Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Tale of Two Boxes

"DO" Box
Once upon a time, a young woman sat down to write a book. Her delight overflowed when her best friend, a well-known and loved author, offered to help her start her story. On arriving, he gave her a beautifully wrapped gift. He said all the tools she needed resided within the large package. Smiling, he then kissed her on the cheek, wished her success, and left.

When she opened unexpected present, she found two boxes inside. One was labeled "DO" box, and the other was labeled "DON'T" box. Curious as to their content, she pondered which one to open first. Reasoning that she needed to know upfront the taboos of authorship, she gingerly opened the one marked "DON'T."

Expecting to find a "Pandora's Box" of all the evils to be avoided in writing her book, she frowned at the contents.

1. Don't write fragments.
2. Don't create run-on sentences.
3. Don't use singular verbs with plural subjects.
4. Don't write paragraphs that go on and on and on.
5. Don't overuse forms of "to be" (is, are, was, were).
6. Don't neglect the importance of proper punctuation.

Her frown grew into a scowl as she continued reading the list. Why, it offered little more than the writing rules she had learned in school.

Eyeing the "DO" box with growing skepticism, she stepped back and stared at it. If it were no more helpful than the contents of the first box, she would be sorely disappointed in the value of her friend's gift. Of course, the mechanical reminders did prompt recollection of some rules she had forgotten, and they reinforced others that might slip her mind in the throes of the writing process. Still, they were of far less help than she had expected from a professional writer, especially one who was also a dear friend.

Despite her reluctance to open it, the "DO" box beckoned her to explore its treasures. Treasures?
After being so completely let down by the apparent uselessness of Box Number One, she resisted the temptation to give it a chance to "wow" her.

She turned to walk away, but something held her back. Against her better judgement, she reached down and untied the ribbon that locked its contents inside. The top popped open like a Jack-in-the-box and invited her to explore its bounty.

She blinked, rubbed her eyes, and blinked again. Unfamiliar terms and definitions reached out to her. One by one, she lifted them up, reviewed them in the light of her story, nodded, and carefully placed them back in the box.

1. Hyperbole - extreme exaggeration.
I'm so hungry I could eat a horse. The spider was the size of a basketball.
2. Irony - an expression that is opposite what you mean.
Of course, I'll have time to do that. I'm only working seventy hours this week, and it's my turn to cook dinner, do the dishes, and clean the house.
Irony doesn't carry the hurtful connotation of sarcasm and can make a point that might be missed if stated another way.
3. Metonymy - substuting one thing for another.
The press did not receive an invitation. (Reporters were not invited.) The theater opened its doors fifteen minutes late. (The theater manager opened the doors late.) The F.B.I. came to my door. (Someone from the F.B.I. came to my door.)
4. Metaphor - calls one thing something else.
His eyes were empty windows. She's a gem. He's a pig.
5. Onomatopoeia - a word expressing sound.
Bees buzz. Wind whistles. Snakes hiss. 
6. Paradox - apparent contradiction that states a subtle truth.
He works harder at not working than anybody I know. She can't carry a tune, but she sang an entire score when the police questioned her. 
7. Personification - attributing living qualities to inanimate objects.
The engine hummed a sweet song. The story spoke volumes. The raging river dared us to cross it. 
8. Simile - says something is like something else.
The clear night sky sparkled like diamond dust on dark velvet. Although he'd just eaten lunch, he gobbled down the sandwich like a starving dog.

Suddenly, she smiled. The gift began to make sense. The "DO" box offered varieties of expression she might never have considered, but which could bring color and flavor to her story and help define her characters. Even the disappointing "DON'T" box sharpened her awareness of the important role played by writing mechanics in the overall effectiveness of her work. No matter how exciting a story might be, poor mechanics can ruin it for a reader and potentially cost her a fan who won't be buying her next book.

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her at websites: and


  1. Linda, I love this post. There is wisdom and inspiration for all writers within and I so enjoyed the clever way you put your advice forward.

    1. Recently, someone came to me, hoping for encouragement to write a book and start a new career. After commending the potential writer for wanting to embark on such a major project, I began with a reality check about some of what's needed front to get started. Glad you like the presentation, Pat. I was in story mode, working on my book, and decided to use it rather than slip out and try to refocus later.

  2. Your post goes so well with my upcoming challenge for blocked writers: focus on writing something that breaks all the rules. When I did that, I had fun and learned again why those rules are important to good writing.

  3. It's great when we can coordinate, however inadvertently, with others to help writers along in their journey toward creating a well-written story. I'm looking forward to reading your post. :-)

  4. This is a terrific post, Linda, and such a wonderful reminder to all of us about some of the basics of writing. I think we all need those reminders no matter what stage of the game we are at.

    1. It's easy (and convenient) to get in a rut with our writing. I've noticed this trend in a number of authors who've been well-known for years and sold thousands (or millions) of books. Their later works often don't measure up to the earlier ones when they were honing their craft. Keeping our writing fresh and interesting can be a challenge.

  5. There are so many exciting rhetorical devices to work with. The best writers not only tell a good story, they master the construction of sentences and paragraphs.

    1. Absolutely, Diana. Great construction makes a good story sing.

  6. Excellent, Linda. This really makes you think!

  7. Great post, Linda. Actually, if it weren't for not using singular verbs with plural subjects and not to forget proper punctuation, I thought the Do box might contain a few of the same rules. I use fragments, and I think a lot of writers do. I've also used run-on sentences to make a point about something. So some rules need to be broken if the situation fits. I do love all the DOs. They remind me to write more colorfully and expressively. Oops, not too many adverbs, Polly. :-)

    1. One of the advantages of knowing the rules (and showing readers we know them through our writing in general) is that we can break them with impunity. I use fragments in conversation and internal dialogue because people don't necessarily think or speak in complete sentences. Run-ons are trickier, but they can be very effective in the hands of a savvy writer.


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