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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 5


Rookie truck driver mistake

This is it. The final installment in this series. If you’re just joining us, you can find part 1 here. I hope you’ve all found the series helpful so far. It has been fun writing it. At last, here is the final batch of 9 rookie mistakes to watch out for in your own writing.

37. Repetitive sentence structure. If you dust the cobwebs off that part of your brain that holds middle school memories, you might find something in there about different types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Yeah, that module bored me too. But now that you’re a writer, you need to know that stuff. It’s actually important for establishing a rhythm and flow to your writing that won’t bore your readers like those middle school English lessons did.

I’m not going to re-cap what all those sentence types are (plus, of course, questions, exclamations, interjections, et cetera). Hit your favorite search engine for “types of sentences” and you’ll find plenty. I’d rather let an example do the work. Which would you rather read, this one:

Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster. He flicked open the cylinder. Two bullets remained. He checked his pockets. There were none. He drained the last of his bottle of rye. He thought, I better aim careful.

Or this one:

Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster, flicking open the cylinder. Two bullets remained. He checked his pockets, but came up empty. He drained the last of his bottle of rye and thought, I better aim careful.

The first one is nothing but simple declarative sentences. And can’t you just feel the monotony of it? The second one has all the same facts, in exactly the same order, but mixes it up with different sentence structures. Feel the difference?

38. “And” abuse. Close on the heels of repetitive sentence structure is abuse of that stalwart conjunction “and.” Here’s the thing about English: there are probably dozens of ways to join two clauses together into a compound or complex sentence. Yet, rookie writers reach for “and” more often than not. It gets dull. Worse than that, it’s a missed opportunity to inject additional meaning into your prose. To make the text richer with information for the reader to ferret out.

All that “and” tells us is “here are two things I’ve put into the same sentence.” By itself, “and” doesn’t add much in the way of color or nuance. Look for different ways to connect things that you want connected. If nothing else, reach for a different conjunction. Something that does hint at the relationship between the two things being connected. If you connect them with “but,” you establish a contrast. “Sam didn’t care for strawberries, but Doris lived for them.” Using “yet” establishes a different kind of contrast, between what is and what might have been expected. The list goes on and on and on. This web page has 44 different conjunctions and conjoining phrases listed. Why use “and” all the time when you’ve got that palette to paint with?

You don’t have to use conjunctions all the time, either. If the subject of two otherwise independent clauses is the same, you can often omit the conjunction by converting the verb in the second one to a gerund. There’s an example of this above, with “Mad Jack drew the Colt out of its holster, flicking open the cylinder.” That could have been done with “and flicked” instead, but to me, the gerund form adds a nice feeling of immediacy to the sentence.

You want a great writing exercise? Use your word processor’s search function to look at all the times you use “and.” When you find “and” being used as a coordinating conjunction (versus just to separate items in a list), re-work the sentence to use a different conjunction or grammatical form. You’ll be amazed at how much brighter and more lively your prose becomes.

39. Mis-capitalizing surrogate proper nouns. Besides the first letter of sentences, what do we capitalize in English? Proper nouns, right? The names of specific people, places, and things. Easy enough. But we also capitalize anything that functions as a proper noun. Where I see the most confusion in client manuscripts about this is with nicknames, titles, and words that refer to people by relationship.

The general rule: if something is being used in place of a person’s given name, treat it as a name and capitalize it. Not sure? Try substituting the person’s actual name in that same spot to see if the sentence still works. If it does, then capitalize. Here are some specifics that trip people up:

  • If you have a character who’s a little crazy with the risk taking and has the nickname “Gonzo,” and that’s what everybody in the book calls him, most writers know to capitalize that. But in spontaneous circumstances such as a father calling his daughter “Pumpkin,” somehow that tends to trip people up. I see those types of personal, cutesy nicknames lowercased quite often when they ought to be capitalized. Again, it’s that general rule: the girl’s actual name would fit just fine in that same context within the sentence, which is your tip-off that the nickname is functioning as a surrogate proper noun.

  • Immediate family relationships. I see “Mom” and “Dad” mis-capitalized all the time. Weirdly often. This same rule applies for any kind of relationship within the family, it just shows up for mothers and fathers more often. This mistake is perhaps more understandable, since these kinds of relationship words are legitimately either capitalized or lowercased depending on context. When used as a form of direct address (again, in place of the person’s name), capitalize: “Hi Mom, what’s for dinner?” When used as a reference to a person holding a particular relationship to the speaker or narrator (and usually prefixed with a possessive pronoun such as my/his/her/etc.) then lowercase it: “You won’t believe what my mom made for dinner last night.”

  • Non-family relationships. These are typically references to people who hold some kind of business or service relationship to the speaker or narrator, and are referred to by their profession. A doctor, lawyer, seamstress, et cetera. I see fewer mistakes with these, but it’s the same rule as for immediate family relationships. Don’t capitalize unless the profession is being used as a form of direct address. You’d write:

Jack went to the doctor (lowercased) to get his head examined. “What do you think, Doctor?” (capitalized) he asked. “Am I crazy?”

  • Titles. “Sir,” “Ma’am,” “General,” “Lord,” “Sire,” et cetera: capitalize. While these aren’t a part of a person’s given name, they are used as if they were. They’re just like “Mr.,” “Ms.,” and so forth. It is as if the person’s name includes the title, and when the title is used by itself, it’s like using a shortened form of the person’s name. So “Thank you, General Harrington,” becomes “Thank you, General.” But not “Thank you, general.”

40. Unclear scene openings. The original post from storyfix.com, the one that prompted me to write this series, talked about turning invisible scene transitions into visible ones by means of whitespace. A simple and effective technique. But that leaves aside the elephant-in-the-room question of how you open the scene after the transition.

An unclear scene opening really hoses up the flow of your story. I’m just going to say that. It does. Because rather than being able to smoothly segue into the next meaningful set of events, readers are instead forced to wrestle with simply understanding what the scene is. There are a few really core things that a scene opening needs to establish to give the reader a smooth transition from one scene to the next, and to introduce those, let’s briefly talk about what a scene break is. Intuitively, we know, but let’s make it explicit. A scene transition is a jump in time, place, viewpoint character, and/or supporting characters. I make that explicit because those are pretty much the things readers need to know in order to get their heads into the new scene.

If time has shifted, we need to know by how much and in which direction: forward (the most common; we’ve skipped some boring time in order to get to the next period when something interesting happens), backwards (the new scene is a flashback, or the story is being intentionally told in non-chronological order), or laterally (we’re jumping to a different character so we can catch up on what she was doing at the same time as someone else).

If the new scene takes place somewhere different than the prior scene left off, then we need to know where we are. Or at the very least, we at least need to know enough about the location that we can visualize it, because sometimes you legitimately don’t want to tell the reader exactly where the place is. But we still need to be able to visualize it in order to understand what we’re about to see the characters do.

If the set of people in the scene is different from the prior scene, and those people are in obvious evidence to the POV characters, it’s only fair to let the reader know right away who’s present. It’s confusing to read a page and a half of scene, believing that only Pete and Lisa are in the room, only to be find that Janet has actually been there all along but she just hasn’t said anything up to now. That’s irritating to readers, because now we need to adjust our understanding of what Janet knows to include anything Pete and Lisa said and did in the meantime. You force us to stop to make that adjustment, whereas if we had simply known Janet was there from the beginning, we’d have been able to do that automatically.

And finally, where is everyone in the space? For our ability to visualize and track what’s happening, it isn’t enough to know who’s there. We need to know where they are, too. And when they move around, we need to know about it. Let’s say you have three people sitting out on the porch, talking and sipping iced tea. If they all stay put, it’s easy to track who knows what based on what might be revealed during their conversation. But if one of them steps inside for a minute to refill their tea and you don’t tell us, then again, our mental model starts to diverge from what you have in mind. If we suddenly see that person come back out to the porch, we’ll be confused. “Wait a minute. Grandma went back inside? When did that happen?” We don’t know how much of the conversation she missed. We feel cheated, and justifiably so, because we weren’t allowed to track the movements of the characters, even though those movements should have been perfectly obvious to anybody witnessing the scene.

41. Overly complex verb forms. Pop quiz. What’s wrong with this?

Beth started to cross the yard towards the oak tree. She stretched one hand up to a gnarled branch and began to climb. It was hard work but she finally reached the top, where the branches grew thin and she could feel herself swaying in the breeze.

What’s wrong are the verb forms: “Started to cross.” “Began to climb.” “Finally reached.” Once in a while, I get a client who just can’t help but do this. They turn every straightforward action into some complex verb construction, generally by prefixing the core verb with some form of begin, start, continue, finish, finally, or similar.

After a while it starts to drive the reader crazy. It’s like nobody’s ever actually doing anything. They’re always just beginning to do something, or finally getting around to something, but never just plain doing.

Remember waaaaay back in part 1 of this series? Item number 3 was “weak verbs.” Well, this is another way writers weaken otherwise strong verbs. They clutter them up with these overly complex lead-ins, these hair-splitting gradations of tense. I promise you this: whatever verb comes after the lead-in is pretty much guaranteed to be stronger than “begin,” “start,” “continue,” and the rest. Cut those lead-ins to let the character—and the reader—jump straight to the action.

42. Naked dialogue. It’s fine to have characters talk when they’re naked. That’s not what I mean. Naked dialogue (or sometimes “on the nose” dialogue) is when a character’s dialogue reveals exactly and specifically what they’re thinking or feeling. The dialogue bares all, as it were.

Let’s say you have a couple in a rocky relationship. One of the things he’s unhappy about is that he feels that the relationship isn’t equitable. That she doesn’t really respect his time, his space, his opinions, et cetera. If they’re arguing and she asks, “Why are you so grouchy all the time?” he’s not going to say this:

“Because I don’t get my due in this relationship. I don’t feel like you take my feelings or opinions into account. I feel disrespected, and if you don’t respect me, it makes me wonder if you really love me. Then I worry that you’re going to break up with me, even though I love you and I don’t want to break up.”

It’s just not believable. Regular people don’t say things like that. I mean, if this guy is so well adjusted and self-actualized that he can articulate his feelings so clearly, chances are he would have said something to her long ago at the first signs of the problems. No. A regular, believable person would say something like:

“Because we always see what movies you want to see, and eat where you want to eat, and even though I paid for our damn queen-sized bed, somehow you get as much space as you want while I sleep on a twelve-inch strip right on the edge, and if I god forbid ever ask you to maybe give me just a little bit—on anything—you look at me like I’m asking you sell a kidney so we can buy beer, that’s why.”

Real people rarely say exactly what’s going on. Little kids don’t, as we explored in the last installment, because they don’t have the capacity for self-analysis which would let them. Grownups don’t, because somehow in our culture we’re just not that blunt about it. We talk around the real issues, hoping people will figure out what we really mean. As a writer, your job is to write dialogue that does exactly that: hints at the real issue so readers can figure out what’s going on (whether other characters do as well depends, of course, on what you’ve got going on in the story), without hitting the nail exactly on the head.

43. Passive voice. Good grief. I just realized I haven’t mentioned passive voice writing yet. Passive voice is a grammatical construction which switches the subject and direct object of a sentence. And then for good measure, often drops the subject entirely. For example, a nice active-voice sentence like this:

Jane threw the package to the ground in a blinding rage.

Suddenly turns into this:

The package was thrown by Jane to the ground in a blinding rage.

“Jane” and “the package” have switched grammatical positions in the sentence, and “threw” converts to “was thrown.” But then, because “by Jane” sounds so horribly awkward in there, we dispense with Jane:

The package was thrown to the ground in a blinding rage.

The problem, as I blogged in some detail a long, long time ago, is exactly with this last step. The subject of the original sentence, the actor, the character who your story is about, gets cut out of the text.

44. Passive characters. Your grammar isn’t the only thing that can be active or passive. Characters can too, and it’s just as bad. If you write a passive protagonist, even in active voice, we’re going to be bored. A passive protagonist is one who is not interacting strongly with the plot. What that means is that the character is floating through the story without any driving goal or motivation to achieve anything. The feeling this creates is that the protagonist doesn’t much care what happens. And it’s pretty hard to get the reader to care what happens if the main character doesn’t.

I don’t mean that you can’t have a passive narrator. You can. Many stories use a viewpoint character who is there to witness the exploits of the true protagonist, so as to narrate them to the reader. Look no further than The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick.

What I mean is that whatever character you set up as the main person in the story, the one who the story is fundamentally about, that character had better have some strong goals and motivations. We need to see that the main character cares about something. We need to see care so strong that we’ll believe, want to follow, and root for that person as he or she does whatever the plot requires.

45. Telling instead of showing. I had to save something substantial for last, and this is it. Even if you’ve heard the “Show, don’t tell” rule before, don’t stop reading now, because chances are you’re still not following it as much as you should. Violating this rule—that is, telling instead of showing—is easily the most frequent mistake I see from writers of all stripes. Rookies and seasoned folks alike.

It’s also the worst mistake you can make, because “Show, don’t tell” is the most fundamental, bedrock skill of narrative fiction. Skillful use of showing and telling is what makes narrative fiction work.

It’s not hard to understand why people tell instead of show, though. Telling is just so damn easy. You can convey so much information, so fast, using telling. With telling, you can lay out a character’s whole backstory so we know exactly who they are, where they came from, and what all their foibles are, in a half a page. With telling, you can trivially let us know exactly how everybody feels, and why, all the time.

Telling is so easy it’s downright seductive, but it’s still a mistake because the things rookie writers want to tell are usually the most important things in the story. Which, ironically enough, means that they are the exact same things that you need to let readers infer, deduce, and conclude for themselves. When the reader concludes something, the information becomes theirs, and they’ll believe it to the end of time. When you just tell them outright, the information remains yours, and is therefore much more suspect. After all, you’re a novelist, a title which is probably the greatest euphemism for “liar” ever invented. By definition, you make stuff up! You’re not to be trusted!

You need to show, rather than tell, because that’s how you lead readers to make the critical inferences and conclusions you need them to make. That’s how you earn the reader’s belief in your characters and your story.

How do you do it? I have a whole 90 minute lecture on this subject that I can’t cram into this blog post, but in brief: what you’re allowed to tell is anything that would be visible (audible, smellible, et cetera) to the reader if the reader were a fly on the wall in your scene, plus the viewpoint character’s inner monologue if you’re using that. That’s what you’re allowed to tell. All the stuff that’s directly manifest in the world of the story. Everything else, all the invisible stuff you want the reader to know, everything those flies on the wall would have to infer on the basis of what they observe, is what you need to show. Here’s the cool part: you show the invisible stuff by telling the visible stuff.

Every invisible fact will manifest in some observable way. To show us the invisible fact, you tell us about its visible manifestation, and let us connect the dots. That’s how you do “Show, don’t tell.” So I leave you with this:

The difference between telling and showing is the difference between the visible and the invisible.

And we’re done

So that’s it. Forty-five rookie writing mistakes, and how to avoid them. Thanks to anybody who read this far, and happy writing!

< Back to part 4 | << Way back to part 1

August 24, 2011 16:12 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, show don't tell, passive voice, active voice, conjunctions, passivity

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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 4


Rookie street painter mistake

For this next set, I thought I’d try to focus on some rookie mistakes that go a little bit deeper than some of the surface issues I’ve had in parts 1 through 3. This is a long post, because these are trickier issues. But make no mistake, these are still rookie mistakes, and will still torpedo your book as surely as adverb abuse will. The only difference is that the torpedo is lurking deeper underwater. It’ll be harder to see coming, harder to avoid, and if you let it hit you, a lot harder to fix than a surface issue like adverb abuse.

28. Insufficient world building. It’s not enough just to think of something cool to do with the world of your story, but then leave everything else the same as how we have it here on earth. It won’t feel right to readers—and thus, it won’t be believable—because in fact it won’t be right.

No. You have to do the what-if thought experiment, and do it all the way. You have to fully think through the ramifications of your particular cool thing on the entire rest of the story’s world. For example, you could say “I’ll set this story on a world with no continents, just millions of small islands scattered around.” Ok, that’s kind of cool, in a Wizard of Earthsea sort of way. But you can’t stop there, and imagine that this world is dominated by a small number of broad cultural groups like we have on earth. Here on earth, you can broadly group the world into Western culture (Europe, North America), Latin America (Mexico, Central and South America), the Far East (China, Japan, et cetera), Africa, the Middle East, and India. There are outliers, sure, but pretty much everybody fits into one of those groups. Does that make sense, on a planet with millions of small islands but no large land masses? Probably not. Such a world won’t be likely to have the dominant language and cultural clusters that Earth has, and if you start positing that it does, readers are going to start questioning the logic of your world. As they should, because it doesn’t hold up. Technology, material culture, social norms, language development, legal systems, and basically anything else you care to name that defines how our culture works, would end up being different on an island planet. You have to think through all that stuff in order to give your readers a believable setting.

You’ll notice that the really successful writers of fantasy and sci-fi (genres that trade in world building), give us examples of exhaustive world building. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age is a great example, with a what-if of “what if we had advanced nanotechnology?” China Mieville’s The City and the City is a great example of thinking through the question “what if two antagonistic cultures were forced to share the same space?” Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees explores the idea of “what if a human culture were allowed to develop without gravity?” Study works like these or comparable ones in your own sub-genre. They work because the authors did their homework up front. They figured out the worlds of the stories before figuring out the stories themselves.

If you make this rookie mistake, then I bear you bad news: Chances are you’ll have to start over. Chances are, when you do the thought experiment, you’ll discover that your entire storyline doesn’t work anymore.

29. Being obvious. If readers can easily see what’s coming, they’ll be bored. The feeling of drama, and the degree of a reader’s interest and engagement with a story, correlates exactly with the degree to which they are uncertain about what’s going to happen next. You know this. You probably do this yourself when you read a book: you play the “out-think the writer” game. We love it when we have an idea about what’s going to happen, but not when we’re dead certain that we’re right. And especially not when our dead certain guess turns out to be right.

If we get that feeling of knowing exactly where this book is going to go—usually because the rookie writer has made the clues too obvious, has used a setup that’s too cliché, or whatever—then we feel a little disappointed. We feel like the book isn’t going to deliver us the entertainment we wanted, in the form of fun puzzles to solve, fun surprises to encounter, et cetera. The writer has given us puzzles that are trivial to solve, and has tipped us off far too blatantly about what the supposed surprises are going to be.

30. Being obviously deceptive. This is the flip-side of the previous mistake, when a rookie writer knows they can’t let the reader in on the real answer too soon, but then goes overboard in terms of pointing the reader’s attention at an alternate explanation. If you’re writing a murder mystery in which the husband kills his wife in order to make room for his mistress, but you take great pains to make it obvious that the untrustworthy, unemployed, drug addict next-door neighbor with the rap sheet as long as your leg had the means, the motive, and the opportunity, your efforts will likely backfire. Readers will start thinking “The neighbor is too obvious an answer. It can’t be him.”

Basically, if your red herrings smell like three-day-old fish, don’t expect anybody to buy them. For my money, the best twists and surprises come when you give readers two possible and plausible options to choose from, neither of which is emphasized too much or too little, but then the real answer is some wholly different third thing that still manages to be obvious in hindsight. A great one to study here is Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. You’ll never see the twist coming, but when it comes, you’ll be kicking yourself for not spotting it sooner.

31. Superman Syndrome. I could have split this one into two different problems, but they’re so closely related I’m going to do it as one. This is when a character is either too perfect, or too perfectly suited to the task the novel sets for him. The results are off-putting, boring, or both.

A character that is too perfect just isn’t believable. Nobody’s perfect. And depending on the particular way in which the character is perfect, can turn the reader off to the novel. This is particularly likely when the character ends up coming across as authorial wish-fulfillment or vicarious living through fiction. Worst of all is when the reader gets the impression that the character is actually a portrayal of the writer’s self-image. Pretty much nobody except the writer’s mother is going to want to read a story with an inhumanly perfect character written by a writer with that much apparent ego. Check your ego at the door and give us a real person, flawed and fallible, to follow through the story.

In the boring camp are characters that are tailor-made for the task. If you write a fantasy quest where the hero has to rescue the princess by fighting his way past horrible monsters, and you give me a hero who is seven feet tall, utterly ripped, wields a sword that can cut an oak tree down in one stroke, and was trained by the best swordsman in all the land—or actually, the second best, because of course now the hero is better than his teacher—well, I’m already bored just thinking about it. The hero is far too well suited to his task. For him, the horrible monsters aren’t really so bad. Don’t give me this guy. Give me a 90 pound weakling with two left feet who doesn’t even own a dagger, much less a sword, yet who still sets off to rescue the princess. This guy’s going to have a much harder time. He’s going to be in much greater danger. The outcome of his quest is much less certain, and therefore, much more interesting.

32. Easy street. I have noticed that rookie writers are often uncomfortable with doing mean things to their protagonists. Or perhaps they’re downright terrified of it. Hard to say. At any rate, they often can’t bring themselves to put their characters in any kind of truly difficult situation. But at the same time, these authors know they have to have a plot. Things have to happen. People have to go places and do stuff. So what the rookie writer does is grease the skids. Make the protagonist’s path as smooth and friction-free as possible.

For example, imagine a character who must cross Europe from one end to the other in a hunt for a stolen Van Gogh. The rookie writer will realize she’s going to have some trouble with all the different languages, and so provides a ready solution in the backstory: “Alexis was a polyglot. She had learned French and Swiss-German from her au pair when she was two. In kindergarten, she picked up Spanish from her friend Emilio. Over the summer of her seventh year, she learned Italian from her mother’s Teach Yourself Italian in 21 Days cassettes, bought for a trip that was never taken.” And so on. That’s great for Alexis, but it sucks for the reader. Wouldn’t it be more fun for us if Alexis had to do this same journey while not being able to talk to anybody, read the menus, street signs, et cetera?

I also see this done in a different fashion, where as soon as a new problem appears on the character’s horizon, the author drops something into the plot—a sudden benefactor, a stroke of luck, whatever—that immediately negates the problem without the character having to do any work to overcome it. Don’t do that. Don’t solve all the character’s problems for them. The result is a boring book. If you want an interesting book, take the character’s backstory benefits away, and make the characters work hard to solve problems when they appear.

33. Lack of Complications. Rookie writers who get their characters off of easy street often wander into this mistake: failing to create complications in how their characters solve problems. The mistake here is making the characters work, but not making them work hard enough. The pattern goes like this: The character has some kind of final story-goal to achieve. The opening of the book usually centers around discovering what it is that the character needs or wants to achieve. Then the question becomes how to do it?

Usually, achieving the goal involves a sequence of sub-goals. Before I can buy a house, I need to save enough for a down payment, which means I need a better job, which means I need to finish college, which means I need to pick a school I can afford and enroll in it. The end of that chain of thought is an initial step that the character can actually undertake right now.

That’s where the mistake comes in. Let’s say the character discovers an affordable night-school program at a local community college, in a program that really interests her. Pick a school: accomplished! Now to enroll. Just fill out some paperwork, right? Not so fast, Mr. or Ms. Writer. How about a complication? Make it a little more challenging for the character to achieve those step-by-step goals. How about if the program is already full? Better. But not great, because the character can just wait until the next academic year, making sure to get her paperwork in soon. Ok, how about if the program is already full, and she learns that this is the last year that the program is going to be offered? Is she dead in the water? Maybe, if she’s not willing to fight hard for her dream. But maybe not. It’s not like enrollment limits are inviolable laws of physics. They’re just a number somebody picked. Nothing’s stopping her from tracking down the teachers, explaining to them why she needs to be in this program, and convincing them that she’s going to be the best student they ever had, so they can go with her down to the registrar’s office to get a waiver on that enrollment limit.

Complications make for drama, because they make the character’s job harder, and thus, the outcome more uncertain. The rookie mistake here is for a character’s first strategy for any problem to invariably succeed. Don’t let Plan A work every time. In fact, don’t let Plan A work most of the time. Force the character to go to Plan B—by definition a less obvious strategy, and less likely to work—and then let that fail too. Eventually something does have to work so the character can move on, but please, don’t let it be so easy for them.

34. Lightswitch emotions. Human beings have a rhythm to their emotional responses. There’s a natural way that reactions come on, peak, and subside. It varies depending on the particular stimulus, the emotion it brings on, and the severity or intensity of the situation, but on the whole there’s a pattern to these things.

Emotions often do come on quickly. If you put a couple out in the woods, on a blanket with a picnic basket, romantic emotions are probably in play. Let a cougar suddenly jump out into view ten feet away from them, a low growl rumbling from its throat, and I guarantee you those romantic feelings are going to be replaced by utter terror in about half a heartbeat. That’s fine. That’s natural and believable.

But for normal characters, ones who are not suffering from some kind of mental illness or mood disorder, what does not happen is for emotions to turn off like a light.

What does not happen is for the cougar to sniff twice, suddenly turn and bound back out of sight, and then for the couple to resume making out as if nothing had happened. “Well, that’s fine then. Darling, may I put my tongue back down your throat?” “Oh, yes please!” No. I don’t think so.

Strong emotions need to have consequences. They don’t just vanish as soon as whatever brought them on is over. This is the rookie mistake, to portray characters immediately and completely getting over a situation just as soon as the situation ends. It’s not believable. We need to see the repercussions of those emotional shocks ripple out through the rest of the story. We need to see that couple pack up their stuff and get out of the woods immediately. Or maybe even leave the stuff behind. We need to see them driving a little too fast on the way back home. We need to see how the near-death experience affects them in their relationship. Perhaps one of them had the sudden realization “if you died, I’d never get over it,” while the other one says “it made me realize this isn’t really what I want for my life.”

There’s a million ways you could play it out in the story, but however you do it, we need to see consequences that are appropriate to the emotions throughout the story.

35. Miniature adults. If you tell us a character is six years old, he better act like a six year old. Or eight, or twelve, or whatever. Don’t give us an adult in a six year old’s body. I see this mistake pretty often from rookie writers in YA and middle-grade fiction. Folks, your young characters need to speak, think, and act their age. Yes, there is some variability in maturity levels from one real-life kid to the next even at the same age. But there isn’t so much variability that you can have a kid character act like a grown-up and still have us believe it.

If you have kids in your book, at some point you’re going to have to tell us their age. That’s fine, but it’s a tell, in “Show, don’t tell” terms. And I guarantee you that whatever number you label the kid with, it will be instantly trumped by what you show us through the kid’s behavior. I see rookie writers make mistakes here in four main ways, and the general pattern is that the younger the character, the harder that character is to render accurately.

The first is self-awareness vs. self-analysis. Don’t mistake the former for the latter. By which I mean that little kids are acutely self-aware, but they suck at self-analysis. They are intensely aware of how they feel and what they want, all the time. What they don’t have is the slightest idea of why they’re having those feelings and desires.

Yet, what I see in a lot of manuscripts is self-analysis of feelings and motivations well beyond their years. In a manuscript, this mistake often manifests as kids who exhibit way too much self-control and discipline. If you’re able to conceptualize your feelings as responses to your world, and your desires as things you can choose to act on or not, then it becomes possible to do things like talk to your brother about why he’s driving you crazy rather than hauling off and whacking him one. But if your entire brain is being consumed by an inferno of BROTHER MAKE CRAZY HULK SMASH!, well, your brother’s gonna get it. Think about it. It’s not hard to see which one is the mature perspective and which one is the little kid view on life.

The second is an ability to envision the future. Little kids just can’t. Below a certain age, there’s only now. There isn’t next year, or next week, or even five minutes from now. There’s just now. This greatly limits very young characters’ ability to make plans. If you can’t conceptualize of the future as a set of possibilities which the actions of the present can influence, then it’s really hard to have thoughts like “If I stack up this chair and that box and one of the cushions off the couch, I can get that toy Mom put way up on that high shelf.” It also limits a kid’s ability to exercise self-control, because they can’t envision the possible future outcomes of hare-brained schemes like that. But, all the time, I see manuscripts with little kids who come up with deviously clever plans which imply a very solid grasp of the future and how to affect it. It just doesn’t hold up.

The third is the “theory of mind.” This is the ability to think about someone else’s thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and beliefs as distinct from your own. Some while back, I got all bloggy about this, so rather than repeat it, I’ll just link it here. Read it, because failing to apply theory of mind in your writing more generally (it’s not just about believable little kids) is another massive rookie mistake I see more often than I should.

And finally, speech. All of the above affect how kids talk. In a novel, where all we have are words, dialogue is one of the primary indicators of any character’s level of mental development. This is one of the key ways that you show us how old your characters really are, regardless of how old you’ve told us they are. For example, imagine a four year old character who hears a thump, walks into the living room to find Mom sprawled out on the floor and shaking uncontrollably. If this character says “Mommy, are you all right?” and immediately kneels down by the stricken parent, we’re not going to believe it. That dialogue reveals to us that the character is able to have ideas about Mom’s state of well-being, which is essentially theory of mind at work, and will probably come across as not age appropriate. No. The four year old character is going to just stand there, puzzled, and say “Mommy, what are you doing?”

Rendering accurate kid characters is hard. Probably the best way to learn it is to have kids yourself and pay close attention to them as they grow up. Hey, nobody ever said being a writer was easy...

36. Plot motivation. We all know people who just have to do things the hard way. I knew an electrical engineering guy back in college who had this idea for a wearable computer he wanted to build. He could do the electronics part just fine, but when it came to what sort of enclosure to put the thing in, his answer was—and I’m not kidding you here—to learn how to melt and cast aluminum in his backyard so he could prototype different possibilities. I was all, “Dude. Outsource that.” “No,” said he, “this will be cheaper.” Maybe so, but it also took him forever and he missed his window of opportunity in the marketplace.

But fiction is not like real life, and as Tom Clancy said, “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” A character who doesn’t do the obvious thing—outsourcing the messy, difficult, time-consuming task that he doesn’t have the skills for—is hard to believe.

I should be clear: it’s not a mistake to have characters choose to do hard things. Many of the rookie mistakes I’ve talked about in this series are exactly failures to make characters do hard things. The rookie mistake is accidentally creating the appearance of a character choosing to do something the hard way, simply because the character never even stops to consider what the obvious and much easier way would be. This almost invariably makes the characters look like idiots. I mean, you don’t have a competent bank robber elect to blowtorch his way through a foot-thick titanium vault door when it would be much easier to sneak in through a ventilation duct.

I see this all the time in manuscripts, and what’s usually going on is plot motivation. Sometimes what’s happening is simply that the writer didn’t stop to consider that there was an easier way to get the job done. But most of the time, characters end up taking the hard way first because it is somehow necessary for the plot. This is the writer thinking, “I have to have him use the blowtorch, because that way the bank’s secret infra-red sensors can trip the alarm, which has to happen because I need the guy to be on the run from the law.”

Fine, but if that’s what you really need, you need to make it clear to the reader that the character has considered all the ways of getting into the vault and has determined that the blowtorch is genuinely the most feasible option. You have to show us the guy considering the ducts but determining that they’re too narrow, or that it would be impossible to haul the duffel bags of cash back out that way quickly enough, or whatever. Give us a reason why the obvious and apparently easy option isn’t going to work. Then we’re fine with the character taking the hard route. This is how you convert unbelievable plot motivation into believable character motivation.

Got a favorite rookie mistake of your own? Share it in the comments!

< Back to part 3 | On to part 5 >

August 19, 2011 18:08 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville, Larry Niven, Rebecca Stead

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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 3


Rookie stonecarver mistake

This is part 3 in a series of 45 common writing mistakes which mark a writer as a rookie. If you’re new to the series, here’s part 1. Parts 1 and 2 covered the first 18 mistakes. Here, then are mistakes 19 through 27:

19. Imbalanced dialogue attributions. I talked in part 2 about problems with tagging, and I should have thought to mention this problem with dialogue attribution along with it. The mistake lies in not finding the right balance between too many and too few attributions. If you put a “Jane said” on every single line of dialogue, that’s overkill. Similarly, not providing any attributions is also bad. The trick that often trips up rookie writers is that different kinds of conversations require different levels of attribution.

A typical conversation is between two characters. Theoretically, if you let us know who began the conversation, we ought to be able to track the entire rest of it by relying on the fact that people take turns when speaking. True in theory, but in practice you should add extra attributions if dialogue is interrupted by some substantial amount of narration, if there is a pause in the conversation, or once every few lines of dialogue in long, uninterrupted stretches of talk. An atypical conversation involves more than two people. Movies and TV shows have no problem with this, because we can see who’s talking. But in books, you can’t rely on the characters to take turns in any predictable order. In a novel, unless each character’s voice is so amazingly distinctive as to be unmistakable, you pretty much have to attribute everything.

20. Confusing names. In real life, you probably know dozens of people named John, Anne, Steve, and other such common names. In real life, sometimes that causes confusion. I’ve caught clients actually giving different characters the same name, and since they’re just people in a book and all we really have to go by are those names, it can be incredibly confusing. But fiction is not real life. In fiction, you have the luxury of keeping the names of all your significant characters distinct. So do that. Help your readers out by keeping the names of all your characters different. Ideally, try to keep the first letters of their names unique, and avoid pairs of names that have similar rhythm and cadence. Don’t give us “Taylor” and “Tucker,” for example. We’re bound to mix them up because they sound so much alike.

21. Explaining the magic. This one relates to fantasy and sci-fi, genres that contain outright magic or technology which, to us, may as well be magic. The rookie writer errs in thinking that he needs to justify the magic to the reader in order for the reader to accept the premise of the book. Not so. It turns out you get one suspension-of-disbelief for free, concerning the element of your premise which is most central. Readers will accept that one gratis, because without it, there’s no story. Need magic or faster-than-light travel in your story? Great. Put it there. You don’t need an explanation of why it works because we all understand that such stories are “what if” explorations as much as anything else. Don’t try to make us believe in the magic because of some arbitrary and mysterious connection between a person’s strong emotions and the fundamental forces of nature. Don’t try to make us believe in how your faster-than-light travel works on the basis of some Star Trek-like paragraph of techno-babble. Just leave it out.

If you’re still not convinced, let me give you a case study. What was the ONE thing fans hated most about the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace? Other than Jar-Jar Binks, anyway. It was that whole ridiculous business with midichloreans as an explanation for what makes The Force work. Partly, it was an eye-rollingly stupid explanation. But mostly, it was entirely unnecessary. We already bought into The Force as part of the Star Wars universe back in 1977! Back in the original Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan gave us a perfectly satisfactory, short explanation of what The Force is, but said nothing about how it works. We then saw him use the force, and teach Luke how to use it. That’s enough. We bought into it just fine. I have no idea what part of George Lucas’s otherwise fine storytelling brain went insane in the 22 years between those two movies, but jeez, that whole midichlorean business was a travesty.

Don’t explain the magic.

22. Thesaurus writing. Stephen King once said:

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

That’s pretty much right. If your story gives us “Chester MacPhearson was widely regarded as the finest sartorial mind in all of England,” rather than “Chester MacPhearson was well known as the best tailor in all of England,” we’re going to know you’re trying too hard to impress us with your big words. Words like “sartorial” stick out, by virtue of their uncommon usage in general, as something that probably didn’t come naturally to you. They reveal you to us, at the expense of the story.

“But wait,” you say, “what if ‘sartorial’ fits the voice of the story?” A fair point, in which case use it, by all means. But if it does in fact fit the voice of the story, if you get to that line in the story and it just feels right to use ‘sartorial mind’ rather than ‘tailor,’ then I’ll wager that you didn’t have to look it up in a thesaurus in the first place.

23. Infodumps. So I harped on backstory infodumps in the previous installment of this series, and someone pointed out “well what about infodumps generally?” They’re exactly right. Cold, lifeless, expository blocks of information dumped into the middle of your story just suck. Let’s not mince words, right? Just as with backstory infodumps, they kill your pacing by bringing the story to a crashing halt. With backstory infodumps, the information being dumped is all about the characters. The rookie mistake here is to do it for non-character related information as well. Often this includes world-building (e.g. “The land of Faerieken lay nestled between adjacent mountain ranges, some twenty days ride north of the human lands of Manniken, blah blah blah..."), and information relating to the setup of the story’s core conflict (e.g. “The fair folk of Faerieken lived in fear of invasion by the men of the south, ever since that dark time aeons ago when Faerielord Elgorn Leafhaven had denied the man-king’s impudent demands for magical favors. The two races had been at war ever since.")

But weirdly enough, as often as not the infodump will contain some kind of random technical or historical tidbit that is utterly irrelevant to the story. For techno/spy thrillers, you’ll get ridiculously detailed specs for the firearms—rate of fire, magazine size, ammunition caliber, et cetera. In historicals, you might be subjected to the architectural history of a building before the characters are allowed to actually go inside it in order to have a scene. One time—and I’m absolutely not kidding you on this—I saw a client include the history of the ice in somebody’s glass. Really. I couldn’t even make that up if I tried.

In both cases, just cut this stuff, ok? Readers will thank you. The world-building and conflict setup information is important, but just as with backstory information, don’t give it to us all at once. Dribble it out a little bit at a time. The irrelevant stuff, it’s just a waste of space.

24. Formless void syndrome. This is a failure to sufficiently present the physical space in which a scene takes place. The rookie mistake here is forgetting that readers can’t just see what’s in your head. Seems obvious when put like that, I know, but it happens. This is a particularly acute problem for rookies who are trying to open a book in media res (which is just fancy writer-talk for “in the middle of some kind of action"). It’s doubly problematic when the scene takes place in some kind of location that is unfamiliar to readers in their daily lives. Again, fantasy and sci-fi writers, watch out, because you face this issue more than most.

I’ll get manuscripts from rookie writers where I can tell you who the people in the scene are. I can name their actions. And yet I still don’t have enough to contextualize those actions into a holistic picture of what’s actually going on. It feels like the characters are in a formless void, and doesn’t create the kind of engaging, high excitement opening the writer is going for. In media res is a great technique when it works, but it isn’t always possible to pull it off, and the less familiar the setting is to your readers the harder it’s going to be.

25. Insensitivity to connotation. Words have two layers of meaning. You’ve got the surface meaning, which is what you’ll find in the dictionary. Linguists call this the denotation of a word. Then there are the extra, hidden, social-convention meanings that aren’t written down in the dictionary. In terms of our nuanced understanding of language, these are no less real than their codified counterparts. Linguists call this second layer the connotation of a word. Where the rookie writer will make a mistake is to use a word that is appropriate for its denotation, but inappropriate for its connotation. You must consider both.

Take a nice simple word like “snack.” The dictionary’s going to tell us that this means, “a small portion of food eaten between mealtimes.” Fine. But what extra meanings does “snack” carry with it? Softer, more slippery concepts like a notion of casualness, of food that is ready-made or minimally prepared, potentially of being eaten in haste, et cetera. Whether “snack” is the right word for a given scene depends on whether these connotations match the tone of the scene. I recall once a manuscript in which the protagonist was attempting to make his way out of the wilderness alone, with very limited food supplies at his disposal. There was a spot in the manuscript where the character had “a snack” of venison jerky. It felt wrong, because “snack” connotes casualness (among other things), and in that situation the character’s treatment of food was anything but casual. Food was a precious resource to that character in that situation, not to be consumed casually. A snack, when you think about it, is as much eaten for its entertainment value as for its food value. It totally clashed with the scene. Easy fix: a “mouthful” of venison jerky instead. That word has a connotation of specific quantity, and thus, of carefulness and self-restraint. Qualities that protagonist was surely going to need if he was to escape his situation.

26. Anachronistic language. This is when a writer uses language that does not feel like it is in keeping with the time and place of the story. Writers of historicals suffer from this, when they let overly modern turns of phrase slip into their characters’ speech. Let us imagine three eligible young ladies taking tea in a Victorian-era manor; one of them snubs another with some catty remark. The victim becomes flustered, and dashes out of the room. The third one then says “Alice, you bitch! That was a really mean thing to say!” It just feels wrong, doesn’t it? That’s not how people talked back then.

On the flip side, a contemporary story that has a character using dated slang ("groovy, man") is going to feel the same way, unless done for specific effect. Still, it’s rookie historical writers who suffer from this the most. Indeed, one of the hardest things in that genre is scrubbing both your dialogue and your narrative of overly modern language.

27. Improper earth idioms. I should come up with a better name for this one, but for now “improper earth idioms” will have to do. This is another one that plagues fantasy novelists, and lately, sometimes steampunk too. The rookie mistake is to accidentally break your world-building by using idioms that are clearly derived from our own real world, Earth-based history. Start paying attention to the little descriptive phrases in our language. When you do, you’ll be amazed at how many of them derive from something that is (presumably) unique to the Earth.

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” “He’s as timid as a mouse.” “She’s a raven-haired beauty.” “Give him an inch, and he’ll take a mile.” We all know exactly what these things mean, because we live here, on Frank Borman’s Good Earth, and we’re used to them. But why should your characters, who grew up on some other world, necessarily know what a penny, a mouse, a raven, an inch, or a mile even are? These phrases stick out to the reader as being wrong for the world of the story.

For the cliche type idioms like “timid as a mouse,” well, they’re cliches and you shouldn’t be using them anyway. Have your beta readers flag them for you, and re-write them into something that derives from your world’s extended backstory. For units of measure both Metric and English, beware. These are notorious for sneaking past our writerly language-filters. I suggest explicitly searching your manuscript for all the common time, length, and weight measures. You’ve got two strategies for dealing with them. One, as before, render them in whatever units of measure are used in the world of your story. However, this can often end up feeling unnatural, if readers get the suspicion that you just renamed “feet” to something else. Better, much of the time, is simply to avoid any kind of specific measurement. After all, does it really matter if the reader doesn’t know exactly how big something is, how far away, et cetera? Probably not. Write the descriptions of these things such that we get a general sense for the measurement, and that’s good enough.

Oh, and for a great example of how to do it right, check out D.M. Cornish’s amazing Monster Blood Tattoo series. For all you world-builders out there, this is one to study for its masterful example of world building done through non-Earth language. Great story, too.

Got a favorite rookie mistake of your own? Share it in the comments.

< Back to part 2 | On to part 4 >

August 12, 2011 22:06 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, D.M. Cornish

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