In Which I Critique Your Story (That I Haven’t Read)

This past weekend, I bopped by San Antonio, Texas to punch a couple bulls, hide a bicycle in the basement of the Alamo, eat buckets of tacos, and also work as faculty for this year’s Paradise Lost writing program. I got to hang out with some fellow pro-grade writers (Delilah S. Dawson, Robert J. Bennett, Marko Kloos) and work with some semi-pro up-and-comers, all under the vigilant stare of the madman known as Sean Patrick Kelley. The program had both a retreat track and a critique track, and I did a couple sessions of critiques with a handful of writers each time.

Now, whenever I do these things, I like to come back and noodle on some of the issues that pop up from time to time — stuff that isn’t just held fast to one story but persistent issues I’ve seen in the stories of some of these writers and, frankly, in the early drafts from a lot of penmonkeys (including yours truly). That’s not to say the stories are bad. Many were quite good, and have a great deal of potential — but every story could use some improvement.

As such, I figure I’d unpack some of the critiques I had, because honestly? They probably apply to your stories, too. These are common potholes on the road to story excellence — even though I haven’t actually read your story, hey, just pretend I have. Pretend I’m sitting there with you now. Staring at you. Quietly massaging your manuscript. With a knife. I have a creepy grin, like maybe I just ate the neighbor’s cat? And I’m touching my nipple. Whatever. Point is: check your story for these problems. See if they apply to you. And if they do? Get to fixing.

Let us begin.

Lack of Urgency, Tension, Conflict

The standard shape of a story isn’t a straight line. It isn’t a straight flat line, it isn’t a straight inclined line. Stories have swoops and jiggles and jaggles — it is a craggy and dangerous mountain, not a safe and code-standard wheelchair ramp.

But here’s what happens: your story has too straight a line. You have robbed your tale of tension. You have undercut the conflict. You have urinated in the mouth of urgency. And what results is this kind of gutless, gormless narrative. It’s a pair of underwear with the elastic blown out. It’s just laying there on the highway shoulder. Slack and sad. It’s covered in ants. Nobody wants to pick it up because nobody feels compelled to pick it up.

I want to feel that when I read your story, shit’s serious. I want to feel that the characters are being urged to action. I want to feel driven to the precipice of a cliff, whipped by the lash of the story — I don’t want to feel casually perambulated to the precipice of a curb where I will then get over the curb so I can have ice cream at this lovely ice cream stand there. I want danger! Risk! Fear! I want emotion and consequence. I want stakes on the table — something to be won, something to be lost, something to matter. I want to know that somebody wants something and that the world stands against them getting it. Life! Death! Love! Hate! Things exploding! Lemurs on fire! AHHHH.

Here’s the trick, right? In life, we avoid conflict, but in fiction, we seek it. Or, rather, we should — but what happens is, authors model story after life. They want the story to work. They want the characters to do well. They want the characters to win, yay, woo, huzzah. They’re afraid to punish. They worry that the stakes are too high. (Spoiler: they probably aren’t.) And so they race to the end of the story and they establish three boring beats that go like this:




That is not nearly enough story.

A story should look more like:















A lot of the complexities and consequences that should be found are often skipped or zipped past — but all of that (which you could roughly lump under the single term UH-OH) should not be avoided. You should instead be hovering over that turmoil. In a flight, we want to get past the turbulence as fast as we can. But in fiction, we thrive on turbulence.

Do not hurry past it.

Your tale — and the reader’s investment in it — is fueled by tension, conflict, urgency. The feeling that all this has to happen. That things matter. That this is of significant consequence.

Begins At The Wrong Moment

You are beginning your story at the wrong moment.

And now it’s super-boring.

Listen, storytelling is an act of breaking the status quo. It is a straight line interrupted — and it’s that interruption, that fracture, that chasm, that makes the story interesting. It’s why the story matters. It’s why the story must be told right now.

But you have chosen to begin it at a time of no consequence. And so the first three pages are about as interesting as watching two garden slugs make love to a tube of Chapstick.

I understand the inclination, here. You think: But to get people to care, I need to give them context, and to give them context we have to settle into the bones of this thing and see the characters just living their lives and once we’ve met the characters and set the stage, only then will people care when I set fire to the curtains.

Problem is, that opening section is taking up my time. If after the first page I have no sense of where the thing is going, I’m going to put it down and go eat a taco or something. I have better things to do than read stories that refuse to commit, that won’t make a promise to me, that make no effort to hook my interest at the starting line. We don’t watch baseball expecting that the first hour will be batting practice. We don’t expect the pilot episode of a TV program to give us an hour of character introductions only. We don’t go out on a date only to meet our date’s parents first and look through hour after hour of photo albums and yearbooks and baby booties.

Get to the part where shit happens. Get to the gunfire! The robot! The drama! The fucking!

The saying goes, “Start the story as late as you can.” Which means: push, delay, wait until the story not only begins but has already begun. Throw us into event, action, reaction — a murder, a chase, a betrayal, a scene of struggle, a moment of mystery.

Ask Yourself The Question: “Why Now?”

All this leads into: you don’t know why this story is happening right here, right now. But you need to know that and you need to tell it to me, your faithful reader. You need to make it clear that this story has to happen in the here and now. It’s why I’m reading. I assume you’ve chosen this point in the story’s timeline and marked out this plot of narrative real estate for a reason. It’s not random. It’s because the character’s lover is about to leave (or has already left). It’s because the enemy has seized all the other homes but this one and this is the last stand. It’s because the disease has killed 90% of the world and if they’re going to save the last 10% with the new information they just discovered it’s gotta be right fucking now.

Load the moment with meaning.

Too Easy With Answers

You introduced a mystery. That’s good! As I am wont to say: question marks are shaped like a hook for a reason. They embed in our brain meats and drag us through the story.

But just as you should not immediately solve a conflict upon creating it, you should not solve a mystery upon introducing it. You must let it sit. You must let us pickle. You must be cruel.

The best storytellers are cruel storytellers. They are slave-drivers and tormenters. They are monsters and sociopaths. Your inclination to be nice is itself nice. It is also way wrong-o.

Hold off answering questions. Embrace Tantric storytelling. Delay satisfaction.

Hold off as long as you can while still maintaining structural narrative integrity.

And when you answer one question:

Introduce another — or three! — as a result.

Fails To Fulfill The Promise Of The Premise

Your story is sending off signals. Chemical markers. Pheromones.

And it’s telling us something. It’s telegraphing for us what kind of story it intends to be. Sometimes these are subtextual signals and sometimes they’re more overt, but no matter what, your story is making a promise to us.

You have to fulfill it.

Chekhov’s Gun is not about a gun. Chekhov’s gun is about the promise of the premise — it’s about laying something out on the table and having it mean something, having it be a thing that matters to the story. It’s a treasure map with burned corners, an instruction manual with pages missing, a corpse with its fingerprints burned off. You have to make good on what you’re telling us. You can hand me a cup and tell me only that it’s an alcoholic beverage — and I’ll be interested to find out what kind of alcoholic beverage. But when I drink it and get a mouthful of ants, I’m going to be pissed off.

You can’t show me that it’s a fantasy novel and then tell me it’s sci-fi.

You can’t introduce a whodunit without telling me whodunit.

(Originally mistyped as “WHODONUT,” which is a story I would like to read. And then eat.)

Point is:

You cannot break your promise.

That’s not to say you can’t do something unexpected. But that unexpected thing has to make us go, “OH COOL,” and “HOLY SHIT THE HINTS WERE THERE ALL ALONG,” and not make us go “WHAT MANNER OF FUCKERY IS THIS.” You can’t write a whodunit where some unseen rando was the murderer — that works in noir, but not in a real-deal murder mystery. “Oh, it was the car wash guy you never met ha ha ha suckers.” You can’t switch gears and make the story become something different — you have to warn us. You have to promise.

And then you gotta pay your narrative debts, motherfucker.

The Protagonist Is Wallpaper

You’ve created a fascinating story full of great characters and nifty notions and then you stuck in there a protagonist whose entire job is to be the wallpaper that witnesses the whole thing.

Do not do this. Stop right there.

The protagonist is the agent of change. The protagonist gets shit done. She has agency. She has meaning. And she has to be interesting. A fully-fledged character with wants and needs and fears and stuff to say and things to do. The protagonist is not a tour guide. She is not an exposition machine. She is not a pair of animated binoculars. Delilah and Robert had a conversation about this at the event, where they referred to this as sticking a GoPro camera onto a remote control car and just wheeling that little fucker through the story.

No, no, no.

The protagonist isn’t a passive participant.

She is the active agent of effort, conflict and change.

She is front and center, not hiding in the back row.

Nothing Going On Beneath The Surface

A first draft of a story is often: “This happens, that happens, she says this, he says that.” It’s a sequence of events. Maybe one clumsily laid out, maybe one artfully arranged. But ultimately?


Your goal is to lift that piece of plywood and see what squirms in the dirt and grass underneath. Go deeper. Sink your fingers into the rich and heady earth. Tell us the theme. Figure out for us what you’re trying to say. What’s really going on? What’s the argument the story is trying to make? Why does this matter beyond mere event and action? The story isn’t just a robot. It’s got a soul.

You need to find that soul and remind us of it.

We need glimpses of skin. Salacious looks at something secret. Something special.

Go deeper.

You Never Figured Out The Rules

Every story has rules.

Those rules are not written on the wall, usually — and if they are, someone (the author) paints over them so that they cannot be seen, so that the suspense about what’s really going on remains.

But the author still has to know the rules.

And many don’t. You start the tale and there’s magic or a murder or a conspiracy or a spaceship (OR A MAGICAL MURDERSHIP CONSPIRACY IN SPACE), but you don’t know all the details. You don’t know the rules. You’re just making it up as you go. Which is fine! We all do that. But by the end? It all has to hang together. This thing you wrote — it must, must, must have rules. And it cannot betray them or break them (unless you organically establish a way to break them, but even there, that’s actually just another unwritten rule, isn’t it?).

You have work to do. This thing has to make sense. The plot isn’t just a sequence of events — all the pieces of the plot snap together and interlock. They’re LEGO bricks, and they’re building something. You have to know what, and why, and how. Order is revealed in the chaos. The reader will know if you haven’t figured it out. Because the reader is like a bloodhound. The reader can smell your bewilderment because it’s coming off you like rank halitosis.

* * *

The Kick-Ass Writer: Out Now

The journey to become a successful writer is long, fraught with peril, and filled with difficult questions: How do I write dialogue? How do I build suspense? What should I know about query letters? How do I start? What the hell do I do?

The best way to answer these questions is to ditch your uncertainty and transform yourself into a Kick-Ass Writer. This new book from award-winning author Chuck Wendig combines the best of his eye-opening writing instruction — previously available in e-book form only — with all-new insights into writing and publishing. It’s an explosive broadside of gritty advice that will destroy your fears, clear the path, and help you find your voice, your story, and your audience.




Writer’s Digest

72 responses to “In Which I Critique Your Story (That I Haven’t Read)”

  1. Excellent advice! I paid for pro critiques which taught me this and it FINALLY sunk in. I’ll print this out as an author’s hack. Thank you.
    It took me a long time to figure out where to start my story. When it’s right, it tosses the reader onto a conveyor belt and sucks them into the story with a character they care about with tons of tension.
    If my first manuscript was typed on paper, it would be coffee and blood-stained with taped up edits, post-it notes sticking out all over place, and ripped out sections and pages where chapters used to be. The second book was so much easier.

  2. It’s early and I’m undercaffeinated and you said something about the story of the WhoDonut. So here, I have spewed for your reading pleasure. :p


    The TARDIS was heading for deep fry. Not a moment too soon, either. Its glaze was already starting to slough off, the granules of sugar and flour at its most basic core rearranging at absurd speeds. The Doctor Donut – or WhoDonut, as Dr. Donna had once called it in her dream – was regenerating.

    About time, too. It hadn’t always wanted to be an iced-cake-with-sprinkles. That *would* be the first form that Dr. Donna dreamt up for it. But maybe now, with a new batter and new crunch, a new *face* for space, maybe the WhoDonut could be something more daring – a Bear Claw, or a Long John, or even a Cruller. WhoDonut wasn’t quite sure what a Cruller was, but the epithet sounded like something sharp with glucose, stomach-shaking on impact. Yes, WhoDonut thought a Cruller would do nicely.

    The TARDIS slowed. Temperatures were cooling around it, and WhoDonut knew that it had to finish regenerating fast, before they broke through the surface of deep fry and splat themselves back out onto the surface of some alien counter out there somewhere.

    It would have to be ready, the WhoDonut. The moment it landed on that counter, they’d be coming for it. The children. *Dalek* children. Some cruel experiment gone wrong, mixing the terminator drive of the daleks with the sticky-fingered murder of human kids on a Sunday morning with too much milk and an empty stomach.

    They were the perfect killers for him, hungry bastards.

    They’d rip him to shreds. Tear him edge from edge with their under-brushed, primitive teeth. WhoDonut hated it, that even these “baby” teeth could take him down.

    WhoDonut shuddered, an odd combination of fear and solidification. His regeneration was over. One final moment to cool, and he’d be ready to take them on.

    By C&H, he hoped he was a cruller.

    The TARDIS popped WhoDonut out with a BANG! WhoDonut rolled across the counter, sliming a layer of still-warm glaze behind him. Did that mean he wasn’t a cruller? Shit, what was he?

    A deceptively small hand swiped for him. WhoDonut rolled away, just narrowly missing the grimy fingernails that clutched for a bit of his side.

    Wait, *rolled?*

    WhoDonut allowed himself one precious second to get his bearings, understand his new shape.

    *Shit.* He was a donut hole.

    No time to moan, though. The saliva-coated flesh-mess pounded across the counter for WhoDonut again. WhoDonut thrust itself up into the air, coming down HARD on the little meaty mit. A plume of powdered sugar rose around them.

    Ah, a *powdered* donut hole. WhoDonut smirked. Donut powder, the worst nightmare of the Dalek mother.

    Well then, that it could work with.

  3. The problem you address in the LACK OF URGENCY, TENSION, CONFLICT section is one I constantly struggle with. In Mary Robinette Kowal’s short story course, she recommended solving this problem by answering the questions of one’s plot with “yes, but” or “no, and.”

    Did the protagonist get over the hurdle? Yes, but he snagged his pants on a nail and now hangs from it like a discarded shirt.

    Did putting the widget in the evil mastermind’s computer destroy his evil plans? No, and now she knows you’re here and is sending the murderbots.

  4. Story Jesus says: Torture the hero.

    Story Jesus says: Dismiss witn ciphers, stiffs, or sleepwalkers as heroes. Like Everyman in the old morality plays, these heroes walk through the story glowing with virtue like a nightlight — and generate just about as much heat.

    Story Jesus says: If you’re not surprising yourself, you’re not surprising anyone else either.

    Story Jesus says: If Act 3 is a straight line from insight/decision to climax, you’ve fundamentally misconceived your conflict and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..

    King Chuck: Another great post full of loaves and fishes I now intend to share with the hungry multitude.

  5. I don’t normally cheerlead after your writing posts, but …this one is great. Really liked it, and I’m happy to see that I’ve already discovered some of these things for myself, so double yay! Thanks for keeping fuel in tank for me

  6. I love this:
    “But you have chosen to begin it at a time of no consequence. And so the first three pages are about as interesting as watching two garden slugs make love to a tube of Chapstick.”
    The image made me laugh out loud, but the general idea really resonated with the story I’m writing.

  7. Thank you for the advice. Regarding the active protagonist, can you elaborate on anything about stories where the antagonist is the driving force? I mean, is the antagonist in some ways the protagonist? Take for example Superman, if he isnt reacting to a villain’s actions how can his story progress?

    • Kinda depends on who gets the POV lens, really. Superman is the protagonist because it’s ultimately his story — but if it were from Luthor’s POV, he’d be the protagonist. The villain is always the hero of his own story.

      • That makes sense. I have difficulty at times giving a protagonist their own story because ideas that I float around end up being based on stopping something or someone, which can become very reactionary. Maybe thats why so many detective stories have protagonists that are drunk and divorced, to give them their own story.

        • The trick is to find within your hero some deep-seated need not merely to react. Whatever the villain has done to kick things off awakens something in the hero so deep, so profound, so inescapable he can’t help but respond. That response triggers his own active arc — he’s now on a mission. He’s not just swatting at mosquitoes. He’s gonna drain the swamp.

        • If my understanding is correct, the act of stopping the villain, even if the hero is reacting for most of the story, is action in itself. He is choosing to stop the villain, and therefore having an active impact on the story. E.g.: Robb Stark went to war in reaction to Joffrey killing Ned, but him going to war set up the next 2 books. That’s active.

          • That’s a great example. Remember that Robb Stark didn’t just want to stop Joffrey or get even. His father’s murder awakened his own, deeper understanding of what it meant to rule, to lead, to be king. His own heroic nature was summoned from the shadow of his father’s example into the sunlight of selfhood and responsibility for his own fate.








    Good Grief, this reads like the story of MY life!

  9. Fantastic advice, thank you!!

    Also, I hate to admit this, but watching two garden slugs make love to a tube of chapstick sounds like it could be riveting.

  10. How do you feel about starting the story at the end, then starting the next chapter at the beginning?

    • Good strategy for curing a slow beginning (e.g., Michael Clayton), but not if your beginning is slow because it’s inherently flawed — i.e., laden with unnecessary backstory or other BS that can been interwoven into the story later. (Note how I got both e.g. and i.e. into a single comment? I’m a writer!)

    • Well, maybe. I recently decided to write a prologue for my MG novel, which is based on a true story. My idea was to start the story closer to the end, with the protagonist nearer the average readers’ age – about 12. Then I take it back to the beginning, when the protagonist is six, and move forward from there. But critique partners complained that it felt too much like “bait and switch.” They said it wouldn’t sit well with young readers, who want to bite into a story keep moving. I see their point. But many books take the approach you suggest and do very well.

  11. Story Jesus: with donuts and noodling. I know my openings need work on the whole “don’t be boring and slow” front. Time to pin this to my forehead.

  12. Well now that everything I’ve written sounds like a boring bunch of prattle, I’m going to go in my fucking room, cry like a baby while rethinking my writing strategies.

  13. Daaayumn.
    I will call the “HEY LOOK A PROBLEM” outline the Wendig Premise (as a verb, as in the thing you base an undertaking on) forever and ever. Or until I die. Or get brainworms. Or something.

  14. Chuck, you’re a bad-ass critique partner. I will attempt to psychically project my next story into your subconscious. I will know if you’re receiving it if you use the first five words at the start of each paragraph in a subsequent post.

    Hope you liked Mi Tierra.

  15. Goddammit, this is amazing! Seriously. You hacked my first draft to bits. Sad that I have to start again. Thankful that I’ll be starting up on the RIGHT path (but the oh so not right path for my characters). You are a godsend .Printing this out and covering it in glittery ponies.

  16. I don’t think Robert Jackson Bennett gets enough credit from the general public for his writing. American Elsewhere was one of the most awesomely crafted books I’ve ever read. It’s a big, long SciFi y’all. Go buy that mother.



    That made me chuckle out loud in my office. Not a writing office. A “real job” [puke face] office, where I wish I were writing. Thanks.

  18. So, I have an MFA, right?
    And I studied writing in an academic setting for 4+3=7 years.
    And do you know how much instruction I got about plot and story structure? In those 7 years?
    15 minutes.
    Of Freytag’s pyramid.

    So, I had to run out and find all of that plotting stuff on my own because academia is hostile toward plot. It’s like the worst 4-letter word ever in a university creative writing class. Worse than “fuck” or “dick” or “titty.”

    Me being someone who loves writing (and now loves teaching it), I always try to lay on the plot stuff. And give them some damn instruction beyond mother-fucking Freytag and his miraculous, life-changing pyramid of suck.

    So, thanks for this. I’ll add it to my arsenal of things I show my college students about plot that nobody else in the university will dare show them. It’s like passing around a boob-magazine.

    And I am okay with that, Chuck Wendig.

    P.S. I do have a funny Freytag pyramid story. I went to a convention once where I was trying to help scientists write less anal retentive/jargon-heavy/high-falootin’ material about their findings and such. And, some of them mocked me–the “creative writing” person from liberal arts. One of them asked about narrative structure. Plot. And me being kind of sick of the shitty remarks, I busted out Freytag’s pyramid and slapped it up on the TRANSPARENCY PROJECTOR (because they were all high tech and shit).

    And I swear to God, they did not know what to do with that. “Is that a …. MODEL? In liberal arts? A model? Really? With, modely things on it?” They couldn’t believe it. Two of them took out their cell phones to take pictures of it and send it to their other science buddies. While Freytag is kind of a joke within our fancy writing circles here, the hard science people really got a boner over it. So, it is good for one thing. If you like science boners.

    • MFAs hate all that plot and genre stuff. But… y’know, plot is a thing. And it’s a thing in all genres, across the literary spectrum. Plot has to work, even when it’s not the “chiefmost” feature of the work. – c.

  19. Mwah hahhargh! Story Jesus. Mouth Herpes… Mwahhahahahargh! (again). I am just trying to put these things into my current linearly boring novel. Thank you for making me feel kind of vindicated, rather than worried I’m over editing!



  20. In response to the “problem” of “protagonist is wallpaper” I just have two words in riposte: Arthur Dent.

    This perhaps just proves the point that if you’re a sufficiently good writer you can do what the damn well hell you like.

    • Yes — and no rule really survives perfect scrutiny. But Dent is also an engaging everyman — he’s not pure wallpaper. He doesn’t just hang back. He has agency. And he’s interesting to follow.

  21. Hey Chuck,
    You got to be less of a pansy. Tell us what you think and don’t be afraid of using words that’d make my Aunt Bertha get all pink and woozy.
    Actually, nice stuff. Where were you 10 months ago so I didn’t have to fall into every one of those spike filled pits on my own. In truth, you probably were here. I wasn’t. Just ranting.

  22. This is good to know. I bought the book already and once I finish the first round of edits, I’m going to sit back and read it cause I know my book is mush right now.

  23. I don’t have a story yet…have nuts and bolts lying around here and there BUT now I feel I can piece something together with your outline….Thanks big help.

  24. See, this is why I love your blog so much. It makes a difference to me and my writing.

    Thank you – and because of that, I’m nominating you for the One Lovely Blog Award. Even though ‘lovely blog’ should probably be taken to mean ‘ass-kicking, commonsensical, writing and life changing advice blog’ in this instance.

    In fact, I think I just invented a whole new blog award… x

  25. Hey, Chuck, I’m trying to purchase the book you’ve got advertised on Amazon; and they refuse to send it to me.

    Uh… what the Hell?

    I’ve bought from them before and have never had a problem… so why can’t I purchase your book from them now?

    And, mate, this happens to me whenever I buy one of your books all the time… why can’t Amazon send me your books?

  26. I personally hate jumping right into the action and tend to like a bit of buildup first…but if the narrative style is boring, I don’t like the “storytelling” beginning as much. I think part of the problem may be the fact that “start in the middle of the conflict” is taken too often for “use an action scene as exposition even if this scene is irrelevant to the main conflict of the story and does nothing to contribute to anything beyond this point.” Blah.

    But, yes to everything else on this list!!

    • ****what I mean by the first couple sentences is that as a reader, I hate having to jump right into the action when characters I don’t know or care at all about are in danger. If I don’t know them at least a little already, I find it VERY hard to care about them when the scene starts en media res. (In medias res? I don’t remember.)

  27. Very true advice. We all know it, but added encouragement from a guy who practices what he preach is always welcome. Thanks for the reminder, Chuck!

  28. Thanks for being here when I need a good kick in the bottom. My problem was more of the what if no one likes my book variety, because I have a clunky spot. But this blog reminds me to stop whining and keep writing, editing and reviewing my work. Also the 1001 ways book is very good.

  29. Yep. I’m taking this outline and using it for the 2nd draft. I HATE 2nd drafts. It’s like you realize you have an ugly baby you’re obligated to love because you made it. Eventually, you decide it needs plastic surgery. That’s what is happening to me right now.

  30. I came here by accident bug got sucked in by your excellent advice, which you managed to make entertaining to read. While I’m not a writer by any stretch, I do get the occasional urge to put things to paper. Thanks for inspiring me. Bought ‘The Kick-Ass Writer’ immediately after reading other comments above.

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