Just Do It: False Starts, Late Deaths, and Appearances
by John Robert Marlow
There are several things wrong with this sentence: “Frank was visibly upset when he
started to cross what appeared to be a street.” Strictly speaking, there may be nothing
grammatically incorrect here. Stylistically, though, it’s a train wreck—and would be even
if Frank hadn’t died fifty pages back. Simply put, the sentence pussyfoots around, wasting
time and space. This post will help you to avoid doing the same…
Some authors feel the need to precede a great many physical actions with the word
“started” or “began.” Instead of saying the character walked across the room (or street),
or raised a glass in toast, they’ll say he started to walk across the room, or
began to lift the glass. In most cases, this is not an occasional eccentricity;
writers who do this once tend to continue the practice throughout the entire story.
If a character lifts a glass or walks across a room, say he lifts the glass or walks across the
room; don’t bog the story down by saying he started to lift the glass or began to cross the
room. Both are long-winded, unnecessary and distracting ways of saying the same thing.
Have your characters take Nike’s advice and just do it.
Exceptions include situations where you’re setting up the choreography for a subsequent
action or action scene or sequence. In such cases, it may be very important to know, for
example, that Bob has started to cross the street. but has not yet reached
the other side, when the Bugatti Veyron screams around the curve doing two-fifty.
Or that, say, Rain Man is only halfway across the intersection when the DON’T WALK sign
starts flashing. (Note that the word starts is appropriate here because it’s tied
to action: the sign wasn’t flashing when Rain Man stepped into the street—and when it
starts to flash, he stops walking. Note also that it’s okay to switch tenses in the previous
Somewhat like their namesakes, literary “ghosts” are phantoms of departed scenes and
characters which linger on to haunt your pages. Changing something in one scene often
affects events in other scenes. When we fail to realize this, or neglect to track down and
alter all of the other scenes that need to “match” the one we just changed, we create a
In the course of my editing, I’ve seen lost or sold items reappearing in their owners’
possession, individual scenes and entire subplots that have absolutely no remaining
connection to anything else in the story, characters who appear to be doing something
important in one scene but are present nowhere else, a party taking place in a home that
burned to the ground in a previous chapter, and deceased characters who carry on as if
nothing had happened—driving to the post office, playing baseball, making love.
Each of the individual scenes made perfect sense at some stage in the story’s history.
Later changes turned them into ghosts. If not hunted down and excised—or
exorcised—such ghosts can result in a story that appears to have been hastily or sloppily
When revising or rewriting, give some thought to both the overall and specific effects of
the changes you’re making. Ask yourself what else must be added, altered,
or deleted to “match” what you’re doing now and bring the rest of the story into line with
the new changes.
Sometimes the answer will be obvious: if Andre is now killed by a pack of wild vampire-
rabbits on page forty-nine, he won’t be having dinner with Priscilla on page eighty-two—
unless he has exceptionally large ears, and Priscilla is on the menu.
Other slips may be less obvious. As a general rule, the more tightly woven your plot
becomes, the greater the chance that any one particular change will ripple outward into
other scenes. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this can be found in the film
Memento, where—because the scene order runs backward instead of
forward—the deletion or significant alteration of any single scene would cause the entire
plot to collapse.
Working with an outline makes it easier and faster to spot most ghosts, but doesn’t get
you out of a final ghost-hunt: after you’re done with the final revision, you must reread
the whole thing one more time, killing any ghosts you find along the way. Better they
meet their end at your hands than spook an agent or publisher into viewing your work as
There are no exceptions here: all ghosts must go.
Like false starts, this habit is tough to categorize. Authors subject to this compulsion tend
to precede their descriptions with “seemed” or “appeared.” For example: “On the table
was what appeared [or seemed] to be a bowl of fruit.”
Now, if the object turns out to be something other than a bowl of fruit—say, a cleverly
disguised surveillance device containing cameras, microphones, heat sensors and motion
detectors—this is perfectly acceptable.
But when (as is usually the case) it really is just a bowl of fruit on the table, this phrasing
becomes unnecessarily long and convoluted—a distracting affectation that makes for an
awkward read and takes up far too much space saying, essentially, nothing.
Like the false start, this issue tends to be habitual: an author who does it once will usually
do it dozens, if not scores of times over the course of a manuscript or screenplay.
When describing ordinary objects or events that are exactly what they seem to be,
describe them as just that; do not tell the reader that they seem or
appear to be exactly what they are.
When you look at a table with a bowl of fruit sitting on it, you don’t think to yourself,
“Hmmm. That seems to be a bowl of fruit sitting there on the table.” You
think: “Bowl of fruit.” So does your reader. And so, too, should your characters.
Exceptions include things or events that are not what they appear or seem to be. (“On
the table was what appeared to be a bowl of fruit. On closer inspection, Henrietta found
it to be a cleverly disguised surveillance device.”) Also things that are unlikely to be what
they seem to be, even if they turn out to be exactly that. (“On the table was what
appeared to be a dead alien.”) In such exceptional cases, you are in effect voicing the
A third and rarer exception would be a character who, for whatever reason, doubts that
things are as they appear to be. This could be due to a psychological problem, previous
experience, unfamiliar surroundings, etc. In this case, also, you’re conveying the
It’s a medical fact that one in every twenty authors will at some point come down with a
case of the visiblies. Writers with this malady find themselves writing things like “Sarah
was visibly upset” and “Jimmy was visibly shaken.” Why not simply “Sarah was upset,”
or “Jimmy was shaken?” Because unless otherwise informed, readers will expect the
reaction to be visible; adding the word visibly becomes redundant
and—particularly with screenplays—marks the writer as unnecessarily wordy. (Some
directors and actors might even consider such additions to be infringing on their turf,
telling them how to do their jobs.)
Exceptions include situations where, say, a particular character who has been presented
as stoic, expressionless, or adept at concealing his emotions becomes visibly upset or
shaken—because now, rather than repeating old information, the word visibly
is conveying new information about something that runs counter to reader expectations.
While stylistic liberties may be taken by accomplished writers and talented beginners, the
habits mentioned here are awkward, distracting, and unprofessional. Ghosts, on the other
hand, can crop up on anyone—but professionals banish them before sending out their
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
all rights reserved