COMMON WRITING MISTAKES: A SERIES
In part one of our three-part series, we looked at three of the top rookie mistakes made by first-time novelists, including lack of conflict, imbalance in dialogue vs. action and info-dumps masquerading as dialogue.
Today in Part 2 we’ll look at four more beginner errors. I should know — I’ve made a lot of them in my time!
Telling instead of showing
4One of the first things rookie writers are told is, show, don’t tell. But what does it mean in practice? And where do writers go wrong?
Picture the scene. Jack, a 1980s bond trader, has a serious coke habit.
He’s been borrowing against his client accounts to feed his addiction. He’s just had a call from his firm’s head of security asking for a meeting. To quell his nerves, he heads for a nearby bar. Here are two versions of what happens next, both told from the viewpoint of the barman.
The guy sitting on his lonesome at the far end of the bar was clearly nervous. Agitated, like he had some bad news to deliver. He looked up from his empty glass with an expression of naked fear and asked for another.
The guy at the far end of the bar had a sheen of sweat on his forehead, despite the droning air conditioning. His fingers beat out a rapid-fire tattoo on the bar-top like he was sounding it for dry rot. He raised his brows to signal for another bourbon, revealing eyes that darted every which way.
Why is version two better? Simply because we can picture him clearly. We see what he’s doing. And what he’s doing reveals what he’s thinking. People sweat because they’re hot or because they’re nervous. The AC is on full-blast so he must be nervous. His jittery finger shows us he can’t keep still, another sign of nerves. And when he signals for another drink, he can’t keep his eyes on the barman. They’re all over the shop. Is he worried someone he doesn’t want to meet will appear?
5Although I’ve placed this at number five in our hit parade of howlers, head-hopping is my personal bugbear. It’s when we move from one character’s thoughts to another’s without any significant break in the narrative. An example.
Tom was looking worried, thought Dick. Maybe it was that problem at work.
Dick’s giving me a funny look, Tom thought. Does he know I ran over his pet alligator?
See the problem? It’s called bad style, but there’s a more pressing problem for the reader. At the end of the second sentence, “… at work,” we are in Dick’s head. At the beginning of the next sentence, “Dick’s giving me …” there’s a moment of confusion as we ask ourselves why Dick is talking about himself before we realize we are now in Tom’s head.
I have seen successful authors with many books under their belts do this, so maybe many people or editors don’t care. But a reader puzzling over the form of your story is no longer in your story. They have become aware they are reading. And that can easily slip into an awareness that Netflix beckons.
If you have adopted the third-person or omniscient viewpoint, you have allowed yourself access to more than one character’s thoughts. But you have to give your reader a clear and unambiguous signal as to whose head they’re currently inside.
Ideally, that means a fresh chapter. Failing that, a new scene or section break, marked with fleurons – *** – or some other graphic device.
Author’s voice in place of character’s
6Is your novel about articulate, well-educated people like university lecturers, journalists or writers (and what a lot of those there are)? If it isn’t, then at least one of your characters will likely have a vocabulary and grasp of the English language considerably less developed than yours. But why should that be a problem?
In straightforward narrative passages, perhaps of description or action, it isn’t. Although you still want to match the form of the language to the content. Describing a firefight in dry, precise academic language or bureaucratic jargon won’t be as immersive as using military lingo.
But in dialogue or, worse, internal monologues/perceptions, it can really be jarring. Let’s imagine you have a character who’s a skilled but poorly educated swordsman wandering 15th-century England looking for employment. He chances upon a hunting party dressed in such finery he knows at once they must be local noblemen and women. We see what Ralph sees …
Ralph considered the leading horseman. His aristocratic bearing and the disdainful look clouding his visage engendered an overwhelming desire in Ralph to retreat.
It’s undoubtedly fine writing, if a little overblown, but is it Ralph’s perceptions we’re reading or the author’s? How about painting the encounter like this?
Ralph stared up at the nobleman astride the big bay. The sneer he gave down that hawk’s beak would have curdled milk. Ralph was seized with a powerful urge to turn tail and run.
Make sure you voice your characters’ internal, and, for that matter, external thoughts and utterances in language they would use, not you.
Unsympathetic or one-dimensional characters
7Dissatisfied readers often leave reviews saying, “I didn’t like any of the characters.” It’s commonplace among book snobs to dismiss such complaints as being a sure sign of a low-brow reader. So what? Does that mean low-brow readers shouldn’t have their voices heard? If they’re buying our books, shouldn’t we at least attempt to give them some of what they want?
I suspect that when some people say they didn’t like a character, they often use that word as shorthand for something more complex, like, “I didn’t understand her,” or, “I couldn’t relate to him,” or, “She didn’t seem like a real person.”
Making your characters relatable seems to me to be much more important than making them likable. Every anti-hero is personally unlikable, yet we root for them and empathize with their problems, even though we probably wouldn’t enjoy their company at the dinner table or in the bedroom. Think of TV’s Dexter. He’s a bloodthirsty serial killer who neglects his personal relationships so he can continue torturing and murdering. Yet we want him to get away with his crimes. Because we can relate to him, or at least look past his misdeeds.
Making a character relatable means, first, making him or her three-dimensional. Especially for major, or what I call spotlight, characters, writing a character profile is a helpful exercise. I would advise any rookie writer to pay particular attention to their inner landscape.
This keys into another hoary old piece of writing advice: Give your heroes flaws and your villains virtues.
For the villains, is the terrorist pursuing what seems to her to be noble aims? Is the serial killer a survivor of childhood abuse? Is the dastardly Lord Jasper fleeing creditors who will ruin him and trash his reputation? Bringing those circumstances into the open can make readers feel sympathy toward them, even if they don’t like them.
For the heroes, does the too-good-to-be-true high school girl bully her little brother? Is the white-hat sheriff taking bribes from the ranch owner? Does the maverick cop with the killer heels and sassy attitude struggle with OCD? Giving our heroes something they’re ashamed of, or that falls outside the norms of their job or social circle, can both pique our curiosity and make us see them as more rounded, and therefore interesting, individuals.
In this series
- Top rookie mistakes made by first-time novelists (and how to avoid them)
- First-time author mistakes 8-10
Want help in spotting writing mistakes?
Consult Marlowe, the fiction-savvy artificial intelligence from Authors A.I.