C. Lee McKenzie on The Seven Don’ts of Storytelling

I’ve made long lists of “What Not To Do” that I use to help me when I’m writing/rewriting a manuscript. Some items are easy to track down and fix; others take some time and possibly a keen-eyed, critical reader. Here are seven DONT’S that I think are very important.

1. Don’t use twenty words when ten will do.

Poor writing is caused when writers don’t use effective sentence structures that have been proven to produce excellent prose.


Not using effective sentence structures produces poor writing.

A lot of that poor sentence structure (what readers often diagnose as “awkward” prose) is the use of passive voice. That means you’ve buried the subject of the sentence at the end, put the object in the subject position, and used the BE Verb + the past participle instead of a strong active verb. Arrrg! It works in academic prose (I think to impress) or legalese (I’m sure to confuse), but not in fiction.

2. Don’t make your reader guess who this story is going to be about and why s/he should care about them. Make those characters want or need something as soon as possible.

Make it clear that Hildegarde Pink is the MC and she wants to climb that mountain. Or that Dirk Brainwave is the hero and he’s on the way to rescue his true love.

Then drop the bomb. Hildegarde is crippled and can’t walk. Dirk’s in jail and there’s no way he’ll get out in time to save that girl.

3. Don’t focus on minor characters just get the backstory in, especially at the beginning of your book. The start should always be about forward movement.

4. Don’t write dialogue that doesn’t have a purpose. Dialogue should

• reveal something about the character(s)

• move the story forward

• create tension

5. Don’t start your story in humdrum places with humdrum situations. These I’ve listed have been so overused that unless you’re doing a parody of bad starts, avoid them:

• in front of a mirror

• waking from a dream

• dressing for a night out, school whatever

6. Don’t let your middle sag.

This is not personal. This is about writing, and this is a difficult part. Even if your characters are amazing and your plot stunning, you’ve got to keep the pacing up. If you’ve got a ticking clock, shorten the time, delay the hero. If you’ve got your quest underway and all is going smoothly, send in the super villain and mess things up.

7. Don’t fall into the “and then” trap.

“I glanced at the clock and my teacher scowled. Then I pretended to be doing the assignment. After that I turned in my paper and left.” We need to know what people do in the story, but not in this flat, linear, uncreative way. Besides, what did all of that glancing, scowling, turning in, and leaving do to reveal more about the character or create interest in the story?

I’m sure you all have your own checklist. What do you think is important to keep track of when you’re trying to decide what’s wrong with a story?”

C. Lee McKenzie is a native Californian who grew up in a lot of different places; then landed in the Santa Cruz Mountains where she lives with her family and miscellaneous pets. She writes most of the time, gardens and hikes and does yoga a lot, and then travels whenever she can. 

She takes on modern issues that today’s teens face in their daily lives. Her first young adult novel, Sliding on the Edge, which dealt with cutting and suicide was published in 2009. Her second, titled The Princess of Las Pulgas, dealing with a family who loses everything and must rebuild their lives came out in 2010. Her short story,Premeditated Cat, appears in the anthology, The First Time, and her Into the Sea of Dew is part of a collection, Twoand Twenty Dark Tales. In 2012, her first middle grade novel, Alligators Overhead, came out. Double Negative is her third young adult novel.

29 thoughts on “C. Lee McKenzie on The Seven Don’ts of Storytelling

  1. Great list, Lee! I find I need to do some of these first draft, but try to be mindful to then filter them back out in revision (the back story and the 'and then' bit, in particular… both of which can lead to ho hum beginnings or saggy middles.

  2. Yes, to all, especially #2. My MFA writing prof used to say, “Nothing is lost to clarity.” Translation: don't try to be overly mysterious and couched because you might just totally confuse your reader!

  3. I especially agree with the tip about dressing for a night out; I read a lot of chick lit, and I've noticed that many (though not all) authors spend too much time describing the characters' clothes so that it's like reading a fashion magazine instead of a novel.

  4. Excellent list!
    I'll add:
    During dialog, be sure to show some facial expressions and posture shifts.

    Look for the goal of each scene and make sure someone/something is in the way.

    The sentence most overused is “”S/he turned to look/and looked at him/her.”

  5. I kept reading and thinking, Yes! This one is my favorite. No, this one. Wait, this one! I agree with all of them, especially the 'and then' trap. I find that a lot in my first drafts, but those are supposed to be terrible and I fix it later.

    Anyway, fabulous post. Great reminders!

  6. I all. I've read each of your comments and wanted to respond to them, but the REPLY hates me today. Anyway, I really do appreciate your comments. Thanks for taking the time to read and remark.

  7. Hi Lee – if it reads well, then all should be fine for readers when the book is published … love the sagging middle thought – lost one's way half way through the plot …

    Reading out loud throws up so many wobblies … and things that just don't make sense … cheers Hilary

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