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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!

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August 19, 2011 18:08 UTC

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

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