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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 2

This is part 2 in a series of 45 common writing mistakes which mark a writer as a rookie. If you missed it, here’s part 1. Part 1 covered the first 9 mistakes. Without further ado, here are mistakes 10 through 18:

10. Simple mechanics. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this as the very first item for part 1. Maybe because it ought to go without saying. But, from what I see in a lot of manuscripts, it does not in fact go without saying. So I’ll say it. Make sure your manuscript is free from errors in the simple mechanics of spelling, grammar, paragraph formatting, dialogue formatting, and so forth. Especially dialogue formatting. Maybe I’ve just had a run of atypical manuscripts lately, but I’ve been really struck by how often writers get this wrong.

Seriously, people. You all learned this in grammar school (or should have), and there is certainly no shortage of reference works for you to turn to if you can’t remember how to do it. Check out Strunk & White’s Elements of Style if you need a refresher. And don’t give me, “but, Cormac McCarthy does it” as a defense. A) you’re not him, B) he shouldn’t either. Nor should Charlie Huston, or any of a small cadre of writers who have written otherwise very fine books but whose publishers, for reasons that are utterly mysterious to me, let them get away with that shit. Why, guys? Why? What possible value is there in making it harder for readers to track your dialogue? In Charlie Huston’s case, it’s especially tragic because the dialogue itself if excellent. A shame, then, that I sometimes couldn’t decipher who was saying what in this brilliant, darkly funny novel.

11. Dialogue tagging. Don’t confuse this one with dialogue attribution. Attribution is simply when you let us know who’s saying a line of dialogue by adding a little “Jane said” or “Kumar asked” before or after the dialogue. Dialogue tagging comes in two forms. One is when you adorn the attribution with an adverb or adverbial phrase which attempts to tell us the manner in which a character delivered a line of dialogue. For example:

“How can that be?” Jane asked disbelievingly.

The second is when you use an particularly decorative verb to indicate speech, the verb being chosen to achieve the same result as if you’d used an adverb. For example:

“Oh, surely he would never do that,” Kumar joked.

This is one case where good practice does go against the “strong verbs” rule I gave in part 1. The reason, in “Show, don’t tell” parlance, is that dialogue tagging is a form of telling, when you should actually be showing. Basically, if you’re doing a good job of showing in your writing, then the words of the dialogue plus the context in which they appear is enough to let the reader figure out how the line was delivered. In this second example, it should be obvious from context that Kumar is joking, even if you only attribute the line with “Kumar said.” See Stephen King’s On Writing for the hard-liner stance on this issue, explained in great detail.

12. Exclamation marks in narrative. William Maxwell once said something close to this: “I believe that every writer should be limited to one, or perhaps two, exclamation marks per career.” (Note: if you have a citation for the actual quote, please post it in the comments and I’ll update this.) Now, I’m not quite as hard-core as Maxwell about it, but I do take his point. When used VERY, VERY SPARINGLY, I believe there are legitimate cases where an exclamation mark can be useful in dialogue. But in narrative, Maxwell is absolutely right. Exclamation marks are supposed to be a sign of excitement. Where the rookie writer goes wrong is in thinking that exclamation marks cause excitement. They don’t. You cannot slap an exclamation mark on a dull sentence and have it magically transform into an exciting sentence. Doesn’t work. Worse, readers see through that in a heartbeat. It’s like you’re begging us to be excited to read something that you yourself know isn’t actually exciting. Don’t beg. Revise until it is exciting.

13. Omni-viewpoint syndrome. Writers necessarily need to know everything about what’s happening in their stories. We need to know what every character is doing, all the time, why they’re doing it, what they want, why they want what they want, et cetera. To get the story right, we must go deeply inside the heads of all the characters in the book. Where the rookie writer errs is in thinking that readers must go there too. We don’t. We need the viewpoints of your protagonists, sure, and maybe your antagonists, too. But that’s it.

We certainly don’t need the viewpoint of the mailman who is delivering a piece of very bad news to your protagonist and wishes he could quit his job and pursue his love of Jazz improv, but keeps delivering the mail because he needs the health insurance coverage for his invalid son’s condition. We don’t need the viewpoint of the night-desk clerk at the hotel where your on-the-run protagonists are crashing for the night, who is working just one of his three jobs so he can put his kid-sister through college. We only care about the principal players. Let the rest go.

14. Backstory flashbacks. Ok, so you’ve cut the seventeen extraneous viewpoints out of your novel, and you’re down to just the remaining central characters. Great. But how,then, do you let the reader know what makes these characters tick? Too often, I see rookie manuscripts where the one-size-fits-all answer to this question is “use flashbacks that reveal the character’s backstory.” This is related to the previous item in another way as well. Maybe it is genuinely important for us to know about the time the protagonist peed his pants in the middle of the seventh-grade cafeteria. Ok, fine. But do we have to see that in a fully-rendered flashback scene? Or is it only important that we be made aware that the event happened, what triggered it, and how it made the character feel?

The problem with the flashback is two-fold. One, it brings the forward momentum of the story to a halt. By definition, a flashback interrupts the normal flow of time in your story. It’s like saying to the reader “ok, now pause right here for a few minutes while we explore something that happened to this guy twenty years ago.” Pause being the operative word there. Flashbacks have this nasty tendency to kill a story’s pacing. Two, and reprising a theme you may have noticed from part 1 of this series, by showing a fully rendered scene you are leaving less to the reader’s imagination. Instead, why not present the information in the story’s present? Perhaps during a conversation with another character. Perhaps through a carefully worded bit of narrative. But think really hard before you interrupt the main flow of your story for a backstory flashback. Whatever’s in that flashback had better be really good to justify it.

15. Flashback within a flashback. Don’t. Just... don’t, ok? All that shows the reader is that you couldn’t, or didn’t bother, to figure out a sensible order in which to convey things to us.

16. Backstory infodumps. Close on the heels of the backstory flashback is the backstory infodump. It’s the same thing, except that instead of interrupting the forward flow of the story with an actual scene, you interrupt it with a dry, expository, and often lengthy block of narrative which explains what happened in the past. Which is why I wrote “a carefully worded bit of narrative” before. When it comes to backstory, most of it isn’t actually necessary at all. That’s one thing. But even for the parts that are, we rarely need it all at once. Don’t make us try to assimilate a character’s whole life story in a half page of narrative. Dole out the juicy bits, one at a time, at moments where they are most relevant to the story and thus have the most impact.

17. Self-plagiarism. A dead-giveaway rookie mistake is when a writer unconsciously re-uses the same words, phrases, narrative techniques, and plot devices. At best, it makes for repetitive, dull writing. At worst, it can create an incredibly distracting, annoying effect for the reader. When we start to notice the repetition, every subsequent instance ends up jumping out at us even more. All it does is focus our attention on the writing (and not in a good way), rather than on the story. Recently, I wrote a whole article on this mistake for the #amwriting blog, here.

18. Cliché writing. Ah, the hackneyed use of careworn phrases, and true standard for rookie writers. There is one sense in which the use of clichés is a good sign. In every art form I can think of, writing included, we learn first by imitating. Only then do we step out and innovate. Musicians learn by playing music composed by other (more experienced) musicians. Nobody picks up a guitar, learns to play it solely by ear without exposure to any other music, and then starts turning out chart-topping hits. Painters spend time in art school explicitly emulating the Old Masters, learning how to do still lifes, et cetera. Only after that do musicians and painters branch out to develop their own style.

It’s the same with writers. So while it’s perfectly natural for a rookie writer to rely on a cliché—such as describing a dim-witted character as “not the sharpest tack in the box"—we’re still going to call you on it because it’s a sign that you still have work to do. You haven’t graduated yet to the level of developing your own style. But keep going. To (ahem) borrow a cliché, the surest way to fail is to quit.

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

< Back to part 1 | On to part 3 >

July 25, 2011 19:40 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, Cormac McCarthy, Charlie Huston, Elements of Style

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