Fatal Distractions: Six Things That Will Tank Your Story Every Time

The oldest and perhaps best morsel of writing advice ever is to read.  You can’t play tennis having never seen the game (not so with golf; you can watch it until your eyeballs bleed and you’ll still suck) and you can’t write publishable fiction until you’ve absorbed enough storytelling to intuitively recognize what works.

Trouble is, like tennis and golf, the pros make it look easy.  And that becomes a seductive illusion for newer writers who put down the latest Grisham and say, not so great, I can do that.  If you’ve tried it that way, and like most of us have enough rejection slips to wallpaper your bathroom, then you know its much more difficult than it looks.  From the right seat it seems pretty easy to fly an airplane, too, but you wouldn’t rent a Cessna and just take off.  To write publishable fiction you need to comprehend the hidden infrastructure of story architecture and adhere to critical criteria for every aspect of the process.

One of the reasons you need to tear into the craft of story architecture as a student as well as a reader is that published books aren’t, for the most part, broken.  That’s the seductive illusion, you don’t see what can go wrong and the train wreck that happens when it does.  Being a story coach, I see things in unpublished work that stick out like a tennis player swatting backhands with a five iron (to borrow from both previously abused metaphors here), which prompts me to warn you ahead of time about the major flaws you won’t see in next Dan Brown or Nora Roberts.

There are six of them here, but there are others lurking about like agents with bad taste.  All of them are fodder for an entire workshop of examples and avoidance strategies, but hopefully this teaser will help you to sniff them out in your work before someone else does.

1.   Heroes that aren’t heroic.  I read a manuscript recently with a hero worthy of a Tom Cruise role.  Hunky, smart, brave and so very charismatic.  That is, until he lands in jail and sits there while the damsel in distress rescues him and saves the day.  Nothing wrong with damsels doing that, but when the protagonist just sits and waits around while it happens, that’s a fatal flaw.  Your hero needs to be the primary catalyst that brings about the resolution of the story.  They need to be proactive and heroic in that role.  They need to have conquered some inner demon before they can step up and save the day (character arc).  If the hero isn’t heroic — or worse, if your hero is rescued – you can post that rejection ship right above the towel rack.

2.  Heavy, purple-hued prose.  Nothing says newbie quicker than chapter introductions that try to describe the inside of a coffee shop in Shakespearean terms.  Overwriting and the inhuman abuse of adjectives will get you booted faster than not including enough postage on the submission.  Editors hate purple.

3.   The dreaded deus ex machina.  Which in literary terms means, god is the machine.  Which means, the hero isn’t the catalyst for the solving of her or his problem, some outrageous and fortunate coincidence is.  In Nelson Demille’s #1 bestseller Night Fall, the book that displaced The DaVinci Code from the NY Times top spot, the story resolves when all the bad guys and even the guys who will save the day just happen to schedule a meeting together in the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  Demille can get away with that kind of thing — that’s a whole ‘nother rant — but you and me, not so much.

4.   Slow motion pacing.  This is a structure issue.  When you follow solid architecture, your story unfolds and then accelerates over the landscape of your narrative.  Things need to happen in your story in certain places, and when they do they need to ratchet up the tension and the stakes.  We’ve all read books that we’ve put down after the first hundred pages, but chances are the author’s name on the cover is money.  Again, for you and me, no pace means no contract.

5.  One word: boring. While this seems obvious, the reason behind boring is a lack of stakes.  The core essence of fiction is conflict — the hero is put into a situation in which she or he needs or wants something, has to solve a problem, reach a goal, meet a deadline, whatever.  There are always obstacles in the way of that goal.  Always.  Stakes are the bad stuff that will happen if they fail to reach the goal and the wonderful things that happen if they do.  When stakes aren’t clear and compelling, editors stop reading.

6.  Wrong notes.  In other words, questionable and odd creative decisions.  A studly all-American hero who smokes unfiltered cigarettes.  A morning business meeting at which beer is served.  A politically-motivated mass murderer who is pardoned by the President because he meant well (and, because the President happened to agree with the author’s radical political views; I’m so glad I live in a different city than that guy).  I’ve seen these and worse in unpublished manuscripts.  Personality quirks aren’t issues of characterization, more often they’re candidates for wrong notes.

Wrong notes aren’t limited to poor  choices of words, they become glaring deal killers when delivered as eye- rolling disastrous choices by a writer trying to be clever and hip.

All of these issues pertain to what I call The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.  Stay tuned, that’s what this website is all about.

In the meantime, I just heard back from a publisher, and I have to go finish wallpapering the powder room.  Because even when you master the Six Core Competencies — which I haven’t… we’re all and always will be works-in-progress as writers — there are still no guarantees.  It’s art, afterall, and one man’s art is another’s faux finish.


Filed under getting published, Six Core Competencies, Write better (tips and techniques)

7 Responses to Fatal Distractions: Six Things That Will Tank Your Story Every Time

  1. blank

    In #1, perhaps the book was about the female hero? Hm?

  2. That would have been great, but it wasn’t written that way. In fact, that’s precisely the advice I gave her — make the woman the hero instead of the guy in jail. We’re on the same page here. Literally and figuratively. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Very enlightening – I think I’ve been able to paper a whole living room w/ rejections- but it’s getting better and I’m sure your tips will help. Dangerous all of them the flaws that sparked them I mean.

  4. Mike Lawrence

    Um,… yeah, gonna’ be one of those unpublished weenies who says, “excuse me, sir, but,”

    “Deus ex Machina” means “God from machine” (not “God is the machine”) and derives from a practice of ancient Grecian writers who painted themselves into a corner. To extricate themselves, a god enters the scene – one portrayed by an actor that was lowered by ropes and pullies (the machine) to then perform their assigned contrivance. (Kind of like rescuing that last sentence.)

    It was a plot device, not a substitution (necessarily) for the hero.

    The effect is similar, but I think there is a subtlety in the purpose that may be noteworthy. (*may* be.)

    So, I pass this along in case it means anything important. Which it probably doesn’t.

    Please know that, despite this weenie post, I am astounded by the value of all the information you present on this site. Best writing on writing I have ever read. You have made me want to write again.

    So, thanks!

  5. @Mike — no worries, I appreciate your comment. Thanks for the clarification and the backstory on this issue. Very interesting. Glad you’re enjoying Storyfix… hope you stick around. L.

  6. Mike Lawrence

    Mr. Brooks,

    What about “Yeah, right” moments? These can be found in movies that seem to be competing over some prize for outrageous action and FX that results in a sort of demolition derby of visual exposition.

    In the same class: “Oh, please,” “You’ve got to be kidding,” “Oh, come on!” and “Really?” (Dare we call this a trope?)

    These are sometimes situations which can’t be saved by hanging a lantern but more often are simply a total violation of credulity.

    This may be a subset of Deus ex Machina, perhaps, but is sometimes more subtle and therefore more insidious. Usually this is in high pace action scenes where the audience is expected to simply accept something because it is spectacular or creative.

    For me, it’s a real fourth wall moment when I catch them and it is usually annoying and sometimes ruins the movie entirely.

    Examples: Spooner sliding down ViKi’s core at the end of I, Robot, where there is a column made of some sort of permeable hot yet viscous something or another whose only discernible purpose is to give hero’s (with robotic arms) a way to get down real fast. Exposed in the open. Stretching over 100 stories. “Yeah, right.”

    The incessant use of ubiquitous platforms, ledges and walkways that are surrounded by gaping caverns into which heroes may fall at any moment found in pretty much every Star Wars movie. Without guardrails, even. And into which a number of villains will fall according to some quota. “Really?”

  7. Mark

    One more point on the “deus ex machina” — it wasn’t a function of writers “painting themselves into a corner.” That gives the impression that Sophocles and Euripides were witless hacks, when in fact they were very skilled. Instead, the deus ex machina grew out of a deeply theological worldview in which the most important events are orchestrated by divine power. A core element of Greek theater in general is the essential powerlessness of human beings to influence the outcome of their stories. Oedipus, for instance, acted the way a reasonable person would and still ended up in the worst place possible. That was the point of the story, and in this context the “god from the machine” is simply a description of the world.

    A while back I ran into the deus ex machina in an unexpected location: nineteenth-century folktales. In this body of work the Madonna was always showing up to get the main characters out of trouble. It was bizarre to my modern sensibilities, and I do think it made for a less compelling story, but (as before) it was simply a reflection of the worldview that went into the telling.

    Joseph Campbell said that the hero is eternal and cross-cultural (which is what Campbell pretty much said about everything; that was his own worldview), but there are plenty of examples that show the opposite. We tell stories about heroes that operate in the world as we perceive it. As our perception of the world’s fundamental rules changes, so do our heroes.