Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Stop Whining, Already!

by Suzanne Cordatos

Are your characters a bunch of whiners? Characters who whine are like static blizzards on TV. The white stuff adds a lot of noise, but it sure isn't entertaining.

My critique partners pointed out the static in my work-in-progress after reading a scene with a typical brother-sister spat. The dialogue? Believable. The action? Lifted from life. Well then, I opened my mouth to debate their thumbs-down verdict. What’s the problem? A total lack of value to the story. Ouch!

Look at these similar scenes:
            “Give it back,” demanded Jon. “It’s mine.”
            Julie ran around the room, the key dancing from her fingers. “You’ll have to catch me.”
            “Give it back OR ELSE!” Jon grabbed at her hand and got a fistful of long hair.
            “MOM, Jon pulled my hair!”
            Mom came to the door, an angry expression denting her brow. “What’s going on?”
            “Give it back.”
            Julie danced the key out of reach from Jon’s grabbing fingers. “Only if you show me.”
            “If I open the box,” said Jon, “can you keep a secret? Can you handle the truth?”
            Jon and Julie shook hands. Mom came to the door, eyebrows raised. “What’s going on?”

Which story would you keep reading? In the first example, I wanted to tell the kids to settle down--The End. The scene contains “loud” action. Running, grabbing, pulling hair. Yet what does it add but a sibling relationship scene that is already familiar to just about everybody? No surprises. No story.

The quieter example propels the reader into a story filled with conflict and tension. Conflict does not have to involve spectacular car chases and fist fights. I want to turn the page to discover answers: What’s in the box? Can Jon trust Julie? Can Julie keep a secret? Can she handle the truth? What truth? How will they answer Mom? All of that in fewer words than the first example!

The more surprise and tension, the faster readers will turn your pages. Check scenes for these points:
            Is the dialogue a time filler?
            Would it change or harm the story if cut?
            Is there tension on every page? In every paragraph? In every sentence?
            Can the action or dialogue be blended with another scene?
            Does the scene add value on multiple levels? Characterization? Plot? Setting? Mood?
            Does the scene conjure questions that compel readers to turn pages?

Questions for you: 1) Did you ever cut a major scene for the sake of a story? Were you glad you did?
                             2) Any guesses what's in Jon's box? 


  1. Yes, and yes. And you've given me an idea for a post. Many thanks.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Margaret! Good luck with your post!

  2. Suzanne,
    I began a middle grade novel once with whining. One critique I received said that readers need to like the MG first and the whining introduction didn't accomplish that. It's a point I try to keep in mind. I love your checklist for scenes. Well done, post! Thank you!

  3. This is great advice. In one of my middle grade manuscripts, I was trying to relay a character's anger and frustration, but my critique partners felt she came off as a bit of a whiner. I'll have to keep these questions handy. Thanks.

  4. Ladies, thank you for sending the love yesterday with your lovely comments! I hope you had a wonderful and whine-free Valentine's Day!

  5. I 'm going to check for needless whining in my WIP right now. I know I have a little in my first chapter!

    Thanks for the great post.

    Kristi Rhodes