Ten Penalties All Writers Must Avoid

by James Scott Bell

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Forgive my second sports-related post in a row, but come on! It’s Super Bowl Sunday! Across America––and indeed the world––fans will gather around big screens in homes and bars to watch the most exciting spectacle of the viewing year: funny commercials!

Oh yes, and a football game.

This one has drama. On the one side we have the Denver Broncos and their quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is without question one of the greatest QBs of all time, a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer. But injuries and Father Time have taken their toll. Thus, this will likely be Manning’s final game and his last chance to win one more Super Bowl ring.

On the other side is the new kid, the immensely talented Cam Newton. This guy is huge––6’5”, 260, with a cannon of an arm and legs that can go. He led his Carolina Panthers to an amazing 17-1 season. And now he makes his Super Bowl debut.

I will be with friends noshing sausages, pulled pork, chili, and items from the other essential food groups–the salted nut group, the nacho group, and of course the chocolate-covered anything group.

I hope the game is a good one. I’d love to see it go down to the final minutes. I’ll also be very happy if a kicker does not miss a last-second field goal and thus suffer from nightmares the rest of his life.

And let us hope the game is not marred by a lot of penalties! Hate to see those yellow flags all over the field.

It occurred to me there are some penalty flags that are thrown on writers. So in the interest of helping you write your best, here are some violations you must avoid lest you lose yardage (which, for writers, is measured in pages) and, much more important, readers.

  1. False start

Are you warming up your engines at the beginning of your novel? Do you spend too much time with exposition and backstory? Do you go several pages without a disturbance? Are you giving us “Happy People in Happy Land”? That’s a false start. Penalty: five pages.

  1. Illegal use of the adverbs

Are you using too many adverbs to prop up weak verbs? Worse, are you using adverbs to prop up dialogue? Are you writing things like:

“Get out of here, you louse!” Sheila yelled angrily.


“I’m gonna cut your heart out and feed it to the family dog,” he said threateningly.

If you do, you’ll be penalized, and it’s a big one: fifteen pages.

  1. Passage interference

Also known as the illegal flashback. This is where you stop a narrative in its tracks to give us a long look backward at some scene from the past. Unless there is a dang good reason for this, you will get a yellow flag and docked ten pages.

  1. Encroachment

Also known as author intrusion, this is when you try to sneak in some exposition that does not sound natural to the voice of the character (this penalty is explained more fully in the book VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing).

The skilled referee usually finds this in dialogue. The author wants to slip information to the reader through the characters’ words, but they are words the character would never use. Such as:

“Listen, Martha, you’re my lovely wife of twenty-eight years, and I wouldn’t be the head of surgery at Johns Hopkins without you. Especially after suffering that head injury in college when I foolishly went out for the rugby team. But dammit, you can’t dwell on your past as a stripper in a Nevada roadhouse when you were known as Cling Peaches. Please try to relax, like your sister Mary, who is two years younger than you, so we can go enjoy dinner in our hometown of Denver, Colorado.”

Encroachment is an automatic five pages, and loss of down.

  1. Delay of plot

Have you pushed your protagonist through the Doorway of No Return by the 20% mark of your novel? No? Then here’s a hard truth: it’s starting to drag. It doesn’t matter how quirky your characters. They have overstayed their welcome if they are not, by this time, into the struggle of Act II. Penalty: ten pages.

  1. Ineligible character downfield

Do you introduce a major character after the midpoint? Near the end, do you have a minor character show up out of nowhere to solve a plot problem? If you do, you need to go back to the first half and plant these characters. Five pages.

  1. Roughing the villain

League rules are protecting the antagonist more than ever. What do I mean by that? Simply this: if you have an antagonist who is evil, you must give him his due. You can’t just make him pure evil or insane. Boring! Every villain feels justified, and you the author must “make his case” in the book. Far from excusing his evil, this deepens the emotional currents in the reader and, ironically, makes the evil all the more scary. Fifteen page penalty for this one, plus the league may order you go to some rehab, like right here.

  1. Intentional sounding

Have you fallen in love with your sentences? There’s a reason the axiom “kill your darlings” exists. I should explain that this doesn’t mean cut every sentence you like. You’re allowed to delight in your own good writing. But you have to make sure it works for your story, and is true to character and context. Ten pages if, in the judgment of the officials, your pretty prose is more showing off than storytelling.

  1. Illegal motion

Does your story feel unfocused during that long struggle through Act II? Are there scenes that meander? Have you lost narrative vitality? While this penalty is only five pages, enough of these violations will keep you backed up on your own goal line. One place to look for help is the “mirror moment.” This tells you what your novel is really all about so you can write scenes with organic unity and powerful forward drive.

  1. Unauthorlike conduct

Do you head out to social media without a plan and a brand? Do you fly off the handle when you tweet? Do you slip into unethical sockpuppetry in order to slam your perceived competition? This penalty is severe: you might get thrown out of the game. Worse, the league office may suspend you indefinitely.

A good football team knows how to move the ball. A great football team knows how to correct weaknesses. A championship football team does all that, and avoids the penalties that kill scoring drives.

May you write like a champion.

And enjoy the game! I know I will, even though I am completely impartial.


Has your writing been penalty free lately?

24 thoughts on “Ten Penalties All Writers Must Avoid

  1. More solid advice, sir. I do well in 1-9. However, number 10 is becoming difficult as the election year heats up. I shall try harder to ignore the bait cast at me from every political angle.

    • Ha! I understand, Ron. But I doubt the Twitterverse is what the Founding Fathers thought of when they spoke of political discourse. I’ve had to unfollow certain authors I like because of things they insist on posting that make them out to be the north end of a southbound horse. Their choice, and so be it.

      • Now, James. The horse metaphor is a NOT a dig at the Rams playing on the old horse racing fields of Hollywood Park, is it?

        By the way, some year ago, I was in advertising sales. I called the Rams’ back office in St. Louis to talk to their advertising department. Spoke to a native Angeleno who was one of those who had come to St. Louis with the team. She was still homesick. We talked for awhile about streets, byways, and restaurants of Los Angeles. She was ready to fly back that afternoon for ribs at Kelbow’s–almost cried when I told her the restaurant no longer existed. I felt so bad for her. I know what it means to have to move to a new community, and the pervasive homesickness it provokes.

        I hope she’s one of those who gets to come home.

        Carolina by four, James.

        Enjoy the game.

        • And I feel sorry for the great St. Louis fans, having invested a quarter of a century in a team only to see it go. Money talks, eh? But what about the kids!

          Yes, Carolina by four … until the last 1:02. That’s when Peyton will take the ball on his own 20 and drive it to the winning score.

      • I have also been disappointed by the political rants of some talented big name writers on social media. Their work is amazing, but their online personas are real turn-offs. I have strong beliefs, but can’t see how alienating half my potential readership helps me as a writer. That being said, vanilla content is boring. Who wants to follow a writer who posts nothing but pictures of kittens and stamp collections? (unless you are REALLY into kittens or stamp collecting) It’s a difficult line to walk.

  2. Well all the football mumbo jumbo is lost on me but thanks for the tips on writing. 😎

    #9 is the one I have to watch for. Act 2 is a vast space. You can get lost easily.

    • You’re not alone, BK. It’s treacherous for most writers, even the vets. But that mirror moment signpost reflects a lot of light, both forward and backward.

  3. Great advice, as usual. However, the visual from the name “Cling Peaches” is now embedded in my brain. I fear permanent damage.

  4. Great metaphor, Jim.

    Loved the analogies. And thanks for all the great advice, served up in a Super Bowl theme.

    Now we’ll be waiting for you or Larry to deconstruct the game and tell us how close the players came to getting the structure right. And of course – which team was the hero and who was the antagonist.

    I can see the joy in writing coming through. Love it.

    Hope you call out a few writerly (illegal adverb) penalties during the game. That will wake up any sleepers.

    • Steve, the meme is Peyton is the hero and Cam the usurper. While I’m rooting for Peyton, I like watching Cam play. He has joy, too. Some call it arrogance, but if you can back it up with your play, hey, you get to dance!

    • I’m with you, Patricia. Up until a month ago we had no team in L.A., so I could pick and choose. I chose the Broncos when Mr. Timothy Richard Tebow was there. Hated to see him go, but Peyton is one of a kind, after all. May he shred some Panther defense today!

  5. Cling Peaches – Ha! Great visual. Reminds me of a long time ago when I worked as a desk clerk in a seedy hotel in downtown Kansas City. Their main clientele consisted of dancers/strippers for the nearby burlesque theater and visiting wrestlers for the downtown arena. That year the Southern Baptist Convention met in KC and my guest register read something like, “Rev. Herman Smalley, Thor Thunder, and Ms. Boom-Boom LaFoxe.”

  6. Being raised in the heart of the Southeastern Conference, I have to pull for the lesser of two evils~ Bear Bryant forgive me, but…

    Go Vols~


    And thanks for another way to keep the “rules of the game” fresh and memorable.


  7. Author intrusion. I’ve read short stories and novels that included sections that were actually written to the reader. It’s kind of like when Ferris Bueller speaks directly to the camera.

    • If the author is a character narrating (as, say, Kipling narrating The Man Who Would Be King), that’s one thing. If it’s a character addressing the reader, fine. That’s a stylistic choice.

      Author intrusion is when the “invisible” author slips into the narrative, then sneaks out again. Then we toss the flag!

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