Tag Archives: writing craft

Writing Prompts, Anyone?

I took a break from working on my WIP this morning and thawed some veggies in the microwave to have for lunch. It reminded me of the time not long ago when I had a bag of frozen French-cut green beans I wanted to thaw in hurry. I spread them on the counter and got my hair dryer. Do you know how long it takes to pick up itty-bitty green beans?

So, as often happens, my brain conjured an image as it might appear in a scene. A woman on the kitchen floor, cussing like a longshoreman when her partner walks in. From there my brain segued to turning the scene into a writing prompt. And that led to more writing prompts.

Play with them, and post your results in a comment, OK?

Following the high-pitched cuss words to their source, he . . .

Just one more YouTube how-to and she could  . . .

The last thing she wanted to hear from her hairdresser was . . .

“Smoke? I don’t smell smoke.”

“Not again.”

“Did you forget it was Daylight Savings Time?”

The capsule door was locked.

He looked in the mirror and saw . . .

“Don’t make me . . .”

My DNA profile says I’m related to . . .

“Unless you have  a screwdriver, we’re screwed.”

“You don’t look anything like your . . .”

“I found this on your computer.”

“What do you mean you threw it out?”


To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.

–Anne Rice

Ladder of Abstraction: Choose the Right Rung

Writers, where do you stand on the “ladder of abstraction?” Maybe you’ve never even heard of it. It’s a close cousin to “show, don’t tell.” Mainly it deals with the nouns you choose.

The concept was developed by S. I. Hayakawa and spelled out in his book Language in Thought and Action. Simply put, imagine the word “eggplant” on the bottom rung of the ladder and the word “food” on the top. Hayakawa’s ladder has four rungs, going from the concrete to the abstract.

Level one words are specific, identifiable nouns, e.g., “eggplant.”

Level two words fall into broad noun categories, e.g., “vegetable.”

Level three words fall into noun classes with less specificity, e.g., “food.”

And level four words are abstractions, e.g., “sustenance.”

Now, there are no hard and fast rules you can take and run with. Often it takes more than a single concrete word to replace an abstract noun. Take an abstraction like “grief.” It might require a sentence or more. “He turned off his phone, closed the blinds, and poured another tumbler of Scotch.”

Writing on the lowest rung of the ladder evokes the strongest response from readers. They can identify with concrete images that cause their hearts to melt or race or break.

Here are a couple of things to think about. One is that you can use the different levels, especially the extremes, to differentiate characters in dialogue. A pretentious, vacuous, or secretive individual might load his speech with abstractions, while the salt-of-the-earth type speaks in concrete terms.

The second is that in my writing circles, we like to avoid using the abstract word and concrete image together. So in describing the man’s grief, I wouldn’t precede or follow the image with, “He was immobilized by grief.” I wouldn’t use the word “grief” at all. The reader gets it.


One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

–Jack Kerouac

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Filters–More Weeds in Your Prose Garden

Almost any attempt to revise my WIP brings opportunities to cut out nuisance words. Continuing in the vein of my last post, “Wimpy Verbs–the Weeds in Your Prose Garden,” I’m writing today about filters, the second-cousins of wimpy verbs.

Here’s an example from my published novel, Compromise With Sin, Louise being the point-of-view character in the scene:

“Doc picked up the button and gave it to her, letting his hand linger so that for a moment they held it together. He said nothing, but Louise felt his eyes said it all: time was running out.”

The filter words are “Louise felt.” Revised, the sentence would read, “He said nothing, but his eyes said it all. Time was running out.”

Here’s how Janet Burroway describes what makes filtering a problem: “As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness.’ Yet, when you step back and ask the reader to observe the observer–to look at rather than through the character–you start to tell-not-show, and rip us briefly out of the scene.”

(Credit for the term “filters” often goes to Burroway, who described this creative writing nuisance in her text Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft. But it appeared earlier in John Gardner ‘s The Art of Fiction.)

I would change the last sentence to read: “He said nothing, but his eyes said it all: time was running out.”

Just between you and me, I’ve heard about filters for several years but pretty much pooh-poohed their significance. I heard that agents regarded filter-heavy writing as amateurish, and my instinct was to ask, “But does the reader care?.” But I started noticing them in fiction–especially when they appeared in paragraph after paragraph–and feeling jerked out of the POV character’s head. I get it now.

Here’s an incomplete list of filters: see, hear, taste, realize, decide, feel, know, watch.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald