Good Critic, Bad Critic

Last time I talked about dealing with the destructive inner critic, so I thought that today it might be worth mentioning that it’s not really a good idea to silence or ignore all the criticisms that float through your head. Some of them come from the useful critic, the one you definitely want to listen to. It’s not hard to distinguish them. The Bad Critic makes statements that are usually personal attacks, and are always designed to silence you. The Good Critic asks questions that spark ideas and help you improve the story.

There are lots of checklists of questions to ask yourself, but I don’t find these terribly useful. I prefer to take a step back from the story and see what floats into my head when I try to read it as a stranger might; when I sense a weakness in what I’ve written or recognize an old stumbling-block. A lot of them are things you might expect to hear from beta readers, but I don’t believe in counting on beta readers to fix problems I can catch for myself. Here, then, are some things I might hear from the Good Critic during the journey from initial idea to finished draft.

What’s the protagonist’s main problem? Uh-huh. Think you could let the reader know about it on the first page, before all the atmosphere and description and snappy dialogue?

I know this is a weak point for me, so the GC starts whispering in my ear even before the first draft, while I’m still playing around with the plot ideas. I tend to start with the protagonist in a state of equilibrium, have something happen that knocks him off his perch, and make his main problem be the scramble to regain his previous life. That’s not necessarily terrible, but it’s a whole lot easier to write opening paragraphs – not to mention blurbs – if I can start with the protagonist already in trouble. At a minimum, I want him to start in unstable equilibrium.

At least you could foreshadow the problem!

Yeah, yeah, all right already. I’ll work on that when I clean up the first draft, okay?

That’s a beautiful chapter ending, but I’m afraid you’ll lose your reader here. The immediate problem has been resolved and you haven’t clearly signaled that the deeper problem remains. Is there anything you can do to keep up the tension? 

That’s something I’m constantly asking myself, both in the plotting stage and while writing; frequently it helps me to place chapter breaks. My go-to solutions are: close the chapter on a cliff-hanger, foreshadow a problem or conflict that the readers – but not the protagonist- can see coming, promise the solution to a minor mystery they’ve been wondering about, or (in emergency) do a variation on “Had I But Known.” And the GC thinks I overuse that last one.

That’s a snappy bit of dialogue, but don’t you think the characters sound too much alike? Isn’t the protagonist’s BFF copying too many of the protagonist’s mannerisms? Maybe you need to spend more time thinking out the characters – if they’re not real to you, how real will they be to your readers?

This isn’t always a problem, but when it is, I like to catch it early. The major characters need to have their own voices and personal styles, and the sooner I get that clear, the less rewriting I’ll need to do. Sometimes the GC suggests that I take a break from writing the first draft to write a paragraph or a page of free association about a character. Again, I don’t find canned character check lists helpful here; what works best for me is to pretend I’m writing a letter introducing this character to a friend, and just see what comes up. Usually there’s a lot I “know” about the character that I hadn’t yet verbalized, and seeing that knowledge written out helps me to keep subsequent dialogue and actions appropriate.

Does this bit of exposition really have to be in the first chapter, or can it be dropped in later?

While I’ve touched on the desirability of getting a problem out front as early as possible, this particular question is one I don’t even worry about until I’ve finished the first draft. I tend to write very long first chapters, throwing in all sorts of things I know about my protagonist, his backstory, his interests, his current situation, other characters, the setting – you name it. After the first draft is finished I generally have a much clearer idea of what the reader needs to know when, and that’s when I go back and perform major surgery on the opening chapters, either cutting out parts and pasting them into later chapters, or deleting them entirely. And if I forget to do that… well, the GC helpfully reminds me.

Isn’t the pace here a bit too leisurely? This is a beautiful description of a luxurious resort, and your protagonist deserves the break. But how can you make sure the readers don’t get so relaxed that they close the book and wander off to do something more exciting? Do you think maybe some of that lovely, evocative description could be cut?

This is the kind of question that comes up while I’m reading through the first draft. Unlike the Bad Critic, the Good Critic can be exquisitely tactful about suggesting changes. Sometimes I think she learned from the editors I had in my traditional publishing career, some of whom were so tender of authors’ sensitive feelings that I used to pray they would quit lavishing praise on the bits they liked and get to what they wanted me to change.

You’ve certainly stepped up the pace. Bravo! But you know, there’s such a thing as writing too fast. We’re going from crisis to crisis so quickly that there’s no time to relax and enjoy one episode before we’re plunged into the next one!

When this comment surfaces right after the previous one, I do tend to get sulky and mutter, “What, you want me to be perfect?”

“Yes, of course,” says the Good Critic, smirking slightly.











  1. Commenting as I go: The Main Problem is always a tough one for me. Rarely do I have the main problem conceptualized well at the beginning or the middle or the end. I can hardly figure out the main problems of my own life after all. And then when I’m writing I have the worst time being obvious enough.

    I just reread a story I wrote a long long time ago. 7K words about. And it always wasn’t quite right. And only now do I realize that I wasn’t obvious enough. It’s sci-fi romance and I knew very well that there was a cultural issue that put my couple together and I did explain it but I didn’t actually set it up and then I wasn’t obvious enough. I need the reader to go “Oh, no! What will she do?” before the solution to her problem shows up.

  2. Story problem? Oh, uh, yes. I do sometimes have to think one up and go back to the start and make it matter to the MC. Humph! I like just hanging out with my characters.

    My Good Critic, and my Beta Readers always back her up if I don’t listen, is switching Main Characters halfway through the story.

  3. When I was a new writer, I had a rule to write fat and revise lean. If I knew that a piece of description needed ONE detail and I had two that both looked good, I put them both in and revised one out later because it was easier than trying to remember that detail that I know realized was better.

    Used it less and less as the creative and the critical worked more closely.

  4. “What’s the protagonist’s main problem? Uh-huh. Think you could let the reader know about it on the first page…”

    I’ve seen criticisms of other people’s work similar to this.

    Usually I, the writer, don’t know what the problem is for quite a while. There’s foreshadowing that -something- is coming, but until it gets there I don’t know what it is. I suppose I could go back and put it in later, but does every story need to be like that?

    1. *dry* Not all stories begin with a ‘problem for the protagonist’, so insisting that all stories start that way is, I think, deliberately hamstringing the competition. Sure, Jim Butcher started one of his books with “The building was on fire. It wasn’t my fault”, but it only lands the reader into the midst of his current problem, not his main one, and he doesn’t always do it that way. In a different book, he starts it with a snowball fight with a bunch of children. Anne Bishop’s opening for her Black Jewels series is a bit more vague on the setting, as if the little details aren’t important for the opening narrator (it isn’t, because all her focus is on something else) but you get the impression of a court, petty, pretty nobles, and a party of some kind from the lightly sketched description.

      There is no problem in ‘In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit’, for example, but the start Tolkien uses draws the reader into the world anyway. On the same vein, Eddings draws you into the world of the Belgariad by describing a large farm kitchen, then in the Elenium opens with the description of wet, cold weather and a lone, grim-seeming rider. The main problems get put in later, or are slowly unveiled along with the discovery of it by the main character.

      1. “The main problems get put in later, or are slowly unveiled along with the discovery of it by the main character.”

        Definitely. The main character (or group) discovers the Big Problem exactly when I do. The joke my characters have is they have to save the world from something every three weeks, what is it this time?

        Well, I don’t actually know. There’s Somethin’ Comin’ for sure, but the details are always a surprise to me. As one would expect, I’m literally making it up as I go along. The extreme-pants version: no instruments, at night, blindfolded.

        Good thing I have my trusty Do-Over button for when things go wrong. ~:D

    2. Okay so, someone that I think it fabulous at this (learn from the best, right?) is Wen Spencer.

      In the beginning of Alien Taste there is a “problem”, or even several of them but they aren’t the story problems. But she *does* put the story problem in the first couple of paragraphs. They are stuck in traffic and Ukiah sees a cat in the back window of a car and contemplates the notion of having pets. He then thinks or asks the fellow driving if even pond scum would have pets.

      It’s the story problem disguised as a random brain thing. You read past it without notice but it’s *there*.

  5. Foreshadowing the main problem on the first page? Maybe. Stating it? Not in a LOT of the good novels i have read.

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