Writing that Moves: Learning by Reading Reference List

Crack open a few books on writing, and you’re liable to get the sound advice that the stories you admire are full of tricks you can learn from. A few of these writing books may even give examples. All the words are doing something; of course, it may be that what they’re doing is simply bogging down the story.

At times in this “Words that Move” series, I’ll look at some stories in the public domain or donated by professionals and try to describe what they’re doing. Another blogger, Ryan Lanz, does something similar with story openings that people send him, which is a great idea, but I’m interested in teaching myself by using stories that have been widely regarded to work. Feel free to add observations in the comments to each section.

To spot a thing, it helps a lot to give it a name, so we could use a vocabulary here. I’ll add to this list now and then, and I’ll use items from this it when critiquing a story.


Make reader curious in first line with compelling voice, surprising statement, question, dialog, etc.
Establish character, scene, and situation


  • Foreshadowing (explicit, implied; details that set mood; details that contrast mood)
  • Dramatic irony
  • Character’s mental state implied through external detail
  • Stimulus-emotion-reflex-response (maybe with speech), what Dwight Swain called “Motivation-Reaction Unit”
  • Mirror tricks, that is, describing a reflection to get the mirror for free

Character Arc

  • Other people’s attention on character, what they say about character
    Emotional baseline
  • Test of character (what is the particular character capable of?)
  • About robertpkruger

    Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of ElectricStory.com.
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