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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 1

So the other day, someone tweeted this post from storyfix.com containing five writing mistakes that, as they put it (and hat-tip to them for the title of this post), “expose your lack of storytelling experience.”

I retweeted the link, adding that the real number was probably more like 50 than 5. Twitter people being who they are, now I’m on the hook for the other 45. The problem is, if I put 45 flaws in one blog post, it’s going to be 10,000 words long by the time I’m done and nobody’s going to read that. Clever, those Storyfix folks, limiting themselves to five. Sneaky bastards. So I’m going to split it up into five posts of nine each. Here’s the first batch:

1. Adverb and adjective abuse. Also known as “purple prose,” this is when a writer leaves no verb or noun unadorned with a colorful, oh-so-helpful modifier. Not. Rookie writers think they are providing readers with concrete details that help them visualize the scene, but what’s really happening is that you’re cramming reader’s perfectly capable imaginations with useless details that don’t contribute to the story. If the color of the couch doesn’t matter to anything (and come on, how often does it matter?) leave it out. Find a balance between providing a very few, carefully selected descriptive modifiers, but for everything else, leave it plain. Readers will fill in their own details.

2. Unhelping verbs. You remember back in grammar school, they taught you about so-called “helping verbs,” ones that “help” you create some of English’s more baroque verb tenses? Stuff like “will have been eating” and so forth? Sure, a prefix like “will have been” does in a certain pedantic sense help to give nuance to whatever the core verb is (eat), but I’ll tell you this for free: it doesn’t help your story. Rarely is it the case that a novel requires the fine gradations of verb tenses that English provides. Avoid these. All they do is clutter up the narrative with words that don’t carry their weight. Find ways to re-write down to the “big three” verb tenses of past, present, and future. Let readers focus on more interesting verbs, like “eat” than comparatively boring verbs like “will.”

3. Weak verbs. Another rookie verb mistake is to reach for the most generic verb that covers the action they have in mind, rather than the most specific. This is an area where writers of English, having access to the largest vocabulary of any language on the planet, have an edge. English has stolen so much vocabulary from other languages that we often have dozens (if not hundreds) of verbs that relate to the action we’re trying to convey. These verbs form family trees, as it were, with the overarching, non-specific members at the root and the more specific members at the branches. Take verbs of motion: run, walk, fly, fall, sprint, saunter, skedaddle, drive, and many more. These all fall under the parent-verb “go.” The rookie mistake is to reach for the parent verb first, rather than reaching for one of the more highly-evolved and useful child verbs. Then, finding that parent verb is weak and lacks narrative joy, the rookie writer doctors it up with some adverb abuse in an attempt to fix the problem. Wrong strategy. Find a more specific verb to begin with. Don’t just tell us someone “went” somewhere (past tense of “go"). Yawn. Pick a verb that, in a single word, conveys the overall sense of “going” plus the manner in which the going takes place. Give us “sprinted” instead, which is like “go” + “run” + “really fast” all in one word!

4. Pronoun ambiguity. We’ve all experienced this, both in reading and in our own writing. This is when a sentence becomes muddled up in a confusion of pronouns, such that it is hard to tell which character a particular “she” or “his” or whatever actually refers to. The rookie writer doesn’t even notice this problem, because in their own mind, the writer knows perfectly well what she means and expects everyone else to as well. Sorry, we’re not mind readers. Use a name here and there, re-structure the sentence to avoid using so many pronouns. Split up the sentence into multiple, simpler sentences. There are many ways to tackle this problem, but don’t make us guess who’s who in the story.

5. Over-description of clothing. Storyfix picked on over-description of food as one of their five. To that, I would add clothing. Or really, over-description of anything, but the particular category of over-described thing I see most often is clothing. Historical novelists are notorious for this. Yes, if you’re staging a movie set in a historical period, you must pay disproportionate attention to the details of everyone’s costumes. In a novel, not so much. Just like with purple prose, readers have perfectly good imaginations and will fill in all these details for you, if only you will let them. You only need to give them the bare minimum to get them started. You need not describe the cut, color, and material of every item of clothing on every character’s body.

6. Continuity errors. This is simply when a story fails to be consistent with itself, in terms of something that is unlikely to have changed by itself when we weren’t looking. If a character is short-haired in the morning, it is unlikely that she would somehow become long-haired by the evening of that same day. Not unless she put on a wig or got hair extensions, which if that’s what happened, we as readers likely have the right to know about. So if you didn’t tell us, oops. But if you did this, more likely you’re just a rookie writer who wasn’t paying enough attention to your own story. Well, this is what readers will think, anyway. And yes, I know it’s hard to see this stuff in our own writing, because we get so close to the material. Which is exactly why beta readers are so helpful, and why you should specifically ask (beg) them to flag any such continuity errors for you.

7. Misspelling character names. As a sub-category of continuity errors, you’d be shocked how often I catch authors changing the spelling of a character’s name mid-story. And not just minor characters or bit players, either. Protagonists! For the love of Buddha, at least know your main character’s name! Enough said.

8. Bathroom mirror descriptions. Writers of first-person material face the question “how do I convey the viewpoint character’s physical description to the reader?” Rookie writers put the character in front of a bathroom mirror, and spend half a page letting the character indulge in checking themselves out. Y. A. W. N. Also, massive cliché alert! That bit about over-describing, back in number 5? That applies to characters too. Seriously, we rarely need the details of physical description. The broad outlines, yes. It’s helpful to know if your character is skinny as a rail or built like a refrigerator, because that helps us know what the character will and won’t be physically capable of doing. But the rest? Window dressing. Let us imagine it for ourselves. Here’s all you really need to convey: general age, overall ethnicity (which you can do with a well-chosen name, many times), gender, and physical build. Those are the essentials. Leave out anything else that doesn’t affect the story. Let readers fill in the non-essential details with their own imaginations. And note, rookies, you do not even have to give all these essentials at the same time. You can dole them out, one at a time over the first couple of chapters of the book. In the early chapters, readers are still open to re-defining their mental image with new information. It’s like ice cream. Let us have one lick at a time, rather than trying to make us swallow the whole cone in one gulp.

9. Wakeup introductions. Also high on the rookie alert! cliché list are opening scenes that involve a character waking up and going about his/her morning routine. That description alone should tip you off to the problem: routine. Routine is boring. Unless somebody’s going to break into your protagonist’s house while she’s naked, taking her morning tinkle before stepping into the shower, don’t open with waking up. It’s boring.

Ok. That’s it for now. Leave your own pet-peeve rookie mistakes in the comments, and I’ll see you next time with the next nine!

On to part 2 >

July 21, 2011 20:25 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie

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8 Comments:

Posted by Brent on July 27, 2011 01:12 UTC

I’ve read a lot of these “rules for writing” and “rookie mistakes of writing” posts over the years, and far too many of them forget to add. All rules have to be broken now and then and knowing when to break them can be just as important as any sort of blind adherence to any “rule.” Let’s face it, in creative endeavors, if everything was done by the rules we’d all be inside the box.

Posted by Jason Black on July 27, 2011 17:24 UTC

@Brent—

Absolutely. As the saying goes, you can add “except when it works” onto the end of every writing rule like this.

Totally true. I’ll cop to that. I just chose not to clutter up this series with 45 redundant disclaimers. :)

But I’ll also stand firm that in general these rules of writing, these dos-and-don’ts that form the collective wisdom of our tribe, are good advice that guide you in the right direction far more often than they’ll steer you wrong.

If you have a good reason for misspelling a character’s name, fine. If you’re doing it in order to create a specific literary effect, great. Go for it. But that’s an intentional choice, made exactly because it would support the story in some way. Perhaps the story hinges on some kind of mistaken identity scenario, and you can write it in such a way that the misspelling is blamed on a character in the story, rather than on the writer. There’s always a scenario you can think of in which it would work to break any given rule of writing.

No one disputes that.

What I’m saying is that it’s the unintentional violation of these rules, either through carlessness or inexperience, that torpedoes stories and reveals the rookie writers in the crowd.

Learn how and why the rules work before attempting to figure out how you can violate them to good effect.

Posted by Isa Palavarti on July 28, 2011 10:47 UTC

Sweet, appealing helpful read. I look forward to the next! ~Isa

Posted by Sharon on July 30, 2011 12:00 UTC

Enjoyed the blog! Great reminders!

Posted by Charlene Amsden on October 16, 2011 05:26 UTC

I was in your fiction writing workshop today 10/15/11 and loved it. Right now I want to clarify #9 above — I start my novel with a wake up introduction that the character <i>thinks</i> is routine (not another earthquake) and then her bedroom wall is ripped away and she realizes her home is being deliberately destroyed. Are you telling me my manuscript won’t get read to the third sentence where the wall comes crashing in, or is the fact that the room is shaking violently enough to get you to that shattered wall?

Posted by Jason Black on October 17, 2011 05:10 UTC

@Charlene—

Sure. But as always, you can add “except when it works” to every rule of writing you’ll ever see.

I was talking about cases where the only reason the book is opening with a character waking up is because the author wanted to start by introducing the character, but wasn’t creative enough to come up with a more interesting situation in which to do it, or wasn’t skillful enough (yet) a) to understand that character introductions don’t need to be immediate and exhaustive, and b) to know how to interweave information about a character into the context of an active scene. I was talking about cases where an author intentionally chooses a boring situation because it provides a plain white canvas on which to present the character.

In your case, the waking up is part of a significant event in the character’s life. You’ve put your inciting incident right into the waking up, so I think you’re fine. That said, the way you write those first couple of sentences is still quite important. Strive, in sentence one, to let the reader know that something is amiss for this character. Basically, don’t give us this for your first three sentences:

Jean awoke, stretched, and rolled out of bed and padding down the hall to the bathroom. The morning sun streaked in through the bathroom window, illuminating her shoulder-length, auburn hair, as the floor began to rumble beneath her bare feet. Must be an earthquake, she thought.

That’s taking too long to let us know that something’s up. Don’t give us two sentences that sound for all the world like one of those boring wakeup openings, before letting us know any different. Instead, do it in the first sentence:

For a moment, the low rumble that shook Jean’s bed and woke her that monday morning felt like just another So-Cal temblor. But in the next moment, the wall at the head of her bed parted from its neighbors. A slab of drywall impacted her pillow, and as instinct propelled her out of the way of a falling joist, a sound came to her through the din. The telltale beep-beep of heavy equipment. That’s no earthquake, Jean thought.

Ok, so that’s more than three sentences , but that’s kind of the point. And obviously I’m taking the liberty to imagine a great many details that may not be relevant to your story, too, but I hope you get what I’m going after in terms of technique: By opening with a first sentence that clearly conveys all is not well here, you compel the reader to give you a bit longer before making a decision about your story. You compel them to give you long enough to reveal what’s really going on. In this case, the sentence-one tipoff comes in the very first phrase, “for a moment.” That signals to the reader that Jean’s immediate impression isn’t correct, and thus, that if we stick around we’ll learn what the low rumble is.

That’s the hook: that question “so if it’s not an earthquake, what is it?” Or alternately, “what feels like an earthquake but isn’t?” That sentence presents the reader with a riddle. An enigma. That’s why it hooks. And I suppose, that’s the fundamental difference between your scenario and the boring wakeup introduction: yours has the elements available with which to build a great opening hook, while the other kind has no hook at all.

Posted by Kelly Leiter on March 02, 2012 21:05 UTC

This is a really great article that all new writers should read, so I recommended it on my blog for beginning writers. http://the-beginning-writer.blogspot.com/2012/03/fridays-link-roundup.html

Posted by Jason Black on March 02, 2012 21:49 UTC

@Kelly—

Glad you found the article useful, and thanks for the links!

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