Igniting Conflict: How the Inciting Incident Sets Stories in Motion

Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.

For me, storytelling fundamentally begins with an interruption. At one point in a story, something occurs to interrupt the flow of the main character’s everyday life. This moment is often described as the inciting incident or inciting event of the story. The inciting incident represents a decision, action, or event that introduces the story’s main problem/conflict, thus triggering the rising action of the story. When it comes to writing a story’s inciting event, however, the process isn’t always as straightforward as its definition suggests. Whether a writer diligently plots their story before writing or discovers it as they write,1 creating an interesting inciting incident and inserting it at the right moment can be difficult. Since stories hinge upon their conflict, it’s critical that writers understand how the inciting incident operates in stories (for my purposes, fiction). To this end, I’m going to review some of the general guidelines for writing an inciting incident (with examples of what they look like in practice) as well point out a few tips to identifying whether a story’s inciting incident works well.

Placement: In the Beginning…Somewhere

When formulating a short story or novel’s inciting incident, there are two guiding principles that should be kept in mind. The first is that the inciting incident must occur somewhere in the story’s opening. This point is nonnegotiable. If the inciting incident doesn’t occur in the early portion of the story, there isn’t a conflict to generate the rest of the story. The actual placement, however, is debatable. Some advice places the inciting event roughly halfway between the narrative hook and its first plot point (around the 12% mark of the story). While the placement proffered here seems about right (particularly for writers using a three-act structure to plot their tale), there are stories where the inciting event occurs close to the story’s first plot point (the end of the story’s open) or even much earlier. An excellent example of the latter case is the first lines from Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein):

“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced he wanted to leave me….Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”

Here, Ferrante uses Mario’s desertion as both her novel’s inciting event and narrative hook.2 While this instance demonstrates how writers can be flexible about where they place the inciting incident in the novel’s opening act, most stories will require some exposition to explain why this inciting incident creates conflict for the main character. For example, the narrative hook in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) appears as the first line of the novel, whereas the inciting event (Maxim de Winter’s rather rushed and unromantic marriage proposal) occurs in chapter 6. This pacing makes sense, partly because the narrator needs to shift from present to past (most of the novel is a flashback) and partly because the characters need to meet and become acquainted before an engagement can occur.

Igniting Conflict: How the Inciting Incident Sets Stories in Motion. Text by Rita E. Gould
Gustav’s Freytag’s “pyramid”, which represents his theory of dramatic structure. [Illustration.] Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatic_structure#/media/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg.
 

Impact: Reacting to Life-Altering Change

The second general principle of the inciting incident involves its impact on the main character/protagonist. As I noted above, stories begin with interruption but not just any interruption will do. The inciting incident must have a significant impact on the protagonist’s life, one that forces them to react (in some cases, eventually react when the stakes are raised) to their new circumstances.3 In Days of Abandonment, Mario’s decision to end his marriage with Olga has obvious, life-altering consequences for her. In addition to dealing with this unexpected and unexplained dissolution of her relationship, Olga is also left to care for the couple’s children and home on her own. She essentially transforms from stay-at-home parent and wife of 15 years to single mother. Regardless of how she chooses to react to this situation (in the novel, initially with disbelief), her life is now headed in a new, uncertain direction.

Tips for Assessing Inciting Incidents

Identifying an inciting incident in a published work is one thing. Creating an effective one in our own work, however, is a different matter. Although I can’t claim to have an exhaustive list of strategies that provides specific suggestions for creating the perfect inciting incident (placement of this moment, for example, depends on the story), asking these questions while plotting/writing a tale can help determine whether its inciting incident hits the mark.4

  • Is my inciting incident in the story’s opening?
  • Does the inciting incident divide the story into before (backstory) and after?
  • How does the inciting incident transform the protagonist’s life?

While the first of these questions is more of a checklist item, the others give some guidance on how to interrogate a work-in-progress’s inciting incident. Since one of the hallmarks of the inciting incident is that it cleaves the story into before (backstory) and after (events that occur in response to the inciting incident), we should be able to distinguish them. And the story should be divisible, as the last question indicates, because the inciting incident upsets the protagonist’s status quo.

Backstory events are, of course, necessary for developing the story (the narrator and Maxim de Winter from Rebecca clearly wouldn’t have wed without having first met in Monte Carlo), but they materially change little for the protagonist (following this first encounter, the pair part and go about their usual business). Similarly, the inciting event causes the remaining events in the story (the narrator and Maxim wed but only because he first proposes). Only an inciting incident can and should transform the protagonist’s life.5 If it’s unclear where the division between before and after occurs in a story, the inciting incident is likely weak or absent. When a work-in-progress’s inciting incident fails to alter the main character’s life in some meaningful way (sadly, a problem I discovered in a short story I’m revising), then that incident needs revision. Alternatively, if there are two or more events that could alter the status quo for the protagonist, then the writer needs to choose which option best suits the story and revise accordingly.

Summary

When working with fictional stories, there are numerous moving parts to get in order to before a story is sound. Getting a story underway is challenging though necessary, as the opening gets the readers invested in the tale. And the inciting incident is critical for kicking off conflict in a story. With a firm grasp on how the inciting incident works and a few tactics for detecting whether these story elements work or become wayward, writers should find it easier to get their stories on course.

NOTES:


  1. Better known as a pantster, that is one who writes by said seat of. I’m a bit of hybrid, personally. If you’re curious about where you might fit on that spectrum, have a look at Helen Taylor’s article on plotters vs. pantsters
  2. On occasion, online writing advice conflates the narrative hook with the inciting incident, which is perhaps understandable since both occur early in the story and need to be compelling. And, as the Ferrante’s novel shows, they can be one and the same. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the narrative hook presents an intriguing scenario that baits the reader into reading further by making them wonder what occurs next; inclusion of the story’s inciting incident is optional but not required. 
  3. Reaction seems to be the main character/protagonist’s fate when it comes to the inciting incident, a point discussed well here
  4. This method works also well for identifying an inciting incident in other writers’ works, too. 
  5. Maxim’s hasty proposal changes the narrator from a lady’s companion to the fiancée of a wealthy man (placing her on the same level as Rebecca, his deceased first wife). Given that Maxim neglects to declare his love for the narrator when he proposes, her envy of Rebecca (she wishes she could have the intimacies she assumes Maxim’s first wife share with him but believes a relationship with him is impossible) to jealousy, since she fears that he only wishes to wed her so that he’s not alone with the grief for his first wife. 

Summertime and the Writing Isn’t Easy

Thinking I have hours stretching before me, I’ll occupy myself otherwise only to discover how little time I left myself for writing.

Summertime and the Writing Isn't Easy. Text by Rita E. Gould

Summer starts for me mid-June, when my child’s school year ends and the promise of long days beckons. We spend more time on adventures and work on projects instead of rushing to school and completing homework.1 There are trips to the pool and beach, with an occasional pajama day celebrated. For us, summertime always seems to be a bit more. More social invites, ranging from weddings (the bride was lovely, of course) to vacations. Several family and friend birthdays are also sprinkled through the summer, providing yet another reason to get together at a barbecue and at poolside.

Summertime and the Writing Isn't Easy. Text and photo (this particular one) by Rita E. Gould
Summer project 2018: tie-dye shirts that (hopefully) will be easier on the eyes than the cheap plastic tablecloth is.

But all this more does tend to mean we seem to spend much of our time on the go (particularly weekends), punctuated with the rare, lazy pj day that has a way disappearing with little accomplished. As for those pool and beach days, they also tend to consume an entire day, leaving one exhausted and, perhaps, a bit sunburned). Throw in the odd head cold/seasonal allergies, and it seems that summer evaporates with very little writing done. Whatever happened to summer’s more-ishness?

Summer did. Distractions abound through the year, but beautiful days coupled with the prospect of visiting friends, summer activities such as sports and music lessons,2 as well as road trips makes it easier to slip away from a keyboard. There is also the slipperiness of time itself. Freedom from a fixed schedule, while it promises more opportunity to play as well as to write, curiously unmoors my sense of passing time. Thinking I have hours stretching before me, I’ll occupy myself otherwise only to discover how little time I left myself for writing. Rather unfairly, having more unscheduled time seems to leave more pages blank than when I barely have a moment between activities.

I suppose there’s nothing like the pressure of deadlines and multiple tasks looming to motivate one’s writing. There’s something unpalatable, however, about the notion that one could only really write under some (but not too much) pressure. Surely, one can relax a bit and still write? After, some many say that writers should be in the habit of writing. Perhaps, it’s habit that helps us overcome distraction, lacking motivation, and the notion of “I’ll do it in a bit”. What this summer might need (however close its end may be) is a writing schedule.

Once I get back from my weekend at the shore.

NOTES:


  1. Homework becomes a group effort, when you’re obliged to check it. 
  2. I’m pleased to announce that my child now plays the trumpet instead of the recorder. My ears are endlessly relieved—and our canine guests are marginally less dismayed. (Recorder music strikes terror in the heart of arthritic terriers, causing them to—unprecedentedly—leap, run, and hide.) 

Writing Nevers

Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal.

During grad school, I enrolled in a course that focused on writing personal essays. While I regularly sought out opportunities to improve my writing, my interest in this course partially stemmed from my inexperience with the genre. I’d been in many writing classes and workshops since my teenaged years, but I mostly wrote poetry, fiction, and academic papers. I didn’t (and don’t) keep a journal.1 Discounting those personal statements for college applications, I’d written very little from my perspective.2 Clearly, I missed a stop on my writing journey.

As with all new to new-ish ventures, it took me some time to acclimatize to writing personal essays: I initially found it challenging to unpack my own experiences and turn them into writing material for the weekly theme. I eventually found my pace, and some of my anecdotes made a point well or earned an intended chuckle. But I could see I still had some way to go before I reached real proficiency. And however much I enjoyed the course (reading my classmates’ essays often was inspiring), it seemed unlikely that I’d revisit the personal essay. I never felt quite at home writing about myself.

After writing about a year’s worth of blog posts, I’d like to concede that I may have been mistaken.3

Exploring different ways to write doesn’t necessarily need to achieve a specific endpoint or goal. Any time spent writing or learning about writing isn’t wasted for a writer,4 because more writing makes us write better. And what blogging taught me this year was that I didn’t need to make any grand decisions about future writing. As it happens, I discovered that writing from my viewpoint became easier once I recognized the direction it would take: discussing my writing and reading experiences. I don’t doubt that there are stories that are not mine to tell or genres that I will not master, but the only thing saying never did was limit the paths my writing could take. And frankly, that’s a terrible way to end a tale.

NOTES:


  1. For the record, kudos to everyone who keeps a journal and can, whenever they so desire, peruse a record of events, thoughts, impressions, etc. At present, my attempts still tend to produce writing that has grating “dear diary” tone that kinda bores me. 
  2. Unless we’re counting the occasional insertion of inappropriate humor and slightly knowing/know-it-all tone, in which case yes, that would be me. 
  3. Before this descends into a not-so-humble brag, I’ve still think I’ve ways to go before I hit the summit for amazing writing. 
  4. As it happens, I left that class with a greater appreciation of the personal essay format, which helped me become a more critical reader of them. 

Writing Using Your Experiences: What We Really Mean by “Write What You Know”

Writers, particularly inexperienced ones, often are exhorted to “write what you know.[*] I first heard this advice mentioned during a session for my school’s creative writing workshop. While the remark wasn’t directed to me, I nonetheless considered it. Much of what I knew as a reasonably well-behaved teenager didn’t strike me as “page turner” material. It also wasn’t the sort of fiction I wrote then; among other things, I was dabbling in horror fiction without the dubious benefit of supernatural events in my life. But no one seemed to have objections to my writing in this vein, either. It was a moment where advice left me confused instead of enlightened.

Sleepy reader on a log
The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experiences would generate.

I’ve since realized the problem with this too pithy prescriptive involves how little guidance it provides. A short acquaintance with fiction demonstrates countless stories that incorporate research (eg, historical fiction) along with imagination instead of solely relying on the author’s personal history or knowledge. While we’re clearly not instructed to only write about what we know, the lack of further instruction (eg, how we should write about what we know) could be misinterpreted to imply that very limitation. We also tend to assume the “what we know” refers exclusively to our life events. The conclusion many arrive at (myself included) is that we’re told to fictionalize our lives. If what I know includes everything I know, then I certainly have permission to write about what I’ve learned from any source.[†] As a voracious reader of horror fiction, I knew quite a great deal about the genre—and that meant I already was writing what I knew though I didn’t appreciate it in that moment. But if such advice creates confusion, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what we really mean when we advise people to write what they know.

Inspiration and Information

  • Inspiration

The student in my workshop had asked for suggestions regarding what she should write about, and our mentor recommended writing about what she knew in the spirit of examining her personal experiences for topics that might work as a story. It’s the most common interpretation of “write what you know”, and I suspect it’s what most people intend when they dispense this advice. And drawing stories from our personal well of memories can be quite inspiring. Autobiographical novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women rely heavily on the incidents of the author’s life. Other authors use certain autobiographical details as a springboard for their stories, among them Amy Tan. Her novels often involve a strained mother-daughter relationship of an immigrant Chinese mother and her American-born daughter.[‡]

Orchard House, home of Louisa May Alcott and the inspiration for the March family home in Little Women
Louisa May Alcott used Orchard House (Concord, MA) as the basis for the March family home in Little Women but did not actually live there until she was 25. (Photo by R. Gould)

The crucial observation here is that these authors were inspired by their experiences. While Tan’s history as a first-generation American undoubtedly informed her novels, she chose to avoid fictionalizing actual events in favor of writing their emotional truth. And neither author felt beholden to strictly adhere to the literal truth because recreating actual events didn’t suit their stories. Alcott’s novel diverges factually from her life in several places. For example, Alcott did not grow up in a single home as a child (unlike the March girls) but moved 22 times. Faithfully replicating all those moves, however true to life they were, would have taken too much focus off the March girls’ adventures. Our experiences can be the starting place when we write fiction, but real events shouldn’t get the final word.

  • Informing the Text

If we’re rethinking “write what you know”, then it’s important to consider how else personal knowledge and experience otherwise influence our tales. Many authors use locales they know well to serve as their setting, as Alcott did when she based the March family home on her own home, Orchard House. Character development, of course, is another area where our knowledge helps us round characters by gifting them with skill sets, opinions, and interests (like hobbies) that we or others we know possess. Agatha Christie used her familiarity with her own profession when she created named Ariadne Oliver, a friend of Belgian detective Hercules Poirot, who just so happens to write mysteries featuring a foreign (not English) detective.

The response I imagined that fiction based on my teenaged experienc
Including sensory details (crunching carrot) that we know lets the readers share our character’s experiences such as eating vegetables.

The familiar often diffuses subtly throughout fiction. Our knowledge of social scenarios, for example, guides what our characters’ behavior during dialogue. Characters in a kitchen don’t stand at attention and declaim lines: they lean against counters, clear away dishes, or sip beverages, depending on the story’s set up. Our experiences also provide us with the sights, sounds, touch, and smells we include in stories. Sensory details such as the crunch of a carrot allow readers to vividly experience what the characters do. Importantly, our experiences also allow us to make imaginative leaps. Even when we haven’t faced the same terrible ordeals our characters have, we know how we’ve been hurt, lost, abandoned, and heartbroken. We can use the emotions we’ve experienced in these moments to connect ourselves as well as our readers to what our character undergoes. Knowledge of our identity, too, lets us question how people different from us may feel differently or similarly in a given situation. And yes, our experiences, when they’re lacking, signal when we need to research and fill in what we don’t know.

Writing Using Our Experiences and Knowledge

What we know and our experiences, in some ways, define where fiction begins. They inspire what we write and give narratives depth that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s why using our experiences to inspire our work as well as fill in the myriad details of story is good advice.

Read More

Bret Anthony Johnston’s article “Don’t Write What You Know” in The Atlantic. I found this article after I’d written much of mine, and it provides thought-provoking nuance and insights on this topic.

NOTES:

[*] I’ve previously written about how writing advice often is presented as a set of “rules” when it should be treated as guidance that can be used or dispensed with as needed. “Write what you know” isn’t specifically discussed there, but it certainly warrants some clarification.

[†] To give a somewhat snarky example, I don’t have to experience radiation poisoning to explain why uranium can be dangerous. I can refer to what I learned in science courses.

[‡] Fiona Mitchell discusses the concept of having “one story to tell” in her article “Have You Got More than One Story?”. As she observes (and Tan illustrates), there are many ways to tell that one story.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot

The hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.

In the previous post, I discussed how hobbies in fiction help develop characters, something which can set up expectations of character behavior as well as lend itself to exploring a work’s thematic elements. In part II, I look at how hobbies influence setting and plot.

Setting and Hobbies: Everything in Its Place and Time

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould
While exploring his passion for travel in a horse-drawn caravan, Toad (from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows) and company’s road trip goes horribly awry when they are run off the road by the agent of Toad’s future downfall: the motorcar.

Because characterization is the most obvious effect a character’s hobby has, it’s perhaps less intuitive that character hobbies make demands of the setting. Hobbies, however, must be conducted somewhere and that’s where setting comes in. Some hobbies, being rather portable (reading), can occur wherever it suits the writer, while others dictate the setting where they occur (surfing). Writers, therefore, can use hobbies as a reason to place characters into a specific setting where they wish the scene/story to occur. Travel for pleasure[*] happens to be a rather effective hobby that allows writers to introduce their characters to new people, places and experiences. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel The Wind in the Willows regularly falls in love with new means of transport (whether its rowboats or motor cars) that let him travel and adventure. While Toad’s hobbies often reveal his impulsiveness and reckless side, one of the book’s notable adventures begin when Toad’s enthusiasm for the latest vehicle spurs him to gather his friends to travel and seek excitement. Similarly, hobbies can signal the story’s timeline. In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the presence of Garbage Pail Kids collectible trading cards reveal Tracey’s subversive edge and her tendency towards divisiveness as well as places the timeline in the mid-1980s.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould.
The popularity of the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards was sufficient enough to warrant a vinyl doll. Cuddle up! (Photo credit: R. Gould.)

Setting the Plot: Hobbies, World-Building and Plot in the Harry Potter Series

Given the greater burdens that exist for establishing settings in fictional genres that involve world-building,[‡] character hobbies can be a useful means for conveying information about these settings. Fantasy novels, for example, typically involve intense world-building since they diverge from strictly realistic settings. J. K. Rowling based her Harry Potter series in a hidden magical realm that exists alongside the real world. Although a portion of her setting existed, the magical areas of the world did not. Therefore, she needed to create the parameters for these magical places, their inhabitants, their society, how these realms and their elements interact (eg, magic makes electrical items malfunction), and so forth. Newcomer Harry Potter acts as the reader’s stand-in for these discoveries in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.[§] Rowling uses a common childhood hobby to allow for comparisons between the magical and nonmagical settings to illustrate how the former operates (in its role of world-building) as well as cleverly introduces a mean of revealing information that forwards her novel’s plot significantly.

The Famous Witch and Wizard Cards: Hobbies as an Approach to Establishing Setting

Much like Smith, Rowling employs trading cards in her story—but with the expected magical twist. While traveling to wizarding school, Harry purchases the unfamiliar foodstuff of the magical world. Among his sweets are Chocolate Frogs, which come with the Famous Witches and Wizards (FWW) cards. In the real world, trading cards that feature real people often provide an image of the person and some relevant information about the individual (eg, baseball cards indicate the player’s position and stats). The FWW cards Harry receives mirror such cards in that they include a picture of the witch or wizard accompanied by a biography that lists their claim to fame and other interesting trivia such as their hobbies.[**] What makes them different is that the cards are enchanted, with the images moving like living people (Rowling 101–3). In addition to allowing readers to see how trading cards differ between these realms, these cards also prepare the readers and Harry for how other pictorial representations behave in the magical world (eg, portraits that he encounters speak to people and travel from frame to frame). Its role in helping establish expectations for this magical setting, then, even supersedes that of delivering (or confirming with some details) biographical information about school headmaster and major character Albus Dumbledore—the subject of Harry’s first FWW card.

Fiction and The Versatile Hobby Part II: Setting and Plot. Text by Rita E. Gould
In addition to confirming Albus Dumbledore’s academic credentials and reputation for dealing with dark wizards, his Famous Witch and Wizarding card informs us that he enjoys chamber music and ten-pin bowling, a possible nod to Dumbledore’s more whimsical side.

Setting to Plotting

Rowling’s ingenuity is not limited to creating comparisons between the world Harry knows and the one he’s joined. In contrast to Smith’s Garbage Pail Kids, the presence of the magical trading cards reveal little about the children collecting them (as I noted above, we learn more about Dumbledore here). However, Rowling’s inclusion of this hobby is inspired because such cards are natural things for children to collect—as Ron and Harry do—and it allows her to interject information into the narrative as needed. During his first weeks at school, Harry and his friends (Ron and Hermione Granger) become aware that some important item recently arrived at the school for safekeeping and that there had been attempts to steal it. Having learned through unintended admission that the hidden object involved both Albus Dumbledore and another wizard named Nicolas Flamel (a name Harry is certain that he read previously), the children begin researching Flamel in hopes of finding more information about the object and why it is being hidden. Shortly after the Christmas holidays end, Neville Longbottom gives Harry one of the FWW cards for his collection. It’s the Dumbledore card, which mentions his alchemical work with Flamel—hence the reason Flamel’s name seemed familiar to Harry. With this insight, Hermione locates the necessary details about Flamel, which in turn reveals that the Philosopher’s Stone is the item hidden at the school (102–103, 218–220). Discovering that the mystery item is the Philosopher’s Stone (as well as why someone would steal it) is a major plot point here, and it’s Harry’s modest hobby of collecting FWW cards that allows the children to make this leap.

Hobbies and Fiction

Rowling frequently and often playfully employed hobbies throughout her Harry Potter series, using them to reveal facts about characters, forward plot and even provide opportunities for her fictional adolescents to change settings (Quidditich, for one, gets them outside the castle). Writers such as Rowling, of course, rarely add details about characters to provide a laundry list of biographical data, something which most readers would likely find dull. Instead, she provides hobbies with specific goals: showing Molly Weasley’s kindliness when she knits Harry a sweater for the holidays or revealing Hagrid’s pet hobby of raising dangerous critters, something which informs the plot in a few places (in this book and others). Including character hobbies is among the important decisions a writer makes when developing a character, one that stretches beyond the role of characterization. Therefore, the hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.

NOTES:

[*] Travel for personal enjoyment allows many fictional detectives to leave their normal environment and discover mysteries in the wild, as it were. It’s also a matter of practicality in detective series: mysteries always started at the detective’s office or set in an amateur detective’s hometown can become formulaic.

[‡] Genres most identified with world-building are science-fiction/speculative and fantasy fiction, both of which constructing new worlds. I’d argue historical fiction also belongs here, as world-building in this genre takes the form of reconstructing the world of the past.

[§] However much it annoys me that the American title differs from the British one, it’s the title of my copy and therefore the one I must use for the citation:

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

[**] Hobbies within hobbies! Of note, the FWW cards play a role in characterization here, although it’s not the scene’s focus.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Amusing Missteps and Lessons Learned

Travel is remarkable for the sights we witness as well as the experiences we gain. We discover how capable we can be with less as well as how to negotiate difficulties we encounter.

Traveling with Limited Tech

I tend to take vacations with few electronic devices, particularly when boarding an airplane restricts my carry-on space. Since sightseeing and other outings occupy most of my time,  jotting ideas into a notebook or tapping a brief note into my phone works well enough to let me leave my laptop home. That is, until I started this blog and the inevitable conflict between my posting schedule and holiday plans arose. Knowing I would be traveling for almost two weeks, I decided to write at least one post while I was away[*] and began planning what I would discuss. Even with limited Internet access while traveling in Alaska (with a few excursions into Canada), I reasoned that blogging should be manageable.

Blogging with minimalist equipment (ie, my tablet), of course, would be less comfortable than usual, but swapping hiking boots for a laptop wasn’t an option here. So I went about my normal packing routine,[†] until my spouse appeared holding what looked like a restaurant menu. It proved to be his spare wireless keyboard, which he said made typing easier for him when he used a tablet. We soon had it connected, downloaded MS Word to my tablet, and typed a test sentence or two. And just like that, I had a serviceable mobile writing set up. Before starting his own packing, he suggested that I experiment with using it, to see how everything worked together.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned by Rita E. Gould
It might like look the wine list, but it happens to be a wireless keyboard. (Photo by R. Gould)

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that, harried by travel prep, I didn’t get around to doing so. And thus I made the first in a series of eventually amusing missteps.

Roaming and Writing

Several days later, I sat perched at a makeshift desk in my temporary quarters and began to write in earnest. The keyboard, however, didn’t share my enthusiasm. Roughly every third keystroke didn’t register, forcing me to correct countless typos. As I forged onward at a glacial pace, my napping spouse awoke[‡] and insisted I use his wireless keyboard instead. With functional equipment, I finally made progress writing. All went well until I tried switch over to the WordPress app. The app I had on my phone, not my tablet. And on my phone, I realized, I didn’t have MS Word, meaning neither device had all the software I standardly use for blogging.

This is much funnier in retrospect.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned by Rita E. Gould
The speed of typing on a semi-defective keyboard seemed oddly familiar after Mendenhall Glacier. (Photo by R. Gould.)

The complicating factor (because it’s not ridiculous until there’s complications) was the spotty Internet connection I mentioned earlier. While this was a minor inconvenience on occasions when I, for example, wanted to check whether sea mammals happened to be baby Orcas or dolphins (they were Dall’s porpoise), I truly missed the Internet when I realized I couldn’t use it to quickly fix my difficulties by downloading the apps I needed or by transferring the documents between devices. My choices involved making two trips to the Internet café (expensive and time consuming) or finding another solution. Feeling frazzled, I decided to forgo the fancier formatting MS Word gave me, connected the keyboard to my phone, and retyped the essay directly into the WordPress app. At least that went smoothly thanks to the new keyboard.

Blogging While Traveling in Alaska: Comedic Missteps and Lessons Learned Text by Rita E. Gould
I missed Google when I couldn’t use it to identify sea mammals (here, Dall’s porpoises) but not as much as when I realized I needed to download WordPress. (Photo by Jeremy Henderson. Used with permission.)

Uploading in Its Time

But my Internet woes were not done. I still needed to look up two URLs for the articles I wanted to link to my post. So, I found the Internet café, agreed to pay the pricey access charges, and waited for the slow connection to upload my files. Once that was accomplished, I added the links, waited forever for the app to update…and discovered  that some of the text I linked to an URL mysteriously disappeared. I fixed the text (itself a tedious process), updated again, and waited to see the corrected page. Satisfied that everything looked right, I logged off. I’d officially posted my first blog while traveling!

It wasn’t until I returned home that I discovered that last update apparently didn’t go through, and the version with errors went live.[§] *sigh*

Blogging and Travel

Despite my dearth of preparation and sundry mishaps, I nonetheless succeeded in posting to my blog while on the road. Travel is remarkable for the sights we witness as well as the experiences we gain. We discover how capable we can be with less as well as how to negotiate difficulties we encounter. In my case, I gained several insights into how I can improve my writing experience for my next journey, which I’ve listed here for future reference.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Check both writing devices and software before leaving, making certain that you have both the necessary apps and peripherals (including chargers) for your device. Confirm that your setup works before stowing it in your bag but consider what your options will be if something goes wrong anyway.
  2. Test uploading and editing posts[**] from your mobile devices to find issues before you travel. I’ve used the WordPress app on my phone to reply to comments and make minor edits previously, so I knew differences existed between the mobile and desktop versions. Having a more accurate estimate for how long it takes to upload and edit posts, however, would have been helpful.
  3. When possible, copy URLs and download images/videos to your device in case you need to work offline. You can embed these items in your offline draft (as I did with my post’s image) so that they upload with the text, thus streamlining the process.
  4. If free Wi-Fi and mobile reception aren’t options, plan for long load times and buy Internet access accordingly—something I did right.
  5. Choose a topic and outline/plan what you want to write in advance. Even if you intend to discover your topic as you travel, it doesn’t hurt to brainstorm beforehand.[††] Expending less effort on prewriting ultimately proved beneficial when everything else went wrong.
  6. Try to laugh at travel writing and its misadventures, because tech issues and other unplanned hassles occur even when you are prepared.

NOTES:

[*] Given a less packed summer schedule, I’d have written posts before traveling. Perhaps next time.

[†] Oscillating between the worry I forgot something and the fear I brought too much.

[‡] I cannot confirm or deny that muttered profanity played a role in ending his nap.

[§] Thanks to everyone who liked my post despite the errors. For the record, they’re gone but I won’t forget them any time soon.

[**] I recommend marking the post as private if you don’t want it to be seen.

[††] I’d had the idea to write about reading while traveling since I’d written about reading in preparation for travel, recalling (to my chagrin) dragging heavy books to exotic locations, only to neglect reading them.

Self-Editing: Tactics for Taming Weak Wording

Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair.

Among the more specific writing suggestions that exist,[*] writers often are advised to avoid certain words and phrases to improve their work’s readability. However talented we are as wordsmiths, I suspect most of us find ourselves deleting questionable phrasing from our early drafts—myself included. Part of becoming a better writer involves learning how to self-edit one’s verbal excesses. I’ve identified categories of weak wording, strategies for dealing with them, and a few reasons why we might use them anyway.

Filler Words

Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair. I call them fillers because they add text without value. For example, “a variety of reasons” could instead be “various reasons” or “assorted reasons”. Other offenders include redundancies such as “joint consensus” when “consensus” suffices. At fault here is wordiness. Why do style manuals hate wordiness? Because it makes reading dull. Reading pages of “in order to”, “at this point”, “very”, and their boring brethren makes it difficult to stay focused on the topic. Style manuals recommend concise writing for a reason.[†]

Cliches bore the kitty.
The cat isn’t yawning because she’s tired; she’s bored by filler words and clichés.

Overused and Imprecise Wording

Some words and phrases don’t bear repeating because their overuse dilutes their impact. Clichés typically belong in this category, as does the word “awesome”.[‡] Other words lack precision. “If someone is “very” smart, do we mean they are intelligent or a genius? How much is “a lot”? Be specific (eg, seven) or generalize concisely (eg, numerous). Likewise, words like “stuff” and “things” are vague; they can be replaced with “belongings” or a description of said things (clothes, cars, bottle cap collections…).

Adjectives, Adverbs, and the Passive Voice

Adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice constitute an interesting group because they permit wordiness (and perhaps imprecision) yet remain vital in other contexts (more on that later). Because they are useful, we sometimes overuse them. Some sentences become more concise and/or gain immediacy when we replace an adverbial or adjectival phrase (eg, “public disgrace”) with a more descriptive verb or noun (“scandal”), respectively. “She stomped” has greater impact than “She walked loudly and angrily” because we switched from telling to showing. Sentences written in the passive voice (“I was running”) similarly benefit when revised to an active verb (“I ran”). We also need to consider whether some adjectives or adverbs can be dispensed with altogether.  If the character’s quietness in “She walks quietly down the hall” isn’t being described for a reason (ie, to show that she’s being considerate of others who are asleep), this adverb should be removed.

gavel, weak wording
Objection, your Honor! Weak wording appears in dialogue to simulate natural speech!

Objections: Appropriate Uses and Other Reasons

Before I discuss strategies for clearing verbal clutter away, I want to address why we still use items from these categories. As soon as a person lists phrases or words that should be avoided, someone will cite cases where the word or phrase is permissible—even desirable!—to use. I find articles that suggest we delete all instances of certain words (like adverbs) too prescriptive. My goal is to make it easier to revise occurrences of weak wording, not ban writing that works. If you find a way to make a cliché or the passive voice read well, use it. Here is an incomplete list of some reasons we use “avoidable” wording:

  • Dialogue. We use weak wording to simulate or report dialogue. [**]
  • Creative license. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” and its musing about neighborliness wouldn’t exist without a cliché . This poem reminds us that creative people know how to make trite phrases interesting again.
  • When fillers aren’t fillers. Sometimes “a lot” is an actual lot (as in realty). And we leave “in order to” alone when “order” means “sequence” because “Place the objects to collect a prize” is not equivalent to “Place the objects in order to collect a prize”.[††]
  • Using parts of speech when needed. It’s impractical to always avoid adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice. We cannot replace every adjective and adverb with a more descriptive noun or verb. Also, the passive voice has clear usage cases (eg, general truths such as “Rules were made to be broken”), which you can read about here and here.
  • Repetition. Were I writing about a “scandal”, I may switch to “public disgrace” if I’ve used the word “scandal” so often it’s become boring!
Revision. Self-Editing: Tactics for Taming Weak Wording. Text by R. Gould
Get ready to revise.

Tactics to Minimize the Extraneous

Moving from understanding why weak wording makes writing less interesting to detecting its presence in our own work is difficult, something that requires practice. Some approaches and tactics help us find weak wording faster and edit thoughtfully. The following are my recommendations for self-editing:

  • Familiarity. Become familiar with words and phrases people suggest avoiding. Learn the specific reasons why a word or phrase should be revised and when it can be kept. Keep notes on items you want to avoid or review carefully when you write and revise. To get you started, I’ve listed several articles that discuss words to avoid at the end of the article (see “Read More”).
  • Identify problem areas. Check through your work (or ask someone else to do so) for weak wording, particularly repeat occurrences (“in order to” is one of mine). Keep your list of weak wording near where you write as a reminder.
  • Utilize software. Diana Urban advocates using the word processing “find” feature to locate and highlight weak wording, making it easier to  revise as needed. Building on her idea, I suggest using the same approach to check adverbs (most end in -ly) and adjectives (many use -ous, -ed or -ing suffixes); MS Word will let you search by suffixes. Built-in grammar software also highlights some egregious examples of weak wording.
  • Other resources. Use dictionaries (software, online or even manual) to confirm when phrase are redundant.  “Public opprobrium” is redundant by definition. Internet searches and other resources (Cliché Net) provide swift results about whether a questionable phrasing is cliché.

As a group defined by our words, we need to choose them with greater care. Self-editing, backed by research and technology, is one way we can improve what we write. If you’ve know of any strategies I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to learn about them. Feel free to share in the comment box below!

NOTES:

[*] I’ve done a roundup on this topic here.

[†] To clarify, concise writing refers to removing excess words; it is not a dictate to write shorter sentences. Both terse and lengthy sentences read better when every word in them matters.

[‡] I blame the 1980s.

[**] When using filler words or clichés in fictional dialogue, aim to give readers reality without the tedium. Writers usually condense reality: we don’t report every conversation verbatim. Even nonfiction writers insert ellipses when statements meander.

[††] Sure, you could say “Sequence the objects to win a prize” but you sound stuffy doing so.

READ MORE

Tameri Guide for Writer’s “Words and Phrases to Avoid

Freelance Writings “Ten Words to Avoid When Writing”

Diana Urban’s “43 Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately”

Mark Nichol’s “50 Redundant Phrases to Avoid”

Thoughtco’s “Overused and Tired Words: A Tip for Effective Writing”

Pearl Luke’s “681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing

Oxford Dictionaries’ “Avoiding Clichés