Tuesday, September 13, 2022


The Fab Four Synopsis-Creation Method

I’m doing a synopsis-brainstorming session this week with my plotting students (If you’d like access to such fun sessions, join the Plot Blueprint Course! http://bit.ly/plotblueprint).  They might be disappointed not to end up with a complete 10-page synopsis (in 2 hours? :), but this isn’t about writing the synopsis but rather conceptualizing the story in miniature– BEFORE writing the story synopsis.

(BORING STUFF HERE ABOUT WHAT A SYNOPSIS IS. Synopsis: A narrative summary of a longer story, used primarily to “sell” the story to editors and agents.BLABLABLA)

I’ve read a few thousand synopses– the price of a stint as an acquiring editor– and generally that’s what they are: Boring Stuff.  A long stringy outline of disconnected plot events.  A couple “hot taglines” and a “hook” and a final “insightful sentence”.  A resulting sense of futility and failure.

Hey, let’s not do that.

Maybe you have to write a synopsis because you want to submit to an editor or agent. Maybe you need one for your publicity packet so that interviewers will have questions for you even if they don’t actually read the book. Maybe you are going to address a book club and want to provide some explanatory material. Maybe you are planning the sequel to a story and want to make sure it connects thematically.

I mean, no one writes a synopsis because it’s fun (because it isn’t fun). But if you have to do it, let’s have some fun– and in having fun, we’ll end up with a much better synopsis and even a better understanding of what the audience will love about our story.

So… no one’s more fun than the Fab Four, right? Got to stop and say the Beatles are on my mind this week because I’m listening to the amazing Andrew Hickey’s podcast, History of Rock Music in 500 Songs, and he just covered “All You Need Is Love.” Check it out.

Okay, okay, some will point out that using the Beatles as a reference will date me. Ha! I was a member of the original 1965 US Beatles fan club, and now my grandbaby is going to be raised as a Beatle fan (if I have any say in the matter!). The Beatles are timeless… just like me. :)

Here they are — timelessly adorable.

John, Paul, GeorgeRingo.  The Beatles are the absolute proof of the truism that “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” So is your story. It’s not plot+character+setting+theme+emotion+voice+prose+dialogue.  All those things come together like the Beatles to be more than the sum of elements– they interact to become the story.

First thing then is to think of the synopsis as a “mini-story”, not a plot outline.  This isn’t about events. This is about the feel of the story, the sound of your voice, the journey of the characters, as created by the merging of plot+character+setting+theme+emotion+voice+prose+dialogue.

Second tip is to move beyond those pieces of story to the integrative aspects of the story– the sort of secret ingredients that YOU put into the story, you the author who thinks and feels and speaks and writes in a unique way that might seem separate but work together so well in you.

Where do the Beatles come in?

Well, if you know anything about them, you know that each is unique himself, and has become sort of a “signifier” of a particular aspect of the whole. You know, Paul is the cute one, Ringo the funny one, etc.

Here’s my own categorization of the boys in the band. It will not be the same as yours perhaps, but here is what I think each contributes to the whole that is the Beatles (and keep track, because these will be the elements of our synopsis-conceptualization).

John: The Passion. Sure, John Lennon is usually considered “the smart one”, but “passion” is what he really manifested from the first, when he impetuously demanded that that kid with the bass guitar join his new band, through his wildly romantic disruptions, to his tragic death. He’s all despair and obsession and longing. What’s the passion in your story? What’s the John? What’s the central emotion, the demand you make on your reader to FEEL THIS!

Now I don’t mean that every story has to be wildly emotional. After all, John wrote the almost sociopathically chill song “Norwegian Wood” (around the same time he wrote the achingly poignant “In My Life”). But just as “Norwegian Wood” conveys the emotion of someone just exhausted by emotion, even your most clinical cyberpunk story has some passion in it, I bet. Maybe it’s the subliminal terror of technological apocalypse, or the secret longing for a more organic life, or something else– something that arose out of what you or your characters want or fear. What’s that?

That’s the JOHN of your story. That’s what I’ve always thought of as the “heart of the story”– the central emotional experience that creates the plot propulsion. It doesn’t have to be flashy. I have a story where the “heart” is two lonely, quiet people finding the courage to love again. What about yours? What will the audience feel while reading your story?

Paul: The Curiosity.  What? Paul– the writer of the “silly little love songs”, the devoted husband and father, the band cheerleader– isn’t the emotion center, the heart, the passion? Nah. I’m sure he’s just as sweet as he always seemed to me (of course, I went for the cute one!). But musically, within the Beatles, Paul was all about experimentation, novelty, fusion– “I wonder what will happen if…” You know, it wasn’t John or George who championed the very young Jimi Hendrix and his guitar experimentation– it was Paul, who also dabbled in weird electronic music even as he resurrected the oompah melodies of his father’s music hall tradition.

While the John-penned songs tended to be melodic cries from the heart (“Help!”), Paul would justforthehellovit mix traditional harmonies with off-beat characters (“Paperback Writer”), then transcend rock (guitar+drum) entirely with the symphonic “She’s Leaving Home”. Many of the groundbreaking experiments on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper (along with the very concept of the “concept album”) were inspired by Paul’s curiosity. And this is why he’s now regarded as the most technically impressive of the Beatles, the most musically interesting, even if he mostly wrote (as he called it) “silly little love songs”.

 What’s the Paul in your story?

What’s curious and unexpected in your presentation of the plot and characters? What’s experimental and what’s a throwback? It might be your convention-busting approach to a conventional story (“The Three Little Pigs” told from the wolf’s point of view??), or your fusion of genres, or your innovative juxtaposition of tropes, or your Paulish delight in alliteration and rhythm.   What might go right over the head of a casual reader but be recognized by an editor or agent as truly exceptional? What most reflects the uniqueness of your voice and vision, or your particular excellence?

George: The Spirituality. George was the youngest Beatle, and the one most involved in that era’s spiritual awakening, most eager to bust free of the hidebound mindset of postwar Britain. And the other Beatles bemusedly followed his lead to India and meditation and weird harmonic convergences in music. At the time, some cynics thought of him as a dilettante, dabbling in practices he didn’t understand. But spirituality was a lifelong quest for him, giving him the courage to ask the really big questions that western philosophy and religion didn’t fully answer– about purpose and inner peace and being simultaneously “within you and without you”.

Like Paul, George liked to experiment, especially with non-western stringed instruments like the sitar and the ukelele. In fact, his experiments in music are a lot more apparent, especially in the middle period (Revolver and Rubber Soul) where his use of Indian melodies give many songs a unique and fresh sound. Later he would laugh about the amateurishness of his early sitar skills, but that willingness to risk failure, to be a beginner again, is a necessity for spiritual seeking. He sought answers, but not “yes/no” answers– more he was seeking insights, enlightenment– and more questions.  For George, the journey was the destination.

What’s the George in your story? Are you exploring any deep questions about identity or connection? Are you using interrogative techniques like a mystery or quest structure? Do you take your characters on a journey from one life or emotion condition to another? What themes or message do you want to convey in this story? And is there some seeking of your own that inspires the story? What in this story shows your desire to discover, learn, become more?

Ringo: The Fun. Ringo is the odd-man-out alongside this trio of serious seekers. But of course, he’s essential to the totality of the Beatles– supplying the irreverence, the tolerance, the pleasure, the downright FUN.  First off, of course, he’s effortlessly comedic, tossing off funny lines, beaming that infectious grin, jovially refusing to be impressed or intimidated. Heck, he wasn’t afraid to sing lead in his uncertain baritone, even there in a studio with three accomplished singers. He was even willing to stick his own goofy fun song “Octopus’s Garden” in the middle of the epic album Abbey Road. And he laughingly joined into the role-playing of the Sgt. Pepper band, poking fun at his own status in “With a Little Help From My Friends”.

Through fame and fortune, tragedy and tumult, Ringo was always clearly having a good time, and reminding his gloomier bandmates that rock and roll is supposed to be fun.  No surprise he later entertained a new generation as the narrator for the Thomas the Train cartoon series.  But Ringo is a good reminder that fun doesn’t have to be shallow, as his compassion and serenity manifest in his sunny attitude. Most of all, his humor derives from his impressive self-confidence, which is leavened with a easygoing tolerance for others.

So where is the Ringo in your story? Even if this isn’t a comedy, is there an undercurrent of humor or unpredictability in your prose or your situations? Are your descriptions colorful and quirky? Are your characters all uniquely themselves, rendered with your authorial empathy? And maybe your whole story shows that self-love and confidence that always characterizes Ringo? If you’re asked, “What will your audience find fun about your story,” what would you pinpoint?

Okay, now what? Jot down your insights about those essential elements in your story here:

John: The Passion of my story is                                                       

Paul: The Curiosity of my story is                                                       

George: The Spirituality of my story is                                                       

Ringo: The Fun of my story is                                                       

Done? Is that the synopsis? Of course  not.  You still have to do all the plot summarizing and character journeying and theme developing stuff. But… but before you get into the boring part, start with the passion, the curiosity, the spirituality, and the fun. Figure those out in your story, and then we can get going on how to incorporate those into your synopsis so it won’t be boring at all.

After I work through all this with my plotting students, I’ll get back with some examples of infusing the Beatles into a synopsis. In the meantime, try this exercise for yourself, with the Beatles singing for you.Here’s my Spotify playlist for this exercise! (You’ll have to sign up for an account, but it’s free.)

Thursday, July 21, 2022

I had an article about me here about giving video feedback with writing advice--

Use Feedback Videos to Improve Retention and Growth in Online Writing Courses  


Typed comments on papers can feel accusatory. This writing professor (and prolific writer) uses psychology and technology to set a positive tone.


Alicia Rasley, MA

Adjunct Assistant Professor of English and Writing Advisor, University of Maryland University College

MA and BA in English Literature

Rasley’s free e-book: Outline Your Plot in 60 Minutes

Award-winning author Alicia Rasley, MA, was inspired to become a better instructor, at least in part, by her experience teaching at a university with a 50% failure rate.

An award-winning author of nine novels and several nonfiction works (including a book on how to write books), Rasley has always been passionate about writing.

So, several years ago, Rasley was not happy when she found herself at an institution with “a focus on gatekeeping.” There, after a series of assessments, one group of students would be allowed to continue their studies, but the “gate” would close for those not deemed worthy to move on. That amounted to about half of her students. For Rasley, that idea was absurd.

Students need to be supported, she says, especially when they are stepping outside of their comfort zone. So she moved on—to a more supportive school. Now, as an adjunct assistant professor and writing advisor at University of Maryland University College, she makes “supportiveness” a focal point in her teaching.

More here: https://www.coursehero.com/faculty-club/best-lessons/feedback-videos/

Monday, June 27, 2022

For Dappled Things: The Serendipity of Coincidence


For Dappled Things

By Alicia Rasley


Coincidence is trivial, tricky, falsely weird. But… it’s also magical.

Appreciate coincidence—it brings wonder.

As fiction writers, we’re told to avoid coincidence as a way to solve the story conflict! Coincidence is too easy, too contrived, too manipulative, too “author-intrusive.” Solving plot problems with a coincidence means the characters don’t have to grow and change. And that’s all true! Coincidence is bad in fiction.

 However, coincidence in real life—well, it happens. And maybe we might consider it something of a message from… the universe? Why not? After all, it’s one of our tasks and skills of being human to discover and create patterns, to assign meaning to what might actually be random—or at least to marvel at the unique confluence of color and shape and happenstance that creates a kaleidoscope image.

 Maybe we should sometimes stop and gaze at that coincidence as we would that kaleidoscopic pattern.

 Here’s a coincidence—or actually kind of a cascade of coincidences—that just happened to me. During all my years of teaching and writing, I’ve saved a lot of… paper. Scrap paper, old assignments, handouts for workshops, articles, and poems. Most of them are jammed into a big box under my desk, undisturbed for years… until we got a kitten. Poppy. She’s a cute little brown-and-gray tabby, both striped and spotted. (She’s cuter than that sounds!)  She is an agent of chaos. She leaves nothing undisturbed.

And she likes to roll about under my desk, biting my feet.

This morning I got up to find a sheet of paper in the middle of the bedroom floor. The nibbled corners told us Poppy had taken this from my box and brought it upstairs to us. Well, better a piece of paper than a dead mouse. We joked that she clearly wanted to send us a message. But what?

 Turns out, this wasn’t a blank sheet, but a printout of a particular poem:

Pied Beauty 


 Glory be to God for dappled things –

   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                                Praise him.


Wow. What a … coincidence. See, Poppy is nothing if not dappled, stippled, freckled, and goodness knows, fickle. She’s a tabby—striped and polka-dotted and brindled. She’s a dappled thing! And she somehow chose this poem about dappled things!


 We got the message. Yeah, Poppy bites our ankles and tears up paper napkins and steals our socks—but we should thank God and the universe for her and other dappled imperfect and dazzling things.


Sometimes coincidence has a fancier synonym—Synchronicity.  That’s when what seems to be just a coincidence turns out to have a wonderful quality of coherence, resonance, meaning.  And then there’s the term “serendipity”, which brings a rosy glow of optimism and gratitude. That’s what happened when I picked up that chewed-on page. I felt… serendipitous.

 As soon as I read the poem title, I was transported back to an afternoon a decade ago, when I was in London with my dear late friend Lynn Kerstan, a Shakespeare scholar turned romance novelist. We were in Westminster Abbey, coincidentally in the Poet’s Corner. She noticed the sunlight filtering red and blue and green through the stained glass, and started reciting this-  “Glory be to God for dappled things.” I can still hear her low contralto, slow and thoughtful over the lines:

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

 Does anyone write poems anymore with such careful creation of sound—the juxtaposed words, the bumpy syllables, the syncopated alliteration, the counterpointed rhyme scheme? All that jamming and contradicting just echoes the “dappling”— an audial rendition of the colliding of color and shape Hopkins thanks God for.

 And—the synchronicity continues.  Years later, soon after Lynn had passed away, I was back in London among those dappled sunbeams.  Remembering that Lynn sang many Evensongs in an Anglican choir, I wandered into the Abbey for the service. That day there was a mixed choir—children and adults in matching pristine robes. Their voices lilted up into the late afternoon sunlight as they sang the old canticles—the Introit and the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis.

 Then the Dean of the cathedral came to the lectern for the homily. And he started by reciting… “Glory be to God for dappled things.”

 All things counter, original, spare, strange;

   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                                Praise him.

 Of course the Dean used this poem to convey some lesson about appreciating nature and diversity and tolerance—all very worthy! But I knew what was really happening. Lynn was sending me a message through those sunbeams and those voices and that poem.

 I know. It was just a coincidence.

 And coincidence really is just an accident—the accidental collision of two events or thoughts. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. No great power is making this confluence happen.

 But… if the randomness of coincidence strikes some chord in us—unearths a memory, manifests an image, echoes a friend’s voice—well, that’s magic. Accidental magic, maybe. But it’s the magic of meaning.

 There is nothing more human than making meaning, even of random occurrences, even of accidents, even of the detritus of daily events. We make quilts out of fabric scraps, we make paintings out of chance glimpses, we make stories out of momentary feelings. We take the chaos of existence and make order and pattern and art.

 Coincidences are just accidents, but what is important is the meaning we make of them. They’re reminders to remember, to care, to consider—to create.




My friend Lynn Kerstan

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered


One of my books got remaindered last year, so I got to buy hundreds of copies very cheap. That's a good thing (except the boxes are taking up room in my garage).  But it reminded me of this poem by Clive James that is just so full of  pleasurable schadenfreude:

(Remaindering means that this book or edition has gone out of print, but the publisher still has an inventory and sells the copies at a steep discount to distributors or the authors.)

'The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered'

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,

The rest of it is here:


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Yet another misplaced modifier, this one affecting a cast of MILLIONS.

I have an endless supply of these revision-needed sentences, so I'm going to continue to harangue you. :) 

In longer sentences, you will often have several nouns and several verbs, and some of those will have modifying words, phrases, and clauses. Here's one:

Let's not elect high-level government officials who make decisions for millions who have clear ethical issues. 


The officials, presumably. Or maybe it's "the millions"? 

The verbs don't help. Sometimes the "number" (singular or plural) form of a noun can help us figure it out--

If this were:

Let's not elect A high-level government OFFICIAL who MAKES decisions for millions who HAS clear ethical issues. 

Because "a" and "official" and  "makes" and "has" all mean "one person", we can assume that "has clear ethical issues" refers to the "official". 

We can assume... but the writer shouldn't rely on OUR superior understanding of subject-verb agreement to make sense of the sentence. Better would be:

Let's not elect A high-level government OFFICIAL who HAS clear ethical issues who MAKES decisions for millions.

Now if you read that aloud, you would probably mentally edit that to get rid of the second "who" and maybe the first too--

Let's not elect A high-level government OFFICIAL with clear ethical issues to MAKE decisions for millions.

Here we reduce a clause {"who has clear ethical issues" and "who makes decisions" are both relative clauses with a subject --who-- and a verb) to a phrase ("with" starts a prespositional phrase here, and "to make" starts an infinitive phrase). Reducing the, shall we call it "syntactical complexity", of a modifier usually makes the sentence clearer, as it's more obvious what the main subject/verb unit is (Let's not elect). 

So... back to the original sentence. 

Let's not elect high-level government officials who make decisions for millions who have clear ethical issues. 

The quickest fix is moving the "who have" clause to be adjacent to the word it modifies:

Let's not elect high-level government officials who have clear ethical issues 

Then again we are going to have to go with an infinitive (to make) because now those stacked "whos" don't work--

Let's not elect high-level government officials with clear ethical issues to make decisions for millions.

I'm not pretending this is a great sentence. But it's a grammatical sentence that clearly conveys exactly what the author meant.

Another episode of  read and revise like an editor. :) 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Rules, Rules, Can I Please Break Them?

Rules, Rules, Can I Please Break Them? 

Okay, one more guy making rules! This is Raymond Chandler's hard-won wisdom on plotting the crime:

1) It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.

2) It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.

3) It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.

4) It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

5) It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.

6) It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.

7) The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.

8) It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.

9) It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.

10) It must be honest with the reader.

And then, just for fun, some great Chandler quips (no, not the Chandler from Friends. This is the one he's probably named for): 

The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say goodbye is to die a little.
  - The Long Goodbye

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.
The High Window

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
– The Big Sleep

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.- Farewell, My Lovely

She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.
- Farewell, My Lovely

I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.
- Philip Marlowe’s Guide To Life

Some days I feel like playing it smooth. Some days I feel like playing it like a waffle iron. - Trouble Is My Business

She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.
- The Little Sister

I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked. - The Long Goodbye

Hard-bitten. Hard-won. Heart-broke wisdom. 


S.S. Van Dine's 20 Rules for Detective Stories

THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic se’ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.

If you're interested in "golden-age" detective stories, listen to the Great Detectives of Old Radio podcast, which has restored the old radio dramas of SS. Van Dine. 



Ronald Knox: 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction-- Which do you argue with?

Ronald Knox: 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction

Ronald Knox: 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction

Ronald Knox was quite the eclectic fella-- a Roman Catholic priest (so of course he has to compile 10 Commandments), as well as a mystery writer who hung out with Agatha Christie and GK Chesterton in the Detection Club.  He came up with these rules for mysteries, some of which (#5?) are kinda obsolete

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinese man must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

 Well, these are fun, anyway! I have another list of TWENTY I'll post later.

Ronald Knox: 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction

Monday, April 25, 2022

Correctly Placing Misplaced Modifiers

 Alas, I constantly edit, even when I'm not being paid for it, the author didn't ask for it, and I can't actually share it. It's just a compulsion that happens as I read, especially news stories that have presumably already been edited. 

And heck, why not share the compulsion here? Maybe someone will learn from it. I do 'revision sessions' sometimes with students, just editing on-screen and explaining as I go, and this misplaced modifier problem is one of the most common and also one of the most easily fixed mistakes.

In a sentence, a "modifier" is a word or phrase or clause which "modifies" or deepens or narrows the meaning of another part of the sentence. The most common modifiers are the one-word adjectives and adverbs which add to the meaning of a noun or verb, like: The girl's outfit proudly proclaimed her Ukrainian heritage.

But often the modifier can be an entire phrase: 

  • The play took place in the old Gem Theater
  • He was waiting for the bus to come
  • The morning before the party, the dog got sick.

Or the modifier can be an entire clause (with a noun and verb):
  • He didn't notice the shocked silence that fell across the room when he wrote his name on the board.
  • The more you remember, the more you have to forget.
  • --

Some modifiers are "bound"-- that is, they have to be in a particular position, like just before the noun they modify. You know-- The pink dress. (Not --  The dress pink.) These "bound" modifiers are usually single words or short phrases that modify a noun (that is, they are "adjectival," which means "modifies the noun" :). 

Usually, however, modifiers are unbound, especially the phrase and clause ones, and therein lies the problem. An unbound modifier can "legally" be moved around to different parts of the sentence, but what's possible isn't always what you mean. Sometimes being too free-range with modifiers creates the horrific crime of a dangler, where impossible and sometimes painful things happen:

One day she hunted for a moose wearing diamond earrings.

Decisively blocking the knife, her eyes narrowed with purpose.


I have a lot of examples of this kind of mistake, but just for now, let's fix an easy one, adapted from a sentence in a major mag article:

She admitted her enjoyment of the bullying on Facebook last year. 

Many misplaced phrases have to do with time or place-- the "where and when" of the sentence. I see this most often when there are more than one actions in the sentence, as here:

She /admitted /her enjoyment /of the bullying. (Ignore the "on Facebook" and "last year" for a moment so we can focus on the kernel sentence.)

Subject/Verb/direct object/prepositional adjectival phrase.

We usually think of action as being represented by the sentence verb (here, admitted), but actions can also be shown in nouns (participation, bullying). So here there are three actions, all of which took place but perhaps not all at once. 

Actions take place somewhere sometime, and "somewhere sometime" are often important "condition markers" to add to a sentence. (I mean, these words and phrases mark an important condition that changes or specifies something about HOW the action happens.)

But while the position of where/when modifiers might be moveable, the reality isn't: SOMETHING happened last year. SOMETHING happened on Facebook. 


1. The admission.

She admitted last year...


She admitted on Facebook...

2. Her enjoyment.

...  her enjoyment on Facebook...


...  her enjoyment last year...

3. The bullying.

...of the bullying on Facebook.


...of the bullying last year.

(I know it's not a great sentence because I modified it to protect the guilty. :)

Because the author placed the where/when modifiers at the end of the sentence, right after "bullying", readers will be forced to assume that the bullying took place last year on Facebook. And that might be exactly what happened (although it's not in this case).

But... what if that's not right? What if the bullying took place last year at school, and she enjoyed viewing a video about it last week, and is only admitting it on Facebook?

What happened on Facebook?

What happened last year?

(Some of this info might have been revealed in previous sentences, though not in this case. And still, that's no excuse for imprecision in this sentence. When all it takes is a moment to get it right, make it right. :)

What's a revision which makes those very clear so that the readers won't be confused about what happened when and where?

On Facebook, she admitted her enjoyment of the bullying last year.


She admitted on Facebook her enjoyment of the bullying last year.

Sometimes it helps to "bind" a modifier to the modified word so that there's absolutely no question--

She admitted on Facebook her enjoyment of last year's bullying.


This is just one sentence and one set of facts, and one point of misplacement. Though I will try, there's no way to identify every possible opportunity for imprecision. 

There are as many options as there are possible permutations of actions and actors and conditions in any sentence. But ONLY ONE IS CORRECT. This isn't about delicate subtext or deliberate ambiguity or debated issues. This is just about placing factual information in the correct place in the sentence. You can get it right as easily as you can get it wrong. But you have to recognize when it's wrong, and then make it right.

Anyhoo, point is: Be sensitive to the meaning you create when you put a modifier somewhere in the sentence. Stop and think about the various interpretations the readers might make of this placement, and whether moving the modifier might make more sense. Time and/or place modifiers are especially tricky.

So if I mean the ADMISSION, not the enjoyment or the bullying, took place on Facebook, I have two easy options (the first being optimal). While we're at it, let's make clear it was the bullying and not the admission that took place last year.

On Facebook, she admitted her enjoyment in the bullying last year.

She admitted on Facebook her enjoyment in last year's bullying.

I have a bunch more examples that I'll post and fix in the future. Usually in order not to shame the writers and editors (who, grumble grumble, should know better), I'll change the words and keep the construction.

This is what passes for giggly gossip in my life. :)

A blast from the past-

The columnist James Kilpatrick used to devote his first column of the year to the many ways you can place and misplace the word "only" as a modifier in a sentence, and used this example to show the difference in meaning:

  1. Only John hit Peter in the nose.
  2. John hit only Peter in the nose.
  3. John hit Peter only in the nose.
  4. John only hit Peter in the nose.

(Wouldn't you say "ON the nose"? I would. I'm not sure how deep I would want to hit IN the nose.)

"Almost" and "already" and "just" are other common modifiers that can be moved almost anywhere, but each placement means something different.

Here is a nice British professor who does a great job of showing how to determine what a modifier modifies and how it works in a sentence. 

You can find some good examples of misplaced modifiers at this Guelph University site.