10 fiction pitfalls
A writing instructor shows how to avoid the most common mistakes
Published: April 7, 2010
You have only one chance to make a good first impression with a literary agent or editor, so your first submission must be your best work. In teaching fiction writing and editing manuscripts for 10 years, I have seen many writers make the same basic mistakes in the structure and content of their fiction. Here are the most common mistakes, with advice on how to avoid them and improve your writing.
1. Don’t put extensive backstory in your first pages. Writers sometimes provide extensive backgrounds on characters and situations before really beginning their stories. But long narratives can be dull openings. Instead of backstory, take the reader directly into your story. Show your main character facing a challenge in a scene with other interesting characters. Agents and editors must be intrigued by the main character, know that person’s goal, and like the story’s direction early—or they won’t stick around. A writer may say, “It’s slow at first, but wait until page 10—that’s dynamite.” Put the dynamite up front.|
A backstory might begin, “Harry Black inherited a law firm from his father and built it into one of the largest in Boston,” then discuss family, home, etc. Instead, begin with action:
Harry Black jumped to his feet, shouting, “Objection! Not supported by fact.” Judge Powell glared at Black, saying, “This courtroom has good acoustics, Counselor. So don’t shout, and sit down.” He gave Black a wry smile. “By the way, your objection is overruled.”
Now the story has begun.
2. Similarly, don’t let narration dominate your story as a whole. Many writers think a story should be largely narrated, in the manner of classic literature. But here’s a good rule: Fight the urge to narrate. Entertainment today is visual—movies, television, the Internet, cell phones. To compete, fiction must also be visual, using scenes, action, description and dialogue to show a story, rather than narration to tell it. A story should consist of one scene following another, connected by narration. Write your story as if it will become a movie. Show it visually—in scenes.
3. Don’t lose control over your plot. “Writer’s block” often results from failing to plan a story in advance. Without a plot outline or synopsis, the author, after getting into the “big middle,” may lose continuity and get “blocked.” The feeling is what a driver without a map feels on a dark country road, at first making great time—then becoming totally lost.
Begin your writing plan with a one-paragraph summary of your plot, de-scribing the main character and your story. For a novel, prepare a several-page synopsis, broadly narrating the primary events. Then, to get the early pages started, jot down a list of the first few key events. As you write, outline your next upcoming events. These plans will help prevent writer’s block.
4. Eliminate weak dialogue. Stories are diminished by dialogue that rambles or consists of inconsequential personal talk, or is stilted, too perfect, or so long that it borders on being a monologue or a speech. Meaningful, realistic dialogue is vital to the story’s direction. It should help establish the dramatic purpose of each scene, move the story forward, reveal the characters’ motives and attitudes, and intrigue the reader.
Weak dialogue may include repetitive speech tags—the “he saids” and “she saids.” Also outmoded is the “Tom Swifty,” a tag that includes an “ly” adverb to show attitude: “ ‘I’m worried,’ Tom said nervously.” Good dialogue includes actions and body language, combining activities and showing emotions along with dialogue, such as:
Stella slammed the book on the table. “I can’t do any more homework now.” She walked to the door, then looked back at her mother with a scowl. “I’m out of here.”
5. Don’t label characters. Writers must describe characters, but often they simply use one-word labels, such as: “She was beautiful,” or “He was brilliant.” Labels are not descriptions. Instead, really describe a character’s physical attributes, and let readers draw their own conclusions.
Example: Don’t label a woman by writing: She was drop-dead gorgeous. Truly describe her, as in this:
Sara, slender, and about five-eight, seemed taller, in her high-heeled shoes. A pink sweater accentuated her curves. She shook her wavy blond hair and smiled, re-vealing glistening teeth. Sara murmured in a soft, sensuous voice, “I’ll have a Bloody Mary—lots of celery.” She laughed lightly. “I haven’t had lunch.”
Similarly, don’t label a man by writing: He was unusually handsome. Provide descriptive details:
Robert, a muscular six feet tall, rested a white-gloved hand on Sara’s bare arm. A red cummerbund contrasted with his white tuxedo and white patent-leather shoes. In a clipped English accent he told the bartender, “Bristol Cream Sherry.”
6. Don’t write a ‘simple’ plot. A writer’s first idea about a plot or character may be simple. But the writer then develops that simple idea into a story, and when that story is made more complex, it becomes a plot. In 1927, author E.M. Forster said: “A story concentrates on events. A plot concentrates on causes for those events.” Enhancement, complexity, and a focus on the causes of events can transform your simple story idea into an intriguing cause-and-effect plot.|
To solidify your plot, answer the six journalistic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? These questions may be particularized this way: Who is the main character? What is the major goal in the story? When does the story occur? Where does it take place? Why are these events important to the protagonist and reader? How does the story conclude satisfactorily?
7. Don’t ‘talk’ directly to the reader. The author must be “invisible” so the reader is not distracted from the story. If a writer intrudes on the reader’s consciousness through direct address, saying “you,” the spell is broken and the illusion of a story in action disappears. In novels of past eras, authors were fond of saying things like: “Now, dear reader, Mary faced serious trouble. Little did she know what would befall her.” Today, when a writer says, “You know what I mean,” that is doing the same thing with the same effect—the writer has intruded into the story by addressing the reader.
8. Don’t write in the passive voice. It feels natural to write passively, especially in presenting background. But a story should show action, using active verbs. Show the subject of a sentence acting, not being acted upon. Many narrative passages use the passive “to be” verbs (e.g., is, are, was, were, had). Instead, use verbs that indicate activity. Not “Andy’s heart was beating fast,” but: “Andy’s pulse pounded in his temples like a bass drum.” Readers can better imagine it.
Active writing is inherently more evocative. Recall the infamous opening: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Better to show sounds and actions: “The thunder rattled the windows and lightning flashed in the night sky as the rain struck the roof.” Even inanimate objects can be used to evoke action, like this: “The white birch trees stretched their barren branches toward the sky.”
9. Don’t submit manuscripts in nontraditional formats. Writers may feel they should use script or super-sized letters or fonts to impress. But agents and editors are interested only in the characters and stories. They like plain-vanilla submissions, with double spacing, indented paragraphs, 12-point type, Times New Roman or New Courier font, new chapters starting on new pages, etc. Traditional formats let them concentrate on the story without visual distractions.
10. Don’t overlook the value of a good writing style. For fiction, a good writing style requires more than a mere command of the English language, diction, syntax and grammar. A piece of fiction must entertain your reader and be true to life. For variety, use different sentence types—declarative, compound, complex and periodic. Avoid clichés.
Instead of writing, generically, “trees and flowers,” write “oak trees” and “forget-me-nots.” And, for more lifelikeness, show characters using their senses: “Staring down the gun barrel from the wrong end, he heard an ominous click.” “The bitter coffee diluted the oily dessert’s sweet taste.” “Tom’s mother felt the fuzz on her son’s cheeks. She sighed and thought, he’ll be shaving soon.
Try these exercises to improve your writing during your final revisions:
• Underline those paragraphs that simply narrate background information. Rewrite the passages describing events within scenes and adding dialogue.
• Search your manuscript for passive verbs, especially was, were and had. Circle the verbs and rewrite the sentences, whenever possible, using action verbs.
• Avoid "he said" or "she said" dialogue tags whenever possible; instead, indentify characters by describing gestures or facial expressions when they're speaking.
• Find overly general adjectives that describe characters, such as "pretty" or "rugged," and replace them with specific descriptive details about hair, eyes or physique to create a stronger image for the reader.
Sam McCarver’s six-novel John Darnell mystery series was published by Penguin Putnam and Five Star. The author of a book for writers, Novel Writing for Wanna-be’s, he has also taught fiction writing and edited manuscripts for 10 years.|
(This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of The Writer.)