There are a million ways to cripple a story. Here are five of them.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being inexperienced (we’ve all been there). Unless it shows up in your story in a way that detracts from it.
Or kills it.
Pop quiz: which is the more unforgiving audience: agents, editors, or readers?
Used to be that the only answers that mattered were the first two, because you’d never get your work in front of the latter if your story was guilty of and of these five deal killers. They were grounds for rejection.
Nowadays, though, you can skip the grouchy agents and rejection-happy acquisitions editors and go digitally direct to the marketplace. And if for a moment you think that this brave new world lowers the craft bar, that digital readers won’t care about the small stuff in the same way that agents and editors do, think again.
This is actually good news.
Because when you finally conquer these five demons, you’ll stand out as a professional storyteller worthy of publication – even if you’re self-publishing – amidst a sea of competition that, quite frankly, isn’t.Without word-of-mouth buzz, your digital story is going nowhere beyond your circle of loyal family and friends. And with these five flaws crippling your pages, a wider readership isn’t likely.
Not just because of the technical impropriety of it. But because the writer who doesn’t recognize the folly of these things isn’t likely to spin a story that competes with those of writers who do.
Here they are, in no particular order of toxicity.
1. Proper Names Within Dialogue
Which equates to bad dialogue.
Listen closely to conversations in your life. Count the number of times somebody uses your name in those audible exchanges. Better yet, how often you use the name of the person you are talking to, either face to face or on the phone.
It’ll be a low number. It is likely to be zero.
And yet, some writers seem to think this sounds cool when written into dialogue. To wit:
Hey, Bob, good to see you.
You too, Joe. Been well?
Bob, you have no idea.
Well Joe, times are tough.
Tell me about it, Bob. I hear you, man.
Only a bit of an exaggeration here. I see this all the time in the manuscripts I’m hired to critique and coach. If it only happened once it might fly under the radar – because it does happen, once in a blue moon, in real life, and it sounds odd then, too – but usually when it appears it pops up throughout the entire manuscript like a skin rash.
Rule of thumb: never do this in your dialogue. Never.
With experience comes an ear for dialogue. But you can shorten that learning curve dramatically by simply axing out the use of proper names.
Unless someone is calling on the phone and opens with, “Is Mary there?”, don’t make this mistake.
William Goldman, the senior statesman of screenwriting who is also an accomplished novelist, advises us to begin our scenes at the last possible moment.
This is huge. Some of the best advice ever, even for novelists. Because implicit within its genius is the assumption – the prerequisite – that the writer completely knows the mission of each and every scene.
Read that again, it can change your entire storytelling experience.
Skip the pleasantries when two people meet. Avoid the weather talk. The how-have-you-beens. Instead, opt for something like this:
After a few minutes of catching up Laura popped the question she’d come for.
“Are you having an affair with my husband?” she asked.
The first of those two lines can replace many paragraphs of useless chit-chat. Even when said chit-chat demonstrates characterization, without expositional value it’s a useless distraction that eats away at pace. And pace is always important.
Characterization when it counts trumps characterization when it doesn’t, every time.
I’ve read pages upon pages of chit-chat before a scene finally kicks in. I’ve seen entire scenes full of it without the scene ever arriving at a point. And I have to remind myself that I’m getting paid to read it.
But never in the story of an accomplished pro.
It’s a judgment call, and with experience comes an evolved sense of pace and reader tolerance.
3. Too Much Description of Food
This is more common than you can imagine among newer writers. Meals are described with exquisite detail. Course after course, drenched with spicy, worshipful adjectives.
Delicious. Steaming hot. Slathered in a sweet sauce.
The only justification for doing this is when the meal is laced with arsenic. Because – and I’m serious about that analogy – because in such a case it would relate to the story.
If it doesn’t relate, skip it.
Nobody cares what your hero has for breakfast. It’s not important to know the menu of a meal prepared with love.
Ever. Unless, like I said, the meal matters. Which it hardly ever does.
4. Overwritten Sequential Time Fillers
Your hero has had a tough day at work. She comes home to shower and have a glass of wine before driving to the rendezvous point for her blind date that evening, which she’d been unable to stop thinking about all day.
As a writer, you now face a decision: cut to the date, or take us home with her for the shower and the wine and some lengthy pondering of her lonely life. Or better yet, cut straight to the date and cover any prior ground (her bad day at work, the shower and wine) with a short introductory sentence.
Inexperienced writers tend to take us home with her. Have us take a shower with her and ooh and ahh about how good the hot water feels. About the taste of the wine, a hint of cherry, a nice finish.
The more experienced writer cuts straight to the date.
This pitfall is similar to the chit-chat and food and transitional red flags described elsewhere in this article. The same standard applies: if it doesn’t deliver salient expositional information, if it doesn’t matter, if it just moves the character forward in time (as if the writer is obliged to show us each and every moment and hour of the hero’s day, which isn’t true), then skip it.
Know what matters, what counts, and why. Then, like a chess piece, move the scenes from one square to the next. Every time you hit the pause button to take a shower or reflect on the drive home, you’re killing your story’s pacing.
Mission-driven scene writing is the Holy Grail of long form storytelling. It is the context for almost every problem and solution you’ll face.
5. Invisible Scene Transitions
Less is more. It really is. Unless we’re talking foreplay, but that’s another blog.
This principle leads us to the best transitional device known to the modern storyteller. The very best way to get from one scene to the next is… to do nothing.
Two words: white space.
Just end a scene cleanly, then skip a couple of lines and jump into the next scene. Which happens when either time or place or point of view changes.
Read that again, too. It’s basic and critical.
If you’re jumping to a new chapter this takes care of itself. But chapters are legitimately able to house an untold number of scenes, and if you want to make sure the reader is as aware of the transitions with them as you are, skip a line or two when time or place of POV changes.
Otherwise, your transition might look like this:
The meeting dragged on for several hours, complete with boring Powerpoint presentations and the lengthy pontifications of the CEO, who had never been on a sales call in her life. Tomorrow would be no exception. The sales call began at noon, with a rubber chicken catered lunch already on the table. The client posse arrived together, as if they’d marshaled in the parking lot to finalize strategy and send off any last minute texts.
It’s not wrong, per se, it’s just that the transition from scene to scene (note, it’s now tomorrow, a different time and place) is not as clear and efficient as it could be. A reader who skims is likely to miss it.
Now look at it this way. A simple thing, with an empowering result:
The meeting went on for several hours, complete with boring Powerpoint presentations and the lengthy pontifications of the CEO, who had never been on a sales call in her life. Tomorrow would be no exception.
The sales call began at noon, with a rubber chicken catered lunch already on the table. The client posse arrived together, as if they’d marshaled in the parking lot to finalize strategy and send off any last minute texts.
Such simplicity. The power of the skipped line of white space is amazing.
These mid-chapter scenes – especially necessary transitional ones – can be as short as you want. One paragraph exposition that gets us from one point to the next are wonderful, especially if they replace two-page space fillers that seek to accomplish the exact same thing. The need to pad these scenes is the paradigm of the beginner… which, after being duly warned, you no longer are.
Such is the case with all five of these rookie mistakes. Your radar for them is the most important part of your review and edit process.
And if you can’t wrap your head around it, I’m betting your significant manuscript-reader other can. Because they’re readers, and readers are the victims when these things hit the page.
Want more craft? Please consider my book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” from Writers Digest Books.