Let’s face it – we’ve all thought long and hard about how to make our story better, how to get more readers, get more recognition and have this WOW moment when somebody says “This writer is amazing! They know how to write, the story is great and I can’t wait for more!”
I know I have.
What I also know is that for this to happen I have to make sure my story is the best version of itself. And if you’re a genius, writer protege, or extremely lucky this would come naturally to you. For all the rest the best we can do is avoid the fatal mistakes many authors make which kills their story before it gets the chance to shine.
I can’t claim I came with the list completely by myself. I’ve been reading a lot lately about creative writing and writing techniques and I realized such an article can be extremely helpful (I know it opened my eyes to a lot of things I do without thinking).
So here we go:
We’re all guilty of that, me included. If you claim otherwise then you, sir(or ma’am), are a liar.
How many times have you told yourself ‘I’ll do it tomorrow, I want to finish my TV show.’ or ‘I am tired now, I don’t feel like it.’ or my personal favorite ‘I don’t have time!‘? Writing, like any other skill, is hard work. You sit down every day and write, struggle, improve. As they say – ‘A published writer is a writer that didn’t quit.’ or something like that. It is true nevertheless.
So here is the naked truth: Writers write; everyone else makes excuses.
Do you think successful writers have unlimited time? Or that they don’t feel the dread and the tension of sitting in front of the keyboard when they wrote themselves in the corner? I can assure you they do not.
So here is the thing – stop making excuses or trying to find a chore to do at home to avoid looking at the blank page. Write something, as terrible as it may be, as slow as it may go, as stupid as it may sound. You can’t edit a blank page.
I bet you know what I mean – we’re all guilty of it. How many of you have started a story with a description of a city/house/object that plays little to no role in the story? Or added a Prologue about something that happened way before the story begins?
My reasons vary from ‘I thought the good description(if it is even good, mind you) will hook the reader‘ or ‘Get the reader a feel for the place/the person/the time‘. Well, I realized some time ago that this is complete bullshit and it most certainly does the opposite of hooking the reader to the story.
So how do I start my story, you’d ask?
Easy – with a threat. And by ‘threat’ I don’t mean literally have somebody at a gunpoint or hanging from the edge of a building (although that would definitely work) – it may mean anything that unsettles your main character: she gets fired from her job; he is being chased by a monster or a dangerous gangster; she catches her boyfriend cheating on her; he sees his mother dying in front of his eyes and etc, and etc.
You get my point.
Now think of it just for a second. What would make you turn to the next page? A long page of descriptions about the crystal waters of the river that runs by Emily’s house, the purple flowers that could be found only there during April, and the sound of birds chirping everywhere? OR the scream that comes from Emily’s house in the middle of the night which prompts her to rush barefoot into the forest and try to cross the dangerous waters?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
It is not in vain that people say the first sentence, first paragraph, the first page is what your book is all about. If they suck nobody would read your book even if you turn out to be the next J.K.Rowling.
Readers need descriptions to visualize settings and people – we all know that we are readers ourselves. But sometimes, very often I may say, we tend to overdo it. We spend half a page describing a sunset or the sound of the city outside the window. Why? We’ve all seen sunsets and we’ve all lived in the city. We bloody know what those things are!
Fiction is movement. Description is static.
When you decide to add a detailed description to your chapter, your story stops. And sorry to break it to you but the readers are interested in the story — the movement — they don’t care how well you can describe the moon or the stars.
Just for the sake of it, when I say ‘descriptions’ I don’t mean only the act of describing nature or objects. Character traits, thoughts, and emotions fit perfectly in this category. You CAN say too much actually. Of course, you should and must look into your character’s head and heart. And some of those insights must be given to the reader so they can like/hate your character, identify with them, care about them.
This does not mean you should have no descriptions in your story, far from it. What is important to remember is that they need to be considered carefully, added in bits and pieces to keep your reader seeing, hearing, and feeling your world. The best thing you can do is make your descriptions invisible or in the best case – unobtrusive. That’s the magic of it – to paint a picture in the reader’s mind without them realizing it.
Now before we go into this one, let me clear something out. Writing fiction is about creating make-believe scenarios and tricking people into thinking they could be real, they could really happen. This is what your end goal should be. To create something so realistic that your reader is fully immersed in your story as if they are part of the world you created.
The real world is boring. That is one of the reasons we read fiction, isn’t it? To experience things we otherwise wouldn’t, to go places we would never visit, to meet people we’d never meet.
But here is the thing – nobody wants to read a book about real people doing their mundane things. Realistic people – yes, such that we can identify with and imagine clearly. But would you want to read in detail about how Cara brushed her teeth, flossed them then spent fifteen minutes picking up her outfit only to go to the store to buy bread and milk? Hell no.
We want to be excited, intrigued, infuriated, even scared. Real people aren’t vivid enough. Good characters have to be constructed, not copied from reality. Your idea may begin with a real person, you can give them traits you’ve noticed in real people, but to make him vivid enough for your readers to believe in him, you have to exaggerate. A LOT.
Another great difference which may even deserve its own section is that a story must make sense. And so must the characters. Unlike real people, your fictional characters must be driven by their goals, their motivation, even their background. They can’t just make random decisions or illogical choices (unless they are batshit crazy, obviously). We read to make sense of things, our own lives are messy enough.
I think that one is obvious. We all should be careful with those. The point of a story is to entertain so if your characters just sit around and do nothing then that wouldn’t be that entertaining, would it now?
We must be careful when constructing our heroes and villains – both for the sake of the reader and for ourselves.
Looking from the reader’s point of view: even if they (the readers) are the type of person who avoids conflict, who lives a quiet life and basically can be called a ‘static character’ they don’t necessarily want to read about one. We all want to imagine ourselves as a better version of us – smarter, bolder, fiercer. They want to read about a character that faces trouble, difficulties, provocation. Not about one that simply reacts to things that are happening around him or cower away at the first sight of danger.
Now let’s look at it from a writer’s point of view: what if your character is a quiet girl that doesn’t like attention and confrontation? One that literally runs away at the sight of trouble or fight. Where would you go with your story? Somebody argues, she runs away. Something happens, she hides. I bet you’d write yourself at the corner by chapter 5.
Another thing to consider – if the main character does not act, does not fight the difficulties coming her way then what is she doing? How are you moving your story forward?
Create active characters. Throw at them all the nasty stuff you can think of then throw some more. Make them fall and rise again, make them fight and lose and fight again. Take them through hell only for them to rise to the top and inspire your readers.
As funny as this sounds, it’s true. Let your character relax, feel happy, content and your story dies. There is no story if there is no struggle. As sadistic as this may sound add trouble to our characters’ lives, hurt them, test them, take everything away from them, and see how they fare then.
Say it with me now – I want conflict.
And I am not talking about bad luck or things just ‘happening’ to our character like his cat dying, or him pouring his coffee all over himself or his girlfriend leaving him for another woman. He is powerless against those things.
I am talking about real conflict, a struggle between story people with opposing goals. In conflict, your character has at least a chance to change the course of events. He can be active, he can fight and maybe lose but he can try his best to prevail. The outcome will depend on him – not on blind luck. There is nothing more inspiring that a character that has been through hell and back and rose to the top again. It gives us hope that even if our lowest points we can fight through, we can win and turn our life around. Readers need hope, they need inspiration. Don’t deny them that.
Why do we do the things we do? Because we are told or because we have to because we feel like it? Often in real life, there is no specific reason why we do random acts and that’s fine. Life is illogical at best.
In fiction, however, every action must have a logical reason behind it. Your characters can’t just go around doing things for the sake of flashy moments and intriguing scenes. While this may entertain the reader for a moment it would most certainly leave him scratching his head thinking ‘But why did he go there? Why did he kill the dog? Why did he drink the poison?‘ Because fiction is make-believe, it has to be more logical than real life if it is to be believed.
You must always provide characters with the right background — upbringing, experience, information— to motivate them in the direction of the action you want them to take.
Another kind of error that can destroy the evident logic of a story is the use of excessive luck or coincidence. A story filled with coincidence tends to make no sense because there is no real reason why things happen—they just happen.
I don’t think this one needs much explanation. Choosing your viewpoint is the first and most crucial decision you need to make. Choosing the wrong viewpoint can destroy your story – choosing the right one can make it a hundred times better.
When it comes to choosing a point of view there is one important question we must ask ourselves.
Whose story is this?
Once you figure this out, get inside that character—and stay there. It doesn’t matter if you choose to write the story from the first-person POV or third person POV – this is your artistic decision and one you must stand by as your story progresses.
In a novel, there may be several viewpoints, but one must clearly dominate. That’s because every story is ultimately one person’s story above all others, just as your life story is yours and yours alone. It’s a fatal error to let your viewpoint jump around from character to character, with no viewpoint clearly dominating.
We’ve all been told that to be a good writer we must have a diverse, extensive dictionary, original voice, and all that jazz. While this is true to a point, there are some things we all tend to misuse.
Yes, I am talking about dialog tags.
“Said” is a transparent word—a pointer to who said what. Any other attribution word will stick out and perhaps distract the reader without need unless the situation really does demand a “scream” or a “sigh” or else. You should use the invisible word “said” about 90 percent of the time. Don’t be afraid the reader will get annoyed reading it again and again – they won’t even notice it.
Now this one is tricky. We all want to have a fast-paced, action-infused, page-turning story that our readers can’t put down. We want them to devour chapter after chapter and stay up late to find out what happens to Billy Joe after he robs that bank.
Imagine that chapter after chapter the action level is on 10/10 and your character is constantly running, fighting, getting away with it by an incredulous chance. Few things I can tell you will happen for your reader.
1. If you’re lucky, the reader will finish the book but they will end up exhausted emotionally. Maaaaybe they will buy your next book. Or maaybe they will dread the same sensation and decide to stay away.
2. They will not find your character realistic or connect to them in any way. The moments of ‘pause‘ when you stop the action and reflect on the character’s thoughts or emotions are the moments where your reader gets to know what moves the character, what motivates them, what drives them to do stuff. Those moments allow them to see themselves as the MC and without them, you basically have a scene after scene of some random dude doing random stuff.
The same logic applies if you’re constantly stopping the action to add an emotional scene. It’s good to have an insight into what the character is feeling or thinking but to stop the action as he is hanging by his finger on the roof to ponder over the meaning of life is a death sentence. Both for your book and the character.
It’s not a long list, as you can see, and it is not that difficult to stop all of those things in your writing. Editing them out, on the other side, would be hard. I can assure you of that but in the end, it would be worth it.
I don’t claim that those are the only mistakes we make or what I have said above is a rule or anything but I have a lot of experience in making mistakes and observed those as topics of other writers too.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule but do you dare put the future of your story on that?
So what do you think of the list? After reading it can you think of an instance or a scene in your books where you have done any of those mistakes? Do you disagree with any of them?