  It’s genius!  I love it!


Meet Mary Sue Part One: Who is Mary Sue, Anyway?

Today you will meet Starfleet Lieutenant Mary Sue, the hottest, smartest, most awesome girl in the galaxy.

So much so, she sucks.

Birth of a blog post

I started working on a post about how readers’ brains function when reading fiction. It turns out neuroscience is more complicated than bitching about deus ex endings or kissing Anton Chekhov’s ass. After hours of research with nothing but data –which I love, yay data– I realized that bad boy is (a) a series, not a post; and (b) going to take about a Master’s thesis of research and a month to write if I’m going to do it justice.


Not wanting to leave my throngs (read: fifty-five, and I love you all) of followers hanging for a month while I geek out on brain science, I put out a call for suggested topics. The first request I got was from my friend Kodi, who asked:

Could you do a post on something about “Mary-Sues?” Not, like, explaining what they are, but how they’re perceived by others and how in this day and age (especially in YA) lots of characters with the slightest confidence in themselves or whatever end up being called “Mary-Sue.” Especially if they’re female.

(An example I often hear is Katniss, who I wouldn’t consider a Mary-Sue–maybe a less emotionally developed person– especially after the train-wreck of events in Mockingjay…)

Katniss is a Mary Sue? What the fucking fuck is up with that? Does that mean Batman is a Gary Stu? ROFLMAO.

Less than two hours later, someone posted a question about Mary Sues on the watercooler, because of a making-the-rounds blog post about Mary Sues — one that seems to be creating some of this controversy:

So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in between torrid romances she rejects them all because she dedicated to what is Pure and Good. She has genius level intellect, Olympic-athelete level athletic ability and incredible good looks. She is consumed by terrible angst, but this only makes guys want her more. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she is more competent than her superhuman friends and defeats superhumans with ease. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, despite the fact she treats them pretty badly.  They fear and respect her, and defer to her orders. Everyone is obsessed with her, even her enemies are attracted to her. She can plan ahead for anything and she’s generally right with any conclusion she makes. People who defy her are inevitably wrong.

God, what a Mary Sue.

I just described Batman.

Which again raises the question, what the fucking fuck?

So Katniss is a Mary Stu and if Batman were a girl instead of a boy, he’d be a Mary Sue, so pretty much everybody is a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu?

I don’t think so.

I’m gonna start by explaining what they are

Sorry, Kodi, but you should know better. That’s how I start analyzing everything. When we know where something came from and its original context, we usually have a better handle on what we’re talking about. Mary Sue is no exception, although we aren’t taking our normal trip back to ancient Greece or Roman scholarship or even fourteenth century etymology. You see, there really was a Mary Sue. Her ancient origins? A parody piece of Star Trek fan fiction. Before you had to say TOS about Star Trek, because there was one Star Trek.

A Star Trek fan with a sense of humor named Paula Smith penned a piece of parody fan fic entitled A Trekkie’s Tail for the fanzine “the Menagerie” in 1974. Ms. Smith had noticed that most Trekkie fan fic was the same basic story: A supersmart, superhot, superyoung (i.e., the same age as the author) character shows up on the bridge of the Enterprise. Everybody adores her, wants to do her, and goes on adventures with her. Good thing she’s there, too, because she saves everybody’s ass, since she’s the smartest, coolest, and hottest person in the galaxy. Then she often dies and is mourned by all (because of said smartness, coolness, and hotness). Justifiably annoyed by the accumulation of fan fic garbage, Ms. Smith penned her own parody. It stars, you guessed it, Lt. Mary Sue, the youngest, hottest, and smartest girl in Starfleet.

So, without further ado, here is the original text of:


By Paula Smith

“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.” Captain Kirk came up to her.

“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?”

“Captain! I am not that kind of girl!”

“You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.”

Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?”

“The Captain told me to.”

“Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.

But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies , Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.

However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday of the Enterprise.

You have now officially met Lt. Mary Sue, the youngest, hottest, and smartest girl in Starfleet. The girl so awesome that an entire trope is named for her. Substitute the Captain wanting to do her for Nurse Chapel checking his junk on the elevator, maintain the same level of awesomeness (i.e., turn it into a male author’s self-insertion fantasy) and you have Gary Stu, Mary Sue’s male counterpart.

Two years after Smith’s parody, the editors of the fanzine that originated the name used it to identify the kind of stories they hate:

Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in  everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [meaning, of course, Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.

Born of parody and forged in sarcasm, Mary Sue is, generally, little more than an adolescent wish fulfillment fan fic author avatar. Its meaning has been broadened a tad, now encompassing all adolescent-level wish fulfillment fantasy stories, inside and outside fan fiction. Broadened beyond that, you have people incorrectly labeling characters Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) even if they don’t belong in that category. Like, for example, Katniss Everdeen and Batman.

This Batman is not a Mary Sue:


Douchey Batman is, um, well, yea:

But this was a freaking parody, too!

What are the Elements of a Mary Sue?

All of the politics aside (any guesses what my next entry is about?), the core elements of a Mary Sue (you too, Gary) are straightforward. It’s a character who is so awesome she manages to be simultaneously a one-dimensional cardboard cutout and the epicenter of the universe. Not only is she bland and uninteresting herself, she also makes all of the other characters around her bland and uninteresting by sucking all of the oxygen out of every room she enters. Because she must be the smartest, fastest, most clever and amazing person in the universe, Captain Kirk and everyone else just hang out, basking in her awesomeness, while she takes care of everything. Mary Sue is an author avatar on steroids (and meth, with narcissistic personality disorder). Obstacles crumble before her, no group excludes her. The Three Musketeers order new stationary saying the Four Musketeers the minute she gets off her horse.

In short, it’s crappy writing. The character is entirely about the writer fulfilling the writer’s needs — like a selfish lover, paying no particular attention to whether the reader is enjoying herself or not.

A character is not a Mary Sue just because she is interesting, strong, smart, or attractive. It gets harder as you pile more of those elements onto a character, but even a character with all of those attributes is not, necessarily, a Mary or a Gary. More than anything, what defines a Mary Sue (for me) is her relationship with the other characters. As soon as she is one among equals, and not the object of near or total adoration from everyone else in her universe, she is not a Mary Sue. If she is a participant in the story — not the center of gravity, around which all other story elements orbit like fawning moons circling a planet of hot awesomeness — she’s not a Mary Sue. Unless other characters are rendered less interesting or competent or independent because of their love of and/or (but usually just “and”) reliance on her awesomeness, she is not a Mary Sue.

Because most of the Mary Sue “controversy” comes from people mislabeling characters as Mary Sues, or believing other people do, or something else with its roots in an incorrect definition of what a Mary Sue really is, the only place to start the discussion is with a clear understanding of what that term/trope means.

Kodi is right, “in this day and age (especially in YA) lots of characters with the slightest confidence in themselves or whatever end up being called ‘Mary-Sue.’ Especially if they’re female.”

Which is idiotic –to the extent said idiocy warrants an entire post of its own. The post Kodi was asking for in the first place; also known as “the one in which the hetero white male whose first language was the Rural Redneck dialect of English does a feminist rant.”

That comes next…

The Story/Plot Disambiguation Page

The Concept Was Simple (then writers started talking about it)

No concept is more basic to fiction writing than the concept of a story. After all, that’s the whole freaking point. We’re out to tell a story. The tricky part is telling a story well, which is to say interestingly. That’s what the plot is for. At its core, that is the difference between story and plot.

Story: Everything that’s happening in your fictional world, on or off stage, known or unknown to your POV character at any given time. It is the whole of the “real world” in your made up world.

Plot: The events that actually happen in front of the reader.

Put more simply, the difference is

Story: All the shit that matters, whether or not anyone actually sees it or does it.

Plot: All the shit – and, more importantly, only the shit – that your characters and/or narrator see and/or do.

This is an incredibly simple concept. Like most simple writing concepts, writers have written about it so much, and thrown around so many opinions about it, and felt so compelled to opine grandly about it, that it’s now completely fucked up. We have books and blogs telling people that story is the emotional journey, while plot is the physical journey. Print books that say, “story tells you what happened” (OK so far) and “plot is why it happened” (and then you fucked it up).

Don’t get me wrong, there are more nuanced and insightful concepts here, particularly with regard to plot. The problem is, many writers, including some creative writing teachers, seem to have come in on the tail end of the nuanced discussion, decided that’s what plot means, and confuse that nuance for a definition. Usually ending up with a definition that comes very close to being the opposite of what it should be.


So we’re not going to do it that way. It’s a hell of a lot easier to put the horse in front of the cart, and nail the principal distinction first.

Story: A man drives to the store and buys whipping cream.

Plot: A man has a pint of fresh strawberries and decides he wants some whipped cream to go with them. He backs his car out of the garage, drives to the end of his street, and makes a right. He reaches a stoplight and, when it turns green, makes a left into the store parking lot. He parks his car, goes to the dairy case and finds heavy whipping cream is on sale. He buys a carton and pays at the self-checkout.

That’s the difference. The story is an event (or, in a novel, a whole series of events). The plot is the thought and the action that describe the event. End of (hehe) story.

The Story of Story and Plot

We can get a little help here from etymology. We get the word “story” from, not surprisingly, the word “history.” First to the Greeks and then in Latin, the word came down as “historia.” It was initially “a chronicle of events,” meaning real ones, but in 1500, the word “story” came to include recounting of fictional events. The function was the same. A story is the basic, underlying  historical event, even if it’s a made up history about vampires or intergalactic warriors. It only has one timeframe, which is the order in which the events occurred. Nothing but the chronology of events matters.

Plot has a fittingly murky history (the plot thickens). It’s possible that we get the word from the middle French word “complot” (which means a conspiracy). It also derives (or complot is related to) plot, as in plot of land, which may or may not be related to plat (which is a map of said plots, although sometimes plot also meant map). In 1901 philologist, Walter William Skeat boldly predicted, “When the words complot, platform and plot (of ground) have all been thoroughly worked out, we may be confident that the mode of formation of plot a conspiracy will appear.”

Apparently, Bill and I are the only people who get geeked out on this stuff enough to care, because nobody’s gotten around to working it out. And it gets even weirder if you try to go earlier than Billy W did, possibly coming to complot via comepeloter, a really, really old fucking word that means roll a ball.

The funny thing is, no matter where it comes from, it still means the same thing when it comes to plotting stories. It is a plan, overview, map, or conspiracy. Or, I guess, the shit that gets the ball rolling, which is probably the best definition of all.

One way or the other, by about 1580, plot meant to plan or map. So, before 1600, we have:

Story: A chronology of events.

Plot: A map or scheme.

Which means we just took the simple answer and made it simpler. And probably more accurate. It’s fairly easy to look at questions of story and plot realizing that, at their base they simply mean these things. A guy goes to the store is story. He has to make a right out of his subdivision to get there is plot.

So, How’d it Get all Fucked Up?

Writers did it. It started with E. M. Forster, a genius at plotting. In 1927, he gave a series of lectures, which were later published as Aspects of a Novel. The thing is, Forster nailed it, and his explanation is brilliant. Unfortunately, his example seems to be the only thing anyone paid attention to.

The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.

In the context of his lecture, it’s a great example. Cut out and isolated, it leads to people stating, then repeating, the wrong premise. “The queen died of grief” is not the plot because it tells why she died. It is the plot because that is the character’s experience in the story. It has nothing to do with cause and effect or action/reaction or any of the other things people have spent ninety years saying plot means. It’s the plot because, instead of turning a left to get whipped cream, she turned dead because she was grieving.

In the same lecture, Forster said, “A plot demands intelligence and memory on the part of the reader, to remember incidents and create connecting threads between them.” It’s ironic, because a significant minority, if not the majority, of the people who use his analysis seem to lack said intelligence and memory, because they keep forgetting the fucking connection he was making.

Cause and effect is a huge component of plot, story couldn’t care less about either. Motivations often drive characters’ actions, which usually drive plots, but that does not make those motivations the plot. It’s just that motivations are not the story. The story is: A happened, then B happened, then C happened. Even if you choose to start your story at C, then drop back to B and only tell A through flashbacks, the story remains the same. First A, then B, then C. You are making decisions about your plot, how and when you make those things happen and reveal them to the reader with flashbacks and out-of-sequence narrative. None of that changes the story one bit.

For example, the story in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather starts with Vito Corleone’s father being killed and Vito fleeing to the U.S. He is a shop clerk, meets a shady friend, hates being ripped off by a mobster, and becomes one himself. Although the book starts long after he’s reached the pinnacle of power and not long before his death, the Story starts at a very different time and in a very different place. Because a story is always chronological, even if the plot is not.

Back to Simple Stuff that Makes Sense

If you think of your novel as a play, plot is the stuff that happens on the stage. If it doesn’t happen on the stage, it is not part of the plot. A nuclear explosion may be central to the story you are telling – and therefore be a key story element – but it probably isn’t happening on the stage. So it’s not part of the plot. Your characters hearing about or reacting to it, because that is what happens on stage, may be less important to the story than the explosion, but it is far more important to the plot. Because those reactions are the plot.

When you hear someone begin to explain the difference between plot and story with talk about how vague, nuanced, or theoretical the differences are, your bullshit meter should start going off. If it’s within the chronological list of events you are relating in your book, it’s story. If it happens onstage, it’s plot. A lot of things are both, like buying the whipped cream. It’s key to the story, it also took place on the stage, so it fits both definitions. If a thermonuclear war starts while the man is buying his whipped cream, it could be key to the story, but it will only become part of the plot when something related to it shows up on stage. Making a right out of the parking lot to head back home is a plot element, but that act, in itself, is not story.

That’s about all there is to it.

Gun Control with Anton Chekhov

First, fair warning, I’m Anton Chekov’s bitch.

In my opinion, few writers have provided good advice as consistently as Anotn Chekhov. He primarily wrote plays and short stories, but I’m not sure anyone has explained the key elements of fiction writing as well. He seems to have tapped into a blend of science and art that afforded him the humility of an artist and a scientist’s (or professional athlete’s) understanding of the process that created the art. He was not a “I just sit down and fluffy butterflies come out of my ass” writer. He was a “I have worked hard to understand this process, and this is what I have learned” writer. Which is a boon for me, because I don’t tend to have fluffy butterflies coming out of my ass. Even if I did, I would still want to know how the hell they got there.

By far, Chekhov’s most famous writing advice relates to the famous Chekhov’s gun. Advice he appears to have given in many forms and with different phrasing, sometimes referring to acts of a play, other times to chapters of a book, and still others to placement in a story. It isn’t apocryphal – Chekhov said it – but he said it many times in many ways. To novelists, it’s best put:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The end.

Seriously, that is where a blog post on Chekhov’s gun should end. I mean, he’s right. We should be shoehorning 150,000 words of STORY into 100,000 words. 500 words about room décor or intricate descriptions of clothing should get axed on the first edit if they don’t move the STORY forward. It’s a simple concept, it’s true, and I sure as fuck can’t say it better than he did, so the “what a Chekhov’s gun is” part of this post has now concluded.

Related Concepts

There are a few ways to play with Chekhov’s gun beyond, “don’t spend two pages describing your protag’s car unless there’s going to be a car chase or he’ll be buried alive in it later.”

1)    Turning off the turd machine

As indicated in my last post, there is a beautiful interplay between stashing Chekhov’s guns and avoiding deus ex machina (a/k/a turd machines). Deus ex endings are those with a combination of (a) a surprise ending, that (b) solves the hero’s problems, through (c) an improbable, intervening force. By telling us when not to hang a rifle on the wall, Mr. Chekhov impliedly tells us when one should be there. Put another way, Chekhov’s guns can change crappy “I didn’t see that coming” endings into riveting, reader doing a face/palm, “I should have seen that coming” endings.

In fact, when people disagree about whether an ending was really a deus ex, it boils down to whether the author did a good enough job stashing Chekhov’s guns earlier in the book. In a discussion over at QueryTracker about my deus ex post, one of my friends from that board said she’d never considered the end of Lord of the Flies deus ex, because using a signal fire to attract ships was discussed significantly in the beginning of the book. Because of that, a ship being attracted by the fire the wild boys set was, at least somewhat, foreshadowed. Similarly, another pointed out that Tolkien mentioned the eagles throughout, and they had and helped Gandalf escape Saruman’s tower, so that might not be a deus ex. To me, that’s just serial use of a deus ex device, which does not make it less deus exey, but the response still highlights the interplay between DoucheyZeus and Chekhov. To the extent a reasonable argument can be made that either is not a deus ex, it is because of a gun hanging on the wall in Chapter One.

I’m not saying this would, necessarily, make either book better, but what if that gun were more obviously hanging there? If three paragraphs were added to Lord of the Flies from the bridge of a ship patrolling the area near the island, the appearance of the naval officer would suddenly be much less deus exey. If the little barefoot dudes in Lord of the Rings had a conversation with the Dumbledor looking dude about how the Eagles would not fly near Mordor while the ring still existed, their appearance right after it was destroyed would, in a sentence, make more sense. Although there is plenty of room to argue that those resolutions are not better, they still show how, with a few sentences, Mr. Chekhov can arm us against Deus exey endings.

2)    Chekov’s Joke

Not surprisingly, since I like to write humor, one of my favorite uses for Chekov’s guns are Chekov’s jokes. If you think about it, every joke you know starts with a Chekov’s gun – or three. “A lawyer, a priest, and a stripper are on an airplane…” The punch line is going to have something to do with how their respective professions relate to not having enough parachutes. Probably something about strippers not screwing people or teasing them with promises of things that aren’t really going to happen. Three people, three guns. The first sentence of nearly every joke ever told is, effectively, “So there’s this gun hanging on the wall…”

Writing literary humor allows a lot of time between the setup and punch line, which is a great tool to play with. For example, the second sentence of the novel I’m querying, is: “Feeling like he was being watched, which he preferred to admitting he was being ignored, Nick tried to look casual, pretending to read the various magazines lying around McClintock Publishing’s lobby.” 253 pages later, the person Nick was there to meet – who has become his employer and his friend in the intervening 80,000 words – notices that Nick doesn’t “even resemble the awkward young writer he’d watched nervously pretend to read magazines in his lobby a few months before.” Not hilarious, by any means, but hopefully amusing. More to the point, it’s a callback in Act 3 that, if I did my job well, flashes the reader’s mind through the rollercoaster the two men have been riding since that meeting. At a time when the cars seem to be coming off the tracks.

I should probably provide a more well known example, since this blog post is already more well known than my manuscript. There is a doozey in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The first book opens by talking about a woman who realizes how much better everything would be if Earth were just destroyed. In a very Monte Pythonesque move, Adams then informs us “This is not her story.”

And it’s not.

That story doesn’t come up again for the rest of the book. Or the next one. Or number three. Then, in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Adams opens exactly the same way, I think word-for-word, up to the point he informs us, “This is her story.”

I think Adams’ execution on that one is brilliant. The first part of the first book is amusing by itself. A bit of Brit humor, not at all unlike Monte Python’s, “And now for something completely different.” It stands on its own as amusing. Which, if you are going to wait five years for the punch line, it has to.

With the punch line, it moves from amusing to genius. A pretty banal opening at best (seriously, try querying “This is her story” and see how it works out) is, in truth, a massive, and massively delayed, payoff on a five year old setup line.

The fact that it could stand on its own as an amusing line is also key to intentionally ignoring Mr. Chekov’s advice when we look at:

3.       One Possible Exception: the red herring.

Back to being Mr. I Hate Absolutes. There are limits to even this (almost) completely true advice from Mr. Chekov. While I am not a fan of including things with no relevance to the story, sometimes things need to be nuanced in order to keep the story from being blatantly predictable and boring to the reader. The most obvious example is a mystery. If the only gun anyone has in Chapter One is the murder weapon, a glue-sniffing kindergartener will probably be able to solve the mystery. A grownup will be bored. Or get drunk and spend a night badmouthing you with a one-star review on GoodReads. I’m not just talking about genre mysteries here, either. All novels need to have some form of mystery to them – if the reader doesn’t wonder what’s going to happen, she’ll never pick the book back up.

Although I’m not talking about genre mysteries, they provide the easiest examples. And those examples show that – even when his advice needs qualification – Chekhov is still basically right. Bad red herrings in mysteries are just plot devices shoved into the narrative so there are other possible suspects. The difference between a good red herring and a contrivance (yes, just different turds from the same machine) is that a skilled writer can work in clues and suspects who muddy the “who done it” waters while at the same time also adding something to the STORY.

For example, all of the victims in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None were also suspects. But the things that made them suspects were also the reason each one was a victim. So each red herring was also part of the plot, apart from merely being there to divert attention from who the killer really was. Much like Adams’ mildly amusing joke was justified in itself, even if it later proved to be the setup for a much bigger joke, Christie’s suspects support the story in their own right, in addition to being red herrings on the “who done it” end of things.

But I digress

(which is probably what I should have named this blog, with an F-bomb thrown in for good measure)

Chekhov’s advice was less about foreshadowing and avoiding deus ex than about avoiding unnecessary detail and description. In practice, though, it pays huge dividends in those areas as well. Making sure any guns in Chapter One are fired before the end of the book, and making sure any guns being fired in the climax aren’t being mentioned for the first time when our hero draws them, are unavoidably linked by good storytelling.

Deus Ex Machina: A Literary Device That Has Sucked Since 400 B.C.

First, an overview:

What is Deus Ex Machina?

Literally, that phrase is Latin for: “A god from the machine.” Roughly translated, it means: “You wrote a shitty ending.” Actually, if you change it to deuce ex machina, as in “drop a deuce” or “go number two,” then it really does translate to “turd machine.” Either way, it is not a good sign.

Not all shitty endings are deus ex. The trademark of a dues ex ending is the combination of (a) a surprise ending, that (b) solves the hero’s problems, through (c) some improbable, intervening force. If you take one of those elements away, it isn’t deus ex. It may still be a bad ending, but it won’t be the mother of all bad endings, which is what deus ex almost always is.

Let’s take the “cavalry rides to the rescue” ending as an example. Is that always deus ex? Certainly not. If you are writing about the Battle of Vienna, a massive cavalry charge turning the tide is a huge part of the story. But (a) it was not a surprise, they knew it was coming from the outset. Although (b) it did solve the hero’s problems, (c) it was not improbable at all, nor was the cavalry an outside force intervening in things. That charge was part of the “hero’s” plan from the outset.

Now let’s say you are writing a contemporary story about a woman on the run from the mob. She’s alone in the park and notices five guys in trench coats closing in on her from all sides. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. But then:


 Deus ex cavalry charge. Notice the cars in the parking lot.

Yea, that’s a deus ex. You can tell, because it sucks.

Western Civilization as it Relates to Deus Ex 

The term itself originated around 19 B.C.E. Yes, B.C. As in, Before Christ, which, regardless of your belief in the divinity of Christ, was a long, long, long fucking time ago. It comes to us courtesy of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, whom the English speaking world usually calls Horace. He coined the term in Ars Poetica, which was basically a style guide for Roman poets, where he instructs poets that they should never resort to a “god from the machine” to resolve their plots “unless a difficulty worthy a god’s unraveling should happen.”

Like most things scholarly and Roman around that time, it was not a Roman idea. Horace was parroting Aristotle’s 335 B.C.E. bitchfest about Deus Ex, entitled Poetics. Translated, Aristotle said, “It is obvious that the solutions of plots, too, should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance.” The contrivances he hated so much in ancient Greek plays were – you guessed it – gods being lowered or raised onto the stage by way of some kind of machine. Usually it was a crane, sometimes a trap door.

Either way, you have your Greek tragedy going along just fine, we’ve been through Act II, the characters are in a hopeless position, all seems lost, then *POOF*


 DoucheyZeus is here to save the day.

Zeus shows up and just fixes everything. And around 400 B.C., most people agreed that ending kinda sucked.

For a little perspective, the first novel printed in the English Language is believed to be William Caxton’s 1483 translation of The Book of the Knight of the Tower. So people giving advice about how to write had been saying deus ex sucks for almost two thousand years before the first book was ever printed in the English language. It’s been well over five hundred years since that book was printed, and nothing much has changed.

Deus only knows how many not famous books are not famous because they suffered from this malady. Some famous novels do, too. The important thing to note is that those books’ fame is usually attributed to their other, more worthy aspects or the prior fame of the author. Criticisms usually point to those other aspects and note that the books are successful despite – and never because of – the crappy ending.

For example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, Frodo and Sam are surrounded by an army of about two million evil minions inside a dark overlord’s volcano lair. Oh, yea, then the volcano starts to erupt. Pretty impossible situation, right? Apparently, because Tolkien couldn’t even think of a satisfactory solution to the problem.


Yea, so, um, then giant eagles show up and fly them to safety. The end. Bad enough to undo the prior thousands of pages of epic Middle Earth storytelling? No. But in my entire life I have not heard one person say, “I love the part where the eagles just show up from out of nowhere and save them.” He also gets a bit of a pass because the real story conflict was already over. The ring was gone, Golem met his fate, the boys had accomplished their mission – the story was done. They just happened to end said story and mission in the middle of an evil overlord’s erupting volcano lair and surrounded by an evil army. Tolkien was just cheating to make the characters survive, not to complete the saga of the ring itself.

Why is Deus Ex so Bad?

I like to think of this in terms of investing. When readers enjoy a story, they are invested in the characters and the plot. Those things matter to them. The better job we do writing, the more invested they are. By the time we get to Act III, they have invested time, they are invested in the characters and the story, and they expect that investment to pay off.

Then a deus exey writer says “Forget all that, here’s something that has nothing to do with any of it. Story’s over, the end.”

Every moment spent investing in the story and the characters was wasted. Three hundred pages of learning about the situation and wondering how the characters could possibly get out of it were answered with: “They can’t, but they live happily ever after, anyway. The end.” Basically, it feels like the author is saying “Fuck you, it’s your fault you read the first 300 pages, because all that matters is the last one.”

More truthfully, though, a deus ex is the author’s admission that he painted himself into a corner. H.G. Wells told a great story in War of the Worlds, right up to the end. I’m sorry, but more advanced civilizations wiping out native populations are generally the ones with the nastiest bugs, not incapable of dealing with them. Stephen King, no stranger to writing himself into a corner, uses it in a very in-your-face way in the Dark Tower series, intervening as author/god and sending a note into his fictional world that actually says, “Here comes the deus ex machina.” Kurt Vonnegut did something similar in Breakfast of Champions.

 Is Deus Ex Always teh Suk?

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know my distaste for commentary about writing that uses “always” or “never.” Because my only “always” is that such commentary or advice is never true.

Deus ex has been used for comedic effect brilliantly. Monte Python uses it with abandon – A UFO showing up to rescue Brian after he fell off a cliff, characters being terrorized by an animated monster being saved when the animator keels over from a heart attack at his desk, a modern police raid ending the medieval battle – it’s one of their favorite devices. And they’re not the only ones:


 Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (The writers hung a lampshade to protest the producers’ demand for a happy ending)

Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Drive is another wink at this device. The drive got its name from the fact that he’d painted himself into a corner, Ford and Arthur are floating in space without space suits and it was ridiculously improbable that any spaceship would come along and rescue them in time. Voila, the Infinite Improbability Drive is born.

In my opinion, William Golding’s ending to Lord of the Flies may be an acceptable use. The situation is hopeless, the protagonist is facing certain death, and then a naval officer shows up and stops the story in its tracks. It’s unquestionably a deus ex — even Golding called the ending a “gimmick.” But allowing the hero to prevail through some reasonable course of events would completely undermine the point Golding was trying to make. Plus, like Tolkien’s example, the deus ex was used there as a device for returning the characters to the normal world after the core story had completed. It was not offered up as a resolution of the core story.

Having said that, outside comedic uses or the need to put a stop to the slaughter of innocent children, deus ex is usually pretty bad. Like cholera is usually unpleasant and Fran Drescher’s laugh is slightly annoying. It is a symptom in Act III that you have severe problems with Acts I and II, and can unravel everything you’ve done in those acts with a single paragraph.

Outside parody, nobody sets out to write a deus ex ending. It’s a last, worst option. And there’s usually a better solution. If you’ve painted yourself into a corner and find yourself staring DoucheyZeus in the eye, you still have another option. Wait for the paint to dry, go borrow a gun from Anton Chekhov, and shoot the motherfucker in the face.

Which might give you a hint what my next topic will be.


Putting Real People in Your Made-Up World Part Three: The Right of Publicity from Abe to Beyonce

Personality rights are complex as hell. If you are reading this within a week of me posting it, then this blog post will provide an overgeneralized summary of some really complex stuff. Overgeneralized to the point that, beyond giving you a broad idea of the current state of affairs, it won’t be good for much. This issue is governed by state laws, so the answer to specific questions will be determined by when and where people died and/or were legally domiciled at the time of death. Even when you know that, the scope and nature of each of the state statutes varies. On top of that, some people like to claim nonexistent personality rights on behalf of dead celebrities, essentially sending demand notices that they have no legal right to send. Any specific decision will have to be based on legal advice regarding the specific person in question.

If you’re reading this more than a week after I wrote it, it’s probably outdated. This is an area of law in the midst of huge changes.

Personality Rights Overview

Personality rights are separate from the “real people” rights discussed in the first two parts of this series. The main issue that arises when using celebrities, live or dead, is the “right of publicity.” Here’s the conundrum:

Last year, Pepsi paid Beyonce $50 million dollars to endorse Pepsi. Apparently, Pepsi can sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Pepsi if Beyonce tells people to drink Pepsi. This makes absolutely no fucking sense to me whatsoever, but Pepsi knows a lot more than I do about how to sell Pepsi, so there it is. It’s worth $50,000,000 to have Beyonce say:

“Drink this shit.”

With that number in mind, it’s easy to see why Beyonce probably isn’t going to guest-star in your novel for free. It’s also a safe bet that Pepsi was paying $50 Million bucks for something. That “something” is Beyonce’s right of publicity. Her exclusive right to commercially exploit all of her Beyonceness. Because she’s the Beyoncest. It’s also worth bearing in mind that we are talking about a woman who tried to trademark her daughter’s name, so she’s probably not giving much up for free.

And that seems fair. I mean, she did something to put herself in a position to make ungodly sums of money for busing out a “drink this shit.” I don’t really understand what, but she must have done something. And, as much fun as it may be to have Beyonce and Hillary Clinton teaming up with Lil’ B and Carl Sagan to fight space zombies, it probably shouldn’t be free. Part of what you would expect to be selling that book is the name recognition; i.e., a hint that Beyonce was saying “read this shit.” Unless you have a few million dollars lying around, that isn’t going to happen.

The Legal Stuff:

The right of publicity basically means the right to control the commercial use of an individual’s “name, likeness, or other recognizable aspects of one’s persona.” It gives an individual the exclusive right to license the use of their identity for commercial promotion. The term “right of publicity” is misleading. A more accurate title would be: “a whole bunch of things that nobody has really figured out that mainly mean your ass can be sued for using a famous person in your book. And sometimes a not famous one, too.” But the legal profession seems to have settled on “right of publicity,” so that’s what I’ll call it. Understanding that right would be a legal mobius loop, because you would have to research exactly how each of the fifty states handled the question and, by the time you were done with No. 50, the law in No. 1 would likely have changed. For now, a serviceable (which is to say, broad) definition comes from Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute:

In the United States, the right of publicity is largely protected by state common or statutory law. Only about half the states have distinctly recognized a right of publicity. Of these, many do not recognize a right by that name but protect it as part of the Right of Privacy. The Restatement Second of Torts recognizes four types of invasions of privacy: intrusion, appropriation of name or likeness, unreasonable publicity, and false light. See Restatement (Second) Of Torts §§ 652A – 652I. Under the Restatement’s formulation, the invasion of the right of publicity is most similar to the unauthorized appropriation of one’s name or likeness. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652C, comments a & b, illustrations 1 & 2.

In other states, the right of publicity is protected through the law of unfair competition. Actions for the tort of misappropriation or for a wrongful attempt to “pass off” the product as endorsed or produced by the individual help to protect the right of publicity. See Unfair competition.

Nineteen states have some form of “right of publicity” law. On top of that, some federal laws can also be implicated. Some names and other aspects of identity can be trademarked, and if a claim arises that someone’s identity is used to falsely imply endorsement of a product, Section 1125 of the Lanham Act also provides a cause of action and remedies.

As far as the living are concerned, you do not want to have living celebrities (by which I mean even remotely famous people) as characters in your book. Unless other safeharbors apply (and the analysis is not entirely unlike that used for “fair use” generally, but need to be looked at completely separately), just don’t.

Things aren’t much better when it comes to dead celebrities

Unlike claims about defamation, which infringe personal rights, the right of publicity is considered a property right. Among other things, that means it can be sold and, in some cases, transferred on the celebrity’s death. Muhammad Ali’s identity was recently sold for $62 million. There have been a few rounds of contentious litigation about Albert Einstein’s likeness.

Marilyn Monroe has been litigated and it was determined she was a resident of New York when she died, so she’s fair game. If she’d been a resident of California, however, she would not be.

Interestingly, one of the states on the forefront of the right of publicity war is Indiana. Though it’s more famous for growing corn and soybeans than celebrities, Indiana is home to CMG Worldwide, a huge celebrity rights licensing company. CMG owns James Dean, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Kerouac, Duke Ellington, Jesse Owens, and even people like Frank Lloyd Wright, Amelia Earhart and Malcolm X. Enormous sums of money are paid for the right to own and use those dead celebrity names, which means enormous sums of money will be used to defend the right to keep doing it.

How long does the right of publicity last?

As one might surmise from watching Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, it does not last forever. Well, that, and if someone wanted to do a movie about Michael McDonagh Vampire Hunter, I’d probably be cool with that, too. But get my permission first. As to how long, though, the answer is another “depends.” It is not, as some people believe, a set “50 years.”

In states with statutory right of publicity laws, those laws include a term. The term ranges from as few as twenty years in Virginia to a century in GMG’s home state of Indiana. Unsurprisingly, Elvis’ home state of Tennessee, allows the right to continue as long as it is being exploited. As long as there are Elvis impersonators, Elvis will be protected. Showing how much of a moving target this is, California used the copyright law term when it adopted its right of publicity statute, which, at the time, was fifty years from death. When the term of copyright was extended to 1998, California extended its statutory right of publicity as well.

Going back to where we started, the answer to your question will depend on where the person was domiciled at the time of her death. Even then, there are a few companies claiming to have the right to sell Marilyn Monroe’s publicity rights, and they will be happy to send nasty letters claiming that, despite the fact that the lack of those rights has already been determined.

Bottom Line: there are no safe rules of thumb to apply to this question. Celebrity characters will likely fall somewhere on a spectrum between Beyonce and Abraham Lincoln. Where they fall on that spectrum, and if they’re closer to Beyonce than Abe, where they were domiciled when they died will determine the extent of their publicity rights. From there, it is a case-by-case question.

Putting Real People in Your Made-Up World Part Two: Don’t speak ill (or well) of the dead (or living, if you can help it)

Using real people in our fictional writing presents a couple of problems. Aunt Myrtle not speaking to you at Easter because the three-headed demonic fire troll your hero killed to stop the apocalypse was named Myrtle is not the end of it, either. Problems can arise with regard to defamation (which is the legal term for talking shit about someone) and, a relatively new development, the right of publicity. Today’s entry is about defamation of the living and the tricky proposition that you can’t libel the dead. By tricky, I mean don’t believe it.

Defamation: Just don’t go there.

As a general rule, the safest course to take is not to say bad things about other people. Bear in mind, your characters are not people, no matter how real they seem to you. Talk smack about them all day long. Some of them should be despicable human beings. Just make sure your characters are fictional. If you want to write about an out-of-control 13 year-old rock musician, go for it. Do not name said musician Justin Bieber or, for that matter, Bustin Jieber.


Which really brings us back around to the issue raised in the last post. Even if you set out to write a character in a completely nondefamatory way, you can accidentally stray into that territory. You can also realize that your boring Gary Stu character needs some childhood trauma, a dark secret, or to do something despicable to make him more believable. Writing about a person who can sue you for doing that will kill your flexibility as a writer. There are some very craft-oriented reasons to steer clear of that problem altogether. The quality of your narrative should not be governed by Justin Beiber’s whim.

You can’t defame the dead (sorta)

In theory, it goes like this: Defamation is a personal tort. Personal torts do not outlive the person who was harmed. Therefore you can’t be sued for defaming someone who is dead.

In reality, Colorado, Idaho, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah and Washington that have criminal statutes regarding defamation of the dead. The definition of libel in Texas includes written words that “tend to blacken the memory of the dead.” In short, the oft given advice, “you can’t be sued for defaming the dead” is not accurate. Also, if the person was famous, it doesn’t matter whether you’re defaming or not, you may run square into the quagmire that is the right of publicity, which is going to need its own blog post.

State statutes aside, there are reasons to steer clear of talking smack about people who used to be alive. For starters, if they were alive in recent memory, you probably aren’t just talking about the dead person. A comment that the dead guy fathered three illegitimate children is, effectively, a comment that three possibly living people are bastards. Bad things don’t happen in a vacuum, and the other people in the general area when they happen can end up tainted by your comments. Then you can have some very alive plaintiffs unhappy about what you wrote.

Alleged gangster John Dillinger provides an allegedly interesting example. He has a grand nephew who is more than happy to sue people portraying his shirttail relative, who has apparently been alleged to be a gangster by some people, in a bad light. Just so we’re clear, here, the grand nephew of this guy:


Who the FBI thought was bad enough to do this to:


may well sue you if you portray his great uncle in a bad light. One such lawsuit allegedly Shut down the Dillinger museum for an alleged five years.

The safest answer, again, is to bask in the fact that you are writing fiction. As interesting as Dillinger was, you should have no problem writing your own, not-alleged gangster who is more interesting. Plus, your gangster can be a despicable cad, if that’s what the story calls for, without you having to look over your shoulder.

Real people you really need to use.

Just because we don’t want to write nasty things about people doesn’t mean we can avoid writing about real people all the time. Good luck writing about America in the 1980s without mentioning Ronald Regan. Miley Cyrus probably isn’t critical to your narrative, but if you want to work a passing twerking reference into your book, you shouldn’t be afraid to do so. And you are reasonably safe as long as: (1) the thing you are referring to is an event that actually occurred, not gossip or rumor; or (2) the thing you are referring to is entirely opinion (“Bieber is rich and all, but he seems pretty messed up, too” is fine. “Beiber drives drunk all the time,” is not). Plus, in either case, (3) treat it more or less we treat product names based on fair use under trademark law. Just like, if done right, your hero can love Pink Floyd without violating copyright or pound Jack Daniel’s whisky like there’s not tomorrow without violating trademark prohibitions, you can mention people in your narrative without running afoul of this rule. More pointedly, you can mention famous people without running afoul of the right of publicity, which we will discuss in another post.

Another resource and the bottom line:

Attorney Mark Fowler writes a blog called rightsofwriters.com/ that is a treasure trove of information about dozens of legal issues that writers are presented with. His blog is well worth a good look whenever you have questions about this type of issue. In a post on application of libel laws to fiction, he quotes Rodney Smolla, a seminal figure in First Amendment law’s explainiation:

When an author wants to draw from a real person as the basis for a fictional character, there are two relatively “safe” courses of action from a legal perspective:  First, the author may make little or no attempt to disguise the character, but refrain from any defamatory and false embellishments on the character’s conduct or personality; second, the author may engage in creative embellishments that reflect negatively on the character’s reputation, but make substantial efforts to disguise the character … to avoid identification.  When an author takes a middle ground, however, neither adhering perfectly to the person’s attributes and behavior nor engaging in elaborate disguise, there is a threat of defamation liability.

Since I find myself constantly arguing in favor of the middle ground on everything from outlining vs. pantsing to use of adverbs and following advice from Nobel laureates, the irony of this advice is not lost on me. This is the one area where the middle ground is not where you want to be.

Putting Real People in Your Made-Up World Part One: People from your daily life.

I’ll start with the overly broad question writers often ask.

Question One: Can I use real people in my book?

Short Answer: If you don’t you won’t have a book.

Here’s the longer answer. Every writer who’s ever written has written about a living person she’s met. Even if you are writing a sci-fi epic about a cluster of beings who are made entirely of energy, one of them will probably end up acting an awful lot like your sister. That black hole they’re afraid of will probably use that stupid catchphrase your junior high school gym teacher always threw around, too.

The thing that makes us writers is the ability to look at the world around us and draw a new and interesting story based on it. Some of us may end up drawing spaceships and others vampires, while those of us writing contemporary satire come pretty damn close to just drawing what we see. Historical novelists often strive to draw the most accurate picture they can of something that happened in the past. People writing narrative nonfiction are basically trying to trace the exact lines of an event in a way that tells the story. But, whether you’re writing a MG fantasy about elves or narrative nonfiction about the Romney campaign, you’re going to at least touch on people you either know or have heard of.

Not only can you use real people in your book, you have to. Otherwise there’s no book.

Question Two: Do I need their permission?

Short Answer: No, you need to write better.

The longer answer is that it’s fine if you want to get someone’s permission. You may want to do that for all sorts of reasons. But that’s usually not the best way to go. For one thing, until someone’s read your completed manuscript, he or she will not really know what the portrayal is like. You may even tell that person that the portrayal is flattering (because, let’s face it, you’re not going to find many people who want to be portrayed as the idiotic, misogynistic boss, so that’s not the conversation you’ll be having). But that still doesn’t mean things will go smoothly. Telling the person it’s a nice portrayal presents a few problems.

First, your idea of nice may not be hers. That cute honking noise she makes when she laughs may be something she was relentlessly teased about in fourth grade. Now she’s convinced she doesn’t do that anymore, despite the flocks of geese that land on her yard whenever she’s watching Seinfeld reruns. That quirky habit your writer radar picked up on isn’t just quirky, it was born of a horrible childhood trauma. You just don’t know.

Second, you’re essentially locking yourself into a contract. If someone agrees you can use her in your novel in response to you saying your portrayal is nice, you’re stuck. Suddenly, your character is constrained not just by the obstacles in the story but also by the requirement that the way she handles them be flattering to the person you named her after.

Third, real people suck. Jason Borne did more badass stuff within an hour of waking up than most people do in their entire lives. Do you really think cousin Eldridge is essential to the story? It might be nice to give him a nod, since people with names like Eldridge tend to be computer whizzes and die childless, but that’s what the dedication page is for.

Fourth, it’s not over ‘till it’s over. Having just spent three months rewriting the last 30,000 words of my manuscript from scratch, I have no doubt that I’m speaking the truth when I say: you have no idea how things are going to turn out until you’ve written them. And gotten feedback. And rewritten. And gotten more feedback. And written to editorial order and you’re looking at something that is no longer a manuscript, but is actually a book.

Fifth, fictional real people suck more than real real people. Almost every good hero has her demons, just like interesting villains usually have some misplaced good in them. Interesting characters are almost always conflicted, but your Aunt Sallie does not want to read about how she’s torn between her love for your Uncle Bud and her desire for Javier the pool boy. Uncle Bud sure as hell doesn’t want to read about that, and Javier may have just thrown up in his mouth. The alternative is to turn Aunt Sallie into Aunt Mary Sue, which is to say, a cardboard cutout of a one-dimensional, boring Aunt Sallie who doesn’t want Javier to clean her pipes.

Note that I’m not really talking about law on this post, although the others on the topic go pretty deep into legal questions. There is no bright line between the (statistically unlikely but enormously expensive) legal problems that can stem from using a person in a novel and the (financially free but highly likely and personally costly) family/friend problems that can stem from using a person in a novel.

The bottom line, when it comes to friends and family, is that you need a really good reason to need to include them. And if you’re just writing a novel, there usually isn’t one.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t use their traits. Mine the crap out of those. Those traits are what makes good writing. But mix and match traits and jobs and relationships and appearances and genders so that no character is discernibly a person two cubicles down or whose name you might draw for the family Christmas gift exchange.

Got an axe to grind? Don’t do it. Now you’re substituting personal motives for good storytelling, and your book won’t be as good. Everything we write should be in furtherance of the story. Our traumas, heartbreaks, and hatreds can provide powerful fuel for a good narrative, if we use them to serve it. Setting out with a score to settle is the opposite – your story is now being used to serve your pissy little vendetta. Get over it. Your story matters more than revenge – which will just come across as whiny anyway. Your emotions serve the story, never the other way around.

Question Three: What about names?

Short Answer: A rose by any other name…

You don’t insulate yourself (much) by taking a person who is clearly known and slapping a new name on him. The flipside is, you don’t have much of a problem taking a name from someone you know and slapping it on a character. But you should be doing that for the same reasons characters get other names – it’s the best name for the job.

Case Study: Rochelle Ames

There is a character in Velvet Falls named Rochelle Ames. Her daughter, Susan, introduces her in the narrative by saying, “that bleach-blonde narcissistic bitch is my mother.” She is not a nice person. On the plus side, she’s hot. Her negatives include being slutty, manipulative, narcissistic, a horrible mother, greedy, short-sighted, and adulterous. She also has a drinking problem.

I named her after my Critique Partner.

A couple of things about the real Rochelle. She is not bleach-blonde, she is not narcissistic, and she is not a bitch. Since I’m in trouble if I say she’s “not hot” and probably in even more trouble if I say she is “hot” I’m just skipping that part of the analysis, although I will say she is a beautiful young lady who in no way physically resembles said bleach-blonde bitch. The remaining items on the list are also nonstarters.

But you’ve gotta admit, Rochelle is a killer name for a manipulative blonde seductress. That’s how Rochelle Ames got the name Rochelle. Plus Real Rochelle knows this book better than anyone but me, she is so different from the villain named for her it’s an inside joke, and the name just fits.

What about Ames? That’s where those personality characteristics come into play. Think about it.

. . . . . . Thinking?

Let me ask you this, have you read East of Eden?

If you have, I don’t need to say another word. If you haven’t, you should. But, basically, I knew what the character had to be before I named her, and found the literary character who most consistently matches her (Cathy Ames).

So that’s a pretty good window into the type of things I consider when naming characters. I start with the thing that will serve the story best. Within that, if I can tuck an inside joke and a literary Easter egg, I’m all for it.

But the character herself is 100% fictional. And bears no resemblance to any narcissistic, self-centered, greedy, manipulative women I’ve ever met.


The Danger of Following Advice About How to Write (Or: Advice from Nobel laureates r teh suk)

Because writers love to write, there is no shortage of things that have been written about writing. Add the countless interviews with famous writers, where one writer talks to another writer about writing, and pretty much everything there is to know about how to write has been written. That’s a good thing.

It’s also a bad thing.

Or, more accurately, it can be a very bad thing when writers read just enough about writing to “become dangerous.” Particularly when a new, inexperienced, and/or unpublished writer is faced with advice from someone more experienced than she is; i.e., pretty much everyone. What I advise doing with that advice is precisely what I advise doing with regard to advice you get from other writers in the same situation in On Critiques and Writing Advice (Or: Editing on teh interwebs r teh suk). Whether the advice comes from a Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prizewinner, ten-time NYT Bestselling Author, or some schmuck like me, what you should do with that advice remains the same:

You should be willing to consider everything, but don’t get bullied into anything. If you get advice that improves your writing, it was good advice. If not, disregard it.

Many of you may respond to this by saying something along the lines of 



The answer is, yes. I am absolutely serious. Which leads to the follow-up inquiry:


Or, more accurately, WTF makes me think I can ignore the advice of someone who won the Nobel or the Pulitzer or sold a bagillion books? Let alone tell you to listen to me instead of them.

God, I must be an arrogant prick.

Except, that’s not really what I’m saying. I am certainly not saying to ignore the advice. That’s where the you should be willing to consider everything part comes into play. You should never ignore a piece of writing advice from anyone. The point here, and it cannot be overstated, is that you can’t write better just by doing something someone tells you to. Ever. You have to figure out how the advice offered fits with your writing. Regardless of who’s giving the advice, it might not work for you.

Which brings us back to me being an arrogant prick. It’s also where you can use the tsunami of advice about writing to your advantage. You see, there are few things, if any, that writers agree on.

I have absolutely no problem ignoring Steven King’s advice to sit down and write because outlining is a waste of time. The fact that E. L. Doctorow seems to agree with him doesn’t sway me, either. While they’re both fine writers, I’ve tried writing with and without an outline. I write better with one. So King and Doctorow can kiss my lily-white ass.

Arrogant? Not really. If there was a general consensus among all the great writers that outlining hampered storytelling, I’d be inclined to force myself to write without one, figuring I’d eventually get their point. But there isn’t. A quick internet search says that, among others, the list of people who completely disagree with Steve end E.L., include: Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, James Salter, Henry Miller, J.K. Rowling, William Faulkner, John Grisham, John Irving, Margaret Atwood, Hillary Mantel, and what appears to be a majority of renowned writers. All three of last year’s Pulitzer finalists outline, too. 

So it’s not that outlining does or doesn’t work. Steven King thinks he writes better without one. More power to him. John Irving thinks he writes better with one. Who am I (or who is E. L. Doctorow) to tell him he’s wrong? And nobody, other than me, is in a position to tell me whether I write better with or without one. 

It’s tempting to look at a phenomenally successful novelist and try to emulate her process as much as possible. The problem is, while there are valuable things to learn from that process, not all of it may add value to your writing.

Writing habits are a good case in point. Some writers advise that you must write first thing in the morning. Others say you must require yourself to write a certain number of words per day. Still others advise that your brain is at its peak in the late morning and early afternoon. One famous writer says that, until the story is completed, you must dedicate nearly every waking hour to it’s completion. Another is more concerned with having a firm cutoff, so your writing does not get stale. E. B. White likened writing to surfing, and advised waiting for inspiration to arrive then riding it like a wave. None of them are wrong. None of them are right, either. Except with respect to themselves and their own habits.

I’m reasonably certain that advice from successful writers about writing habits is advice for overcoming those particular writers’ weaknesses. If you’re prone to procrastination or easily distracted, committing yourself to sit down and write for a set number of hours first thing in the morning makes sense. It worked for Earnest Hemingway, anyway. If you tend to obsess about minutiae to the point it interferes with getting a reasonable amount of words out, setting a minimum word count will compensate for that. I suffer from writer’s diarrhea, not writer’s block, and I could happily write seven or ten hours at a time. But I’ve also found, particularly with humor and satire, my writing starts getting stale after four. The key for me is a firm cutoff, and it has nothing to do with the number of words I’ve written. All of those essays and interviews about author habits are interesting, but they don’t change what my individual strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses are.

A friend from writers boards loves to quote Heinlein’s Rules of Writing. The most famous (infamous) of which preaches:

 You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

Contrast that with Earnest Hemingway:

I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Heinlein says, “refrain from rewriting” Vladimir Nabokov says, “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” Those opposite, mutually exclusive approaches worked, both men achieved their goals. 

So, there it is. Plenty of advice about how to write, which begs the question:

I think the first step is take writing advice for what it is — that particular author’s take on how that particular author writes best. Sometimes, maybe even how that particular author wrote a particular book or story best. None of the advice out there will tell you how you should write everything. It’s useful, but its usefulness is almost archaeological. You can look at how prior writers achieved success. It can’t hurt to take note of those things. Just realize you are looking at something that happened to someone else in the past, not a blueprint for your future success. Being able to take bits and pieces of knowledge and tailor them to ideally match your strengths and weaknesses is a blueprint for success.

The real lesson is seldom found in the advice itself. That advice does, however, give you a way to understand the reason for the process. 2,000 word per day minimum? That goal seems to insure against procrastination or getting sidetracked with research questions. Advice to wait for the “perfect wave” makes me think E. B. White constantly came up with ideas, unless he was writing something else. He had to stay unconnected from a story until he knew it was the right one, because the faucet turned off for him when he was working on a story. Don’t revise? Many people think this advice is stupid, but a writer prone to endless cycles of revisions won’t ever submit anything. Even a rough draft is a better submission than no submission. Somewhere between never revising and revising until you’re in a pine box is something we can use. 

So, I’m not saying ignore writing advice from great writers. However, you don’t want to follow it, either. It’s useless at face value, but there is a lot of value to understanding the motivation behind it. For fun, take the next piece of writing advice someone quotes at you and research its opposite. There’s about a 99% chance you will find a Nobel Laureate saying that you must avoid doing whatever that piece of advice is telling you to do. 

The bottom line is: Our novels are the product of a lot of variables, the most important of which is how our brains individually function. As much as I love reading Kafka and Hemingway, I’m also happy my brain functions differently from theirs. No matter who’s giving it, we can’t just follow advice about how to write. But we can mine it for the lessons it stems from, learn from the perspectives it offers, and even take it for a test drive. It it works, use it.  But that way you’re using it because it works for you, not just because someone told you to do it that way.

Writer Unfiltered

Filters are usually a good thing. The oil filter in your car makes the engine run better, the filter in your heater cleans the air you breathe, and the filter on your fish tank makes it look like this:


Yay, filters!

In writing, though, “filters” are considered bad things. Filtering words are words that put a layer between the story and the reader. For example, “He watched a bolt of lightening strike the tree” is a filtered version of “Lightning struck the tree.” By “filtered,” in this example, I mean shitty.

So, how is this kind of filter bad when every other kind of filter is good? Easy, filter words aren’t really filter words. Filters clean things so they’re pure. Filter words are impurities. Not only are they misnamed, the name is the opposite of what they are. The story isn’t “filtered” by needlessly passing it through someone’s perspective, it’s cluttered by doing so. They shouldn’t be called filter words at all. They should be called: Words that prove my fucking filter broke and now my writing looks like this:


Boo words that prove my fucking filter broke!

I realize they’re called “filter words” because they pass the action through a character’s perspective before it gets to the reader. The problem I have with the term is, just dragging something through something else and adding impurities is not filtering. Straining a glass of water through a pile of horseshit is just a way to add horseshit to your water. It’s not a filter.

We’ll start with the easy part: Identifying horseshit words that prove the fucking filter’s broke

I’m going to start with a list, right after I warn you about it. As far as it goes, it’s a decent list of (for lack of a better term that isn’t eight words long) filter words. It’s in past-tense because, well, I write fiction in past tense. If you use present, tweak it. As a filter-word filter, this list isn’t bad. It won’t catch them all (because there are no limits to the ways we can add horseshit to our writing) but it catches the overwhelming majority in my writing. I don’t write “He itched for another glass of tea” often enough to include “itched” on the list. When editing, I still see “itched” as a variant of “wanted” and know I’m filtering. So, long story short, the list has limitations.

Here is my list of horseshit words that prove the fucking filter’s broke.

Realized (This is my personal Achilles’ heel)

What do you do with a list of horseshit words?

Whatever you want to. It was a gift. I’ll tell you what I do, but that has a lot to do with how I like to edit myself. I’m a big fan of using the search function as an editing tool. I will go through a completed manuscript and look at every word ending in “ly” to see if it’s an adverb and, if so, whether I need a stronger verb or can just cut it. I also go through my manuscript and look at each word on that list. I look at the sentence, decide whether it’s “filtering” or not and, if it is, decide whether it needs to stay. I do it with the root (e.g., “wonder”) so I catch not only “wonder,” and “wondered,” but also “wondering.” Some, like “saw” require separate searches (“see”).

On the one hand, this is a huge fucking pain in my ass. Going through 100,000 words and looking at every use of “saw,” “see,” “seeing,” and “seen” is time consuming and tedious. On the other hand, I think the search function forces us to stop on things that we would otherwise miss in our writing. You can’t gloss over something without noticing it when it’s highlighted in yellow. When I’m stopped like that, I find I’m much more objective about my sentences.

But, whether you use the list as something to keep in mind when writing or something to keep in mind when editing or something to plug into the search function to look at individually — or, like me, shoot for all three — a list is a decent starting point.

What shouldn’t you do with a list of horseshit words?

Think of it as a list of horseshit words, for starters.

  • Not all uses of those words are filtering. “The prisoner watched the searchlight sweep the yard, timing his sprint.” He needs to watch the light to make his break. The significance here is not the light’s sweeping, it is the act of watching it. Watching is the key action in the sentence. As a general rule, when the filtering word is also the key action, it’s not filtering. If your story is about a cult brainwashing someone, that character finally “believing” may be the story’s inciting event. Inciting events are not horseshit.
  • Not all filtering is bad (the gray area). I’m editing a beautiful literary piece right now, and the opening scene is a woman giving birth under a mosquito net in Nigeria, Her anesthesia is a stick they gave her to bite down on. If every sentence was “she felt this” and “she felt that,” well, for starters I wouldn’t have just described it as beautiful. Considering the nature of the scene, the number of filter words is impressively small. This is admittedly in a gray area between non-filtering and filtering uses, because what she’s feeling is central to the chapter. The deft use of a light hand with the filtering though, clarified the picture (truly filtering it) instead of obscuring. Even by Nigerian mosquito net standards, this birth does not go well, and the pain is largely described as pain, not her “feeling” pain. So on those occasions when we are told what she feels, it draws us in instead of pushing us away.
  • Some filtering is good (the lesser of two evils). Filtering is often a way of avoiding the much, much bigger sin of head-hopping. Comparing the two in a legal context, filtering is like a speeding ticket — you can get away with it once in a while, but if you do it much, you’ll get caught. Do it too often, you may even lose your license. Head-hopping, on the other hand, is like using a chainsaw to decapitate nuns. Absent the zombie apocalypse, once is too often. Used with a light hand, filtering can give the benefits of head hopping without requiring you to fire up the chainsaw. Instead of hopping from one’s mind to another’s to convey “God I hate being hit on in bars,” you can stay with the first person and convey the second’s thoughts: “She looked weary, not leery. He realized she wasn’t afraid of being hit on, she was sick of it.” Without breaking POV, filtering lets you effectively communicate a second person’s thoughts. This application may be the most accurate use of the term, because you are filtering a second POV through your POV character to share the information without breaking POV. Although I still wouldn’t call it “filtering.” Let’s call that move “POV laundering.”

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