How to Avoid a Common Weakness in Writing

Writing padIT WAS while teaching classes on Story that I confirmed a common weakness in novice writing – writing that is on-the-nose.

This means that the movement of a scene occurs on the surface, at the level of plot, and not sub-textually where the reader is most involved.

Think of this as writing external action that lacks inner conflict. To avoid this pitfall, and go a step further, present inner conflict as something that the reader is aware of, but not the character(s). Readers will feel compassion, suspense, and interest in the scene because they will be privy to something that a character may only become aware of later, if at all.

Stronger Writing

My advice to new writers is to have them create scenes where the outer movement runs at an angle to the inner motivation – where a character says one thing but means, or intends, quite another. This creates a subtext of conflict in the scene, substantially deepening our enjoyment of it.

In Moulin Rouge Satine realises that if her lover, Christian, stays with her, his life will be in danger from the Duke who wants her for himself. So in order to protect him she lies to Christian, telling him that she does not love him, that she will marry the Duke instead. The audience is aware that her lie is a painful but selfless sacrifice. Our heart goes out to her, as well as to Christian, doubling our emotion.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, an American theoretical physicist, dreams of one day solving his equations to prove that time travel to the past is possible. But we realise that being past his prime, Benjamin is unlikely to ever achieve this, and our compassion for him increases.

In both examples, it is what lies between the lines that carries most of the emotion and power of the story, not the plot.


Writing scenes where the outer movement runs at an angle to the inner motivation of characters makes for engaging stories.

2 thoughts on “How to Avoid a Common Weakness in Writing

  1. Mandira Mazumder

    Thanks for exposing me to the technique of layered writing which is full of inner conflicts and implied nuances that naturally draw the readers into the crisis of the character. You have furnished us with two examples to reveal why we empathise with the characters therein. My humble writings are often published in

    May I know where else can I send my writeup as a beginner in the journey? D I have any chance to earn from writing?

    Warm Regards,


    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Thanks Marinda. Glad you found it useful. About the writing journey – it’s a long one, and one way or another, we are all still on it. Keep writing!


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