5 Creative Flaws That Will Expose Your Lack of Storytelling Experience

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. 

2. Chit-Chat

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.

Literally. 

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.

60 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

60 Responses to 5 Creative Flaws That Will Expose Your Lack of Storytelling Experience

  1. Nice, clean, straight-to-the-point rules here. Much like the writing it refers to should be. Thanks

  2. Good refreshers, Larry. I’m working hard on #1, but still may have a few more proper names encased in dialogue
    than I need.

    #3 worries me a bit because part of my MCs character is that he’s something of a gourmet and wine connoisseur. I discuss food more than might otherwise be advised, because I feel it reveals a part of his personality. I’ll revisit my ‘food and wine’ sentences. But I don’t think I go off the deep end talking about meals. (famous last naive words)

    #4 is the one that stings the most. I’ve got several scenes in mind that need to be clipped or axed. That’s good, because I’m feeling that I need to cut about 5000 words off a 95000 word manuscript.

    Thanks for the great mid-season tune up.

    PS- started my ebook version of Bait and Switch, got to chapter 8 today and I’m hooked. Actually, you hooked me with the prologue–and here I thought prologues were like bubonic plague! 😉 Exceptions to every rule, especially when one knows what he is doing.

    You walk the walk even better than you talk the talk.

  3. Great advice. I admit to some of those faults. Must edit them out, or better still, don’t do them. Thanks. Keep up the good work. 🙂

  4. spinx

    Wow……….I have to admit, I was expecting some heavier mistakes here!

    I am certainly not very far on my way as a creator (just can´t use the “w” word yet!!), and yet I never found myself falling for any of those above issues.

    DANG! So I really am ready to take on Hemingway and Dickens than! (But no……REALLY not……)
    _________________

    Though I have to admit that there is ne thing with a lot of writers that really does irk me. Their lack of questioning.
    It may sound simple, but I find that asking the right questions, before you even begin to try your hand at some real writing, is another essential part that many writers should try first.

    When my little journey started, I did nothing but pose question after question for three months. Every day. On every subject, from scenes, the right pacing, to friendship, meaning of entertainment, life, dialogue……and all that crap.

    It helped. It worked. And if nothing else, it is one hellova cure for writer’s block.
    _____

    Thanks for your great dedication! Larry, you fucking rule!

  5. Larry,

    Thank you for these great reminders. I particularly like the chit-chat one, as too many books I’ve read fall down here.

    Smalltalk doesn’t interest me in real life, so I certainly don’t want to read it in a novel.

    Conor

  6. Great post! Good, solid rules to follow.

  7. Interesting points! I’m guilty of #1, still… and honestly, I never even thought about it as a problem. (I don’t pepper it into every bit of dialogue, but still. Now I’m going to be self-conscious. )

    The other is #3. I love food. LOVE food. I’ve read the Nero Wolfe cookbook cover to cover. But that’s me, as a reader. I think that you can get away with this more in romances because women tend to like food description — off the top, I can still remember some of Nora Roberts’ details about glossy pastries and cookies the size of your palm, or Irish breakfasts. That said, I also remember that they help set the scene, showing how skilled a caterer is, or how opulent someone’s life is, or how homey a new environment is. As you say, the meal matters</em).

    Great work, as always. 🙂

  8. Argh. And I should learn not to code before coffee.

  9. These are great reminders. I used to make some of these mistakes ad nausium in my first novel. The food one, however, has always bothered me. I started putting it in because it seemed like I was the only one NOT doing it. Thanks for pointing out my error =).

  10. The Raven

    To this list I’d add “6. Skip physical descriptions of people and their clothing.” Unless, of course, it really matters. Master writers have endless ways to help the reader “see” the character in their mind’s eye. Let the reader help you:

    “She shook her wild hair with an impatient gesture.”

    The reader will supply length, style, color, etc., and the action described takes care of posture, and alludes perhaps even to fashion. Classic beginner error is to describe all that for no good reason except to help the writer get the character straight in his or her own mind.

  11. WONDERFUL advice! Oh, man, it is spot on. I am revising my second book and am using all of your tips and it is amazing how it is tightening the novel.
    Superb! Thank you.
    Patti

  12. I’ve heard point number one over and over and over again… but go watch a movie and you’ll see it done over and over and over again. In fact, I was just watching 27 Dresses the other night and the characters say each others names in the dialogue all the time!! I’m assuming this is a movie thing and that it’s generally considered OK since it happens all the time?

    But yea, it’s a definite no-no in a novel. Thanks for this list. I’m guilty of a couple I think, but I’m going to remedy that now.

  13. This is the sort of talk I looked forward to when you came to the Willamette Writers meeting, but you had scheduling conflicts. Thanks for breaking it out here.

    The repeated name in dialogue reminds of sales guys who drill it over and over. They make it feel like they’re reminding you of your name in case you forget. It’s nice to think readers have a better attention span…attention span. Ooops.

    You just make good writers reading your blog better by stepping up their game.

  14. @Somebody — couldn’t agree more, very true.

    @David — about the WW conference… I submitted a bid for three workshops this year, and they passed on me, and them. Seems like an odd time to throw me under the bus, given my track record with the attendees (good), if not the conference management (bad, they can’t shake my “let’s get real” keynote four years ago), and the fact that my new writing book is out, it’s a bestseller… hello, should have been a slam dunk. They didn’t have the courtesy to even tell me, I had to read it when they announced the conference speakers… I’m like, “hey, I’m not here, what’s up?” Sucks. If someone is telling you I had scheduling conflicts, they’re either misinformed or they’re lying. Which also sucks.

    Thanks for your kind words. Maybe next year. L>

  15. Good stuff. Thanks.

    Question: How do you decide when to start a new chapter?

  16. Abra

    “Question: How do you decide when to start a new chapter?”

    When the previous one’s over. It sounds infuriatingly vague, but that’s it. Did your characters do what they came here to do? Was the bombshell dropped? Was the message delivered? Did the thing flying toward the fan manage to hit it? Good, the chapter’s over. Time to get out.

  17. the master does it again! Loved this one. Great reminders.

  18. Great rules to follow.

    Unless it’s food writing, lengthy descriptions about food are not necessary. Sometimes food (like any object in the character’s surroundings) can enhance the atmosphere, for example, a fridge full of rotten food shows neglect.

  19. @Eeleen (can I use your name in a story? It’s beautiful…) — you’re right of course. I think you’re echoing what I was saying above, the acid text (and the exception) for any of these descriptive issue is if it’s germane to the story, if its necessary, if it “shows” an aspect of character or sub-text that is both of those. Then, it’s the writer’s call.

    Thanks for contributing!

    If you haven’t

  20. Pingback: Creativity Tweets of the Week — 7/22/11 « The Artist's Road

  21. Pingback: Blog Treasures 7-23 « Gene Lempp's Blog

  22. Yes you may use my name…and thank you, it’s the first time someone has asked me that!

  23. Sound advice. The only people who continually use people’s first names when speaking, so far as I know, are salesmen. They’re usually repeating the name to make sure they’ll remember it or they are trying to command the listener’s attention (ala Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends…”).

  24. I appreciate you lending us some insights, Larry. I grasp not peppering names into dialogue for no reason, and your examples are sound, but I still have issues with that rule and your argument for it. My neighbors do use my name any time we haven’t talked in a while. My neighbor Billy in particular is likely to stick out his hand and say, “How you been, John?” And there are typical cases in life when someone will use a name or title, like a mother browbeating her child, as in, “Moses Christopher Jones, you get back here this instant!” or a person appealing to someone in a higher position, like, “Mr. President, this morning you said yadda yadda.” Glen Strathy’s salesmen example also works. So it can not only be used in everyday speech, but be employed for an end, and that’s something I’d want available to me in dialogue. I don’t see how deploying a name with the implication of cajoling like a parent or assuaging like a salesman is amateurish writing. However if you had a bias against ever seeing names used in dialogue, you might miss the character-intended function.

  25. You absolutely nailed it. Loved #2 with comments from William Goldman about chit-chat. Well, truth be told, I loved them all. They’re terrific reminders for the more experienced and stepping stones for the new writers in the community. Bookmarked to share with both. Thank you for this article.

    Take care,
    JC

  26. Number 3 cracked me up. How many writers are foodies, too!

  27. I really enjoyed your post. I was a judge in a contest once where someone repeated everyone’s name in the dialogue. The story itself was good but the repeating names were distracting. Thanks for giving us all some good tips to consider.

  28. Pingback: Five More Mistakes That Will Expose You As a Rookie

  29. Pingback: Writerly Links – Tammy Salo

  30. I use people’s names when I talk to them all the time! But I do have a fairly strange way of talking. Also I read once that everyone’s favourite word is their own name and the best way to hold their attention is to say it. So I normally just throw their name here and there for effect!

    Despite this, I am now going through my ms and deleting all instances of same!

  31. To paraphrase William Strunk Jr.: Follow the rules until you know how to break the rules.

    Excellent list.

  32. Susy

    Larry, as usual I get inspired for my writing when I read your clear and concise, to the point advice. It is definitely what I want for my story. And your ‘Story engineering’ book has been a huge help. My writing group looked at me blankly when I asked about when the first plot point was arriving in the story I was critiquing. Keep up the good work.

  33. kailash srinivasan (@kailash_writer)

    thanks so much for writing this. 😉

  34. Pingback: I tell you, the moment we give toasters a modicum of artificial intelligence, the entire world is doomed. | PeterMBall.com

  35. Pingback: Rookie Mistakes | Joanna Clark Dawyd

  36. It took me about 5 years to learn this stuff and it is the hardest thing to get beginning writers to accept. They’ll argue and stomp out of the editing meeting.

    The problem is, creative writing teachers keep telling beginning writers to “include all the senses in your character’s experiences,” and “don’t tell–put it in a scene with lots of dialogue.” Writers can’t seem to unlearn the descriptive and dialogue overkill.

  37. Thanks for the helpful advice, and the examples!

  38. Belinda

    I agree with everything you wrote.

    However, I think there are always exceptions, especially with the talent with which an author breaks these “rules.” Janet Evanovich does #3 and #4 in a way that contributes to her series about Stephanie Plum being so great. The books have an exciting pace and interesting voice… especially when Steph is talking about food and pottering/rushing around her apartment or feeding the hamster. Not vital info that she gives him a grape and he scurries out to shove it into his cheek pouch, but it offers readers a piece of normalcy and a break from the character’s hectic life and troubles.

    Most other books bore me with these details, so I believe it’s how it’s done that matters more than it being done at all.

    On the flip side, Stephenie Meyer did the name thing (#1) a lot, and over-explained scenes of everyday routines (#4–showering, cleaning, cooking) soooo much in her Twilight series that it annoyed me more than her said-bookisms and adverbs. Yet we all know the global success of Twilight.

    *shrugs* For myself, I’m gonna try and avoid looking like a rookie. 😉 Great post!

  39. @Belinda… thanks for this. You answer your own question… neither of the authors are rookies. And, while successful, neither is critically-praised, albeit commercially successful. We can’t explain how and why that happens, the gap, the tipping point. But I’m 100% positive that breaking the rules lowers a new-comer’s chances, because it almost always compromises a story. We have to know the rules before we break them, otherwise we rely on pure blind luck (i.e, the right editor is assigned the manuscript). It’s like handling a snake… not everybody gets bitten. But that doesn’t justify recommending this as a hobby. L.

  40. Pingback: Hot Fun Friday! Delicious Villains and Much More | Make A Living Writing Romance

  41. Pingback: Mind Sieve 8/1/11 « Gloria Oliver

  42. I read these 2 columns because of a retweet by K. M. Weiland. Now I’ve added you to my ‘writer’s aid’ file.

    Everything here is great advice. Two character’s quotes in one paragraph hit me hard. I thought I could get away with one-word responses in a couple places but I will remedy that situation PDQ.

    In the companion piece you caution against excessive backstory. That one I am taking under advisement. Scaling back is probably good advice but letting go completely is something I have to think about.

    There are two things I’ve been wondering whether they expose me as a newbie: “I learned a long time ago to put the period outside the quotes”. Now I notice that no one does that – Rookie mistake?

    Excessive use of hyphens as a word-coupler – Rookie Mistake?

    Thanks,
    CP Brooke

  43. @CP – good questions, both of them. Let’s not call ’em “rookie” mistakes, because writers at all levels are confused by these things.

    Period inside the quotes. Firm.

    As for hyphen’s, I love ’em. Just be careful, less is more. Just because you use an adjective doesn’t mean a hyphen is necessary, or when two words often appear together(like, “my two cents worth” doesn’t have to be “my two-cents worth”) doesn’t mandate a hyphen. Clarity is the goal and the trump card in this regard. If clarity doesn’t demand a hyphen, skip it.

    Welcome to Storyfix, glad to have you. Dive in. Let me know what you need, I’ll try to help when I can. L.

  44. Some of the five are close to a movie-making principle that Frank Capra is crediting with discovering. Stated simply, events on screen should happen faster than they do in real life. If it would take five seconds for someone to walk across a room, then with camera cuts is should take about three seconds. “Real” in movies needs to be faster than real in life. Otherwise, it seems to drag.

    The same is true of novels. Conversations need to me more compressed and events flow faster than in real life. If a conversation lags for five minutes, say it lagged for five minutes with perhaps a brief example. Don’t bore your readers with five minutes of pointless talk.

    Tolkien is a master of that in The Lord of the Rings. He does an incredible job of giving his readers the ‘feel’ of a long and tiring journey in just a few sentences.

    –Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien

  45. @Michael – spot on brilliant. Thanks much for sharing. Once again, the principles of screenwriting — too often dissed and/or undervalued by screenwriters — prove universal. L.

  46. Brilliant and straight to the point – just like I prefer it. 🙂

    Thanks much for these. I’m revising right now and this is just what I needed.

  47. Margaret J. Norrie

    What happened to GRAMMAR in all these critiques? Or is that too “old-fashioned” these days? “As for hyphen’s, I love ’em (quote). Plural (hyphens) surely? Or, for example, “Neither Jack nor John were surprised.” “Was.”
    Please. Similar errors are frequent, yet on the spur of the moment examples elude me.

  48. Barbie

    I’m not at all sure I agree with you. The first and last one, yes, but not the others. You can’t just cut all the “unimportant” stuff out, it’ll be like you’re just retelling the book to someone who has’nt read it. In my opinion a good book needs those small seemingly insignificant things to really come to life.

  49. Pingback: Recursos do Escritor: storyfix.com « Sara Farinha

  50. Pingback: Got a Plan for this NaNoWriMo? « Ajaxtorm's Blog

  51. Pingback: Five Novel Stucture Flaws | foxtail studio | constructing a creative "theory of everything"

  52. “Unless we’re talking foreplay, but that’s another blog.” Haha.

    I loved this post, especially the first three items. They were things I *felt*…but seeing them stated explicitly solidified my suspicions.

  53. Pingback: Best Fiction Writing Tips on the Web @ @ Soul Fire PressSoul Fire Press

  54. Pingback: Best writing tips on the web—write right and get publishedChristopher Matthews Publishing

  55. Pingback: 101 of the Best Fiction Writing tips part 1 | Odinhouse Fantasy

  56. Pingback: 5 Creative Flaws That Will Expose Lack of Storytelling Experience

  57. Thank you so much for all of these. Some of them so obvious, but I always fall into the traps, especially when it comes to scene transition… Great article!

    Iulian

  58. Pingback: 5 Creative Flaws That Will Expose Your Lack of Storytelling Experience - S. Dionne Moore

  59. Pingback: 5 Creative Flaws Exposing Lack of Storytelling Experience | Editing Addict

  60. Pingback: 11 Composition Principles | Editing Addict