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Writing Fiction

How (Not) To Write a Novel

Plot #

Good plots simply get readers engaged and turn the page, regardless of their genre or strengths. A simple fix to most plot problems: cut to the damn chase. Know the story to tell, the lives the characters live, and get to them as fast as possible. Write pages of the story, not trying to figure out what the story is.

Beginnings and Setups #

The Lost Sock, where the plot is too slight #

The novel's central dilemma should be important enough to change a life forever. Of broad interest, so don't assume something interesting to you interests others.

The Waiting Room, in which the story's delayed too long #

Don't give pages of background info without the central story. Avoid scenes of characters merely mulling over background information. The story is about what's happening to the protagonist right now. Look at the first important event in your novel, and everything before that can likely be cut.

The Long Runway, with a purposelessly recounted childhood #

Long childhood stories are almost always useless in the start. Save the important ones for later on, once the story is actually underway and there's a relevant plot event bringing them up.

Tip: Cut through needless introductory background info by starting the book in the middle of the first pivotal action/drama/conflict scene. This gives the story momentum and you can bring in any needed background info afterward.

The Vacation Slide Show, substituting location for a story #

Exotic locations don't bring any more inherent values to stories than other locations. They're good storytelling seasoning, not the main course.

Words Fail Me, the author stopping short of communication #

Where great experiences aren't translated into words properly, or just use lots of vague positive ones, and it's lost on the reader.

The Gum on the Mantelpiece, where the reader is unintentionally misled #

Writers create the world, so every element must have a real reason for being there. Any element given focus must come back into play for an important reason later. Focusing on something that has no importance later betrays the reader's attention.

Oh, Don't Mind Him, leaving a character's problems unexplored #

Any character's issue, once introduced, needs to be solved in some way by the end. Just make sure all these little subplots don't overshadow the main character's development.

The Deafening Hug, the unintended love interest #

Accidentally making a character appear as a love interest to the protagonist, which can throw off intended character relationships. These can include:

Complications and Pacings #

There's a sweet spot of plot threads, characters, and events. This balance is different for each, but there are obvious signs you missed it:

By the Way I'm an Expert Marksman, with a pay-off that's not set up #

Any major event or character skill should be introduced before it plays an active part in the plot. Often introduced indirectly or subtly, so the reveal still has some surprise.

Rose-Colored Half-Full Glasses, where the setup reveals the pay-off #

Don't reassure the reader things are okay or make your character feel too confident. This deflates suspense and satisfaction at the resolution.

Deja Vu, where the setup deflates the pay-off #

Don't tell readers what happens before it happens. A successful plan should be withheld from the reader as it's executed. If the reader is told the plan, things should go wrong and the characters must improvise. Plans should not be spoilers.

Tip: Hugely unlikely events can't just happen out of nowhere for a novel. Huge luck and coincidence can only be used when that's the novel's focus. Writers must balance events of likely and unlikely occurrence - the more unlikely, the more it should be set up or integrated into the novel in previous pages. Don't assume readers find unlikely events possible, even if they really happened.

Zeno's Manuscript, where irrelevant details derail a story #

Needless description of details or actions can kill any scene by delaying important events. Common versions include:

The Plot Not Taken, where irrelevant options derail a story #

Don't explain why the character didn't do all the things they didn't. You could write this forever, so focus more on why they did what they did.

The Benign Tumor, where meaningful developments are trivial #

Scenes or chapters that are irrelevant to the real story and could be removed without issue. Even if they interest you, readers won't care.

Mr. Sandman Bring me a Gun, where characters dream #

No dreams overloaded with symbolism on the character's inner issues since only the dreamer cares and not the reader. No dreams at all unless there's somehow actual plot events in them.

The Second Argument in the Laundromat, where a scene occurs twice #

Don't use multiple scenes to establish what has already been done. Movies can do this as a montage, novels only need one establishing event and that's it.

Oh, And Also? Too many recollections stall the story #

Too many sudden memories pump the plot's brake and cut off the real story.

Tip: New phone technology often cuts off many suspenseful plot ideas, since people can use their phone to quickly get needed help or info. Here are some ways to get around this and bring back the suspense.

Endings #

But a Meteor Could Land There, Right? Where the author cheats #

Resolutions shouldn't come from implausible, illogical plot twists from the author's anus. It shouldn't be external events outside the character's control that overcome issues for them.

"And One Ring to Bind Them!" said the Cowpoke, where the author switches genres #

Mixing genres can be great, but not out of nowhere to abruptly resolve the plot. Surprises must occur or been properly foreshadowed within the established world and genre's rules.

The Underpants Gnomes, omitting crucial steps #

Whatever the resolution is, readers should read the clear events that cause it. Don't handwave away events that would explain how things got to this point.

Goodbye Cruel Reader, where inconvenient characters are conveniently removed #

Authors shouldn't resolve issues by killing off the antagonist for the protagonist. This can be suicide, freak accidents, random murders, or being moved somewhere far away. Convenient deaths, if needed, should be foreshadowed.

The Manchurian Parallax of the Thetan Conspiracy Enigma, where backstory overwhelms the story #

Plot twists should be simple enough so the surprise isn't overwhelmed by confusion. Reveal bits of information related to it earlier on so the reveal can go off those.

Now with 20% More Homily, where the author says what he spent 300 pages saying #

The author recounts all their themes or philosophies long-windedly at the end. They should have already been shown in the book, no need to repeat them again.

Character #

Character Essentials #

The Man of Average Height, where characters are described generically #

Reveal character details you wouldn't assume based on species or gender, erring on specificity. Focus on details specific to the character, or their specific feelings about their average characteristics.

What Color Am I? Characters need a mirror to know their own appearance #

Reciting routine details of self in front of a mirror is a horrible cliche. Characters can do this at any time and need no mirrors. If they have one, they usually only notice what's wrong instead of what they're used to.

The Kodak Moment, which is the mirror thing but with photos #

Photos and mirrors aren't needed. A character's entrance is often enough to move to physical description. Or attach the thoughts of appearance to an emotional reaction, which also reveals a character's feelings towards it.

Channeling the E! Channel, where celebrities are the yardstick #

Never name-drop celebrities in any way when describing characters.

The Joan Rivers Pre-Novel Special, or focusing too much on clothing #

Full outfit or wardrobe descriptions are rarely needed. Better to focus on one or two specifics, revealing clothing details instead.

Getting to Know Your Hero #

The Average Day, where mundane details kill character interest #

Routines are boring and bad for trying to give character insight. Get to the damn point.

The Child is Father to the Digression, or too much focus on childhood #

Don't drown characters in the backstory to explain basic feelings or beliefs. Only for more complex relationships between history and behavior. Always assume readers will find it less interesting than you do.

Too Good to be True, or trying to hard to make a character sympathetic #

Perfect people make for boring stories, and most readers see them as obnoxious. Characters should have many more good traits than an everyday person does.

The Vegan Viking, or using politics as character accessories #

Don't sprinkle political values on characters just to make them more likable, or to show a likeability contrast. Also, don't try and overstate how many people hold them for the time or place. Political feelings if included should be plot relevant.

Love Me, Love My Cat. There's a cat involved #

Don't over-emphasize pets just to make someone more likable. If a pet isn't an important character, at most give them one sentence.

Compassion Fatigue, where characters are beyond help #

Characters should have some serious problems, but not all of them or so many they can't fight back.

I Am Expressing my Sexuality, where sexual nature overwhelms the rest #

Don't show ogling or masturbation early on to describe characters, since leading with that just grosses readers out. Sex-focused novels that do these are for pros only.

Sidekicks and Significant Others #

Jimbo Knows me Better than I Know Myself, or the purposeless friend #

Side characters should do more than just help establish main character traits with long dialogue or needless events.

The Clone Entourage, or when side characters blur together into an indistinguishable mass #

Multiple friends need multiple purposes and personalities and are more than just names. If you can refer to them without mentioning specific names, remove them.

The Cheerleader, or a sidekick that only admires the hero #

A protagonist's traits can't just be established by a side character saying they have them more strongly than others. It's basically aa Onanism plot with blow-up dolls.

The Faceless Multitude, where extras are introduced and discarded #

Don't keep introducing characters that aren't part of the plot, only to have them be of no importance and then vanish just as fast.

Love-Interest Barbie, or skin-deep love #

Physical-based love only works for viewers of movies, not readers of books. Give them loveable qualities as well as good looks. Hair colors aren't personality types.

Men are from Cliche, Women are from Stereotype. Building characters from gender stereotypes #

An occasional gender difference note is okay, but otherwise, characters should aim away from gender stereotypes. Invest in what makes the characters and their relationships unique.

Prince Charming Doesn't Deserve Me, where the bad boyfriend is too sympathetic #

Bad love interests must be undeniably bad with little risk for gray area. Otherwise, leaving a love interest whose boring but not bad shouldn't be seen as universally good moves.

The Lovely Prison Warden's Daughter, or a live interest suddenly appearing to fix a plot hole #

Love interests that fulfill plot points can spice up a story, but not when they appear out of nowhere. Establish them beforehand so it doesn't feel like cheating the reader.

The Funny Valentine, where the protagonist settles for less #

Not being shallow doesn't mean not having any standards at all. Know there's a limit to how unattractive a love interest can be.

Last Tango in Santa's Village, where the love interest is a sexual zero #

Love interests can't be with zero sex appeal. Subtle makeovers or changes in perspective should highlight new sources of it, not leave it unchanged. Attractive enough to not just be "safe," otherwise we'd be in reality and not reading a story.

Tip: Don't stray too far from writing who you know. Avoid these character cliches:

Bad Guys #

Inside the Mind of a Criminal, where the villain's actions are motivated by wanting to do evil #

Antagonists need a reason to be evil that readers can relate to on some non-sociopathic level. They shouldn't be horrible and monstrous for no real reason.

But He Loves His Mother, giving villains one good quality to "round them out" #

This doesn't make villains more believable or less stereotypical. You must handle this the same as the previous tip: thinking of more reasonable reasons for their bad behavior.

The Retirement Speech, where the villain recounts their evil deeds #

Don't reveal a villain's plan to the reader simply by making them brag about it to someone helpless. Use a more believable explanation or plot event.

Revenge is a Dish Best Served in Public, or failing to move on #

Don't make villains and their actions a stand-in for real people that have pissed you off.

A Novel Called It, where abusive parents exist #

Abusive parents sometimes work in the horror or other genres more specifically suited to them. Otherwise, they're not any more entertaining than in real life.

The Riddler, or an overly complex evil plot #

Readers should be able to understand the plot enough to root for the protagonist to foil it. It shouldn't be more complex than the plot around it.

I'm Melting! The villain conveniently gives up #

Villains shouldn't easily give up after protagonists being unable to defeat them for so long. Avoid fight scenes where the villain falls after one hit.

The Fearless Expose, or a novel full of straw men #

Don't use villains to symbolize hated beliefs and beat up distorted versions of them. Give villains any bad traits that may be shared by people others may disagree with, but don't make it the sole reasons they're bad.

Style - The Basics #

Words and Phrases #

The Puffer Fish, where the author flaunts their vocabulary #

Bigger words don't make the author look smarter, it's just showing off. Only use longer words if they're the best possible choice to express the idea.

The Crepuscular Handbag, or author flaunts someone else's vocabulary #

There's no excuse to use words you don't know. If you don't know it, don't use it, or the entire novel breaks down.

The Crepitating Parasol, where the author trips over their own cleverness #

Flowery writing is tough to pull off right. The more flowery it is, the more it risks looking stupid. Ask if your attempts at clever writing serve the novel or serve you.

Stick and Stones, or the author mangling common expressions #

Never use an idiom when you're uncertain of its meaning.

Breeding Contempt, or the author relies too much on cliches #

Cliches are cliches for a reason. Save them only for areas of writing that are familiar and unsurprising.

It's Important! The author punctuates hysterically #

There are few real reasons to use an exclamation mark. These are an extreme surprise or immediate physical danger.

Sentences and Paragraphs #

The Minimalist, where synopses take the place of writing #

Don't write out each detail listlessly. Significant events and important conversations should play out in real time, with a vivid backdrop. Too much description is unhealthy, but too little is skeletal and unsatisfying.

The List of Ingredients, where lists substitute description #

The description isn't taking an inventory, with all details weighed equally. Describe the details that set what's being described apart, the reader knows the typical things are already there.

The Redundant Tautology, where the author repeats themselves #

Don't reinforce points by repeating it, in more flowery ways or in dialogue or otherwise. Can remind readers of important details later when they're relevant again, but not within two paragraphs.

Avoid legalese, officialese, and psychobabble. This doesn't make it smart either.

Mouth-Watering, World-Class Prose, where the writing comes across as an advertisement #

Advertisements must get the point across right away. A novel should reserve this for the back flap to get readers attention.

Hello, I Must Be Going, or poorly handling timing #

Make sure simultaneous events could happen simultaneously without needing to stop time. Vital events are in real time, and unimportant events aren't.

The Penis-like Sausage, or using inappropriate metaphors #

Accurate metaphors shouldn't distract from the intended emotional effect. They also shouldn't need so much explanation it pulls the reader from the novel.

Linearity Shrugged, or a novel assembled in no particular order #

Sentence ideas must smoothly go to the next ones. Paragraph breaks work well for this, but don't think each paragraph must be hyperfocused on one exact thing.

Gibberish for Art's Sake, or indecipherable lyricism baffles the reader #

Difficult writing isn't automatically better either. This undercuts the fact writing is about communication.

The Unruly Zit, or the writer reading too much Bukowski #

Gross details have their place, but keep a lid on it. Save them for scenes that aim at dismay or horror. They're not funny.

Ya Hadda Be There, or the author assumes the reader understands them #

Don't just show a reader's reaction to things, show the reasons for them.

Dialogue #

Asseverated the Man, or thinking you're above the word "said" #

Said works since it's invisible, making dialogue read naturally. Avoid the urge to replace it with flowery words. They're better added after "said" with a comma. Some exceptions are simpler ones, like "asked" and "shouted."

Said the Fascinating Man, or telling the reader what to think of dialogue #

Don't add manipulative adjectives to control the reader's reaction to dialogue. The dialogue itself should invoke these effects.

Said the Main who Returned from an Arctic Expedition, or the author misplacing exposition #

Don't include an explanation in speech tags. Most only need the name and the word "said." Any actions should only be simple and what the character is doing as they're speaking, and can rarely replace the speech tag.

"Fuck You," he Said Profanely, or using pointless adverbs #

Overusing adverbs in speech tags adds clutter. If used, should convey important/subtle information not done by the dialogue.

Sock Puppetry, or all characters speak in the voice of the surrounding prose #

Give characters a voice distinct from the narrator, which is loftier and more formal than it actually is. Test dialogue by reading it out loud.

The Convention of the Invisible Men, or the author not identifying his speakers #

Don't omit speech tags even if the characters have really distinct voices. Give occasional reminders of where the convo is and what's happening around it.

The Court Reporter, where every solitary word of conversation is included #

Don't include all the extra social niceties of everyday dialogue, or filler words like "um" or "well." Can simply use narrative summary or description instead.

Don't Mind Us, or author forgets other characters are present #

Don't have characters present in a scene only to make them mute and motionless. This includes characters around those who are talking to themselves.

Doublespeak, or inadvertently making characters seem dishonest #

It's easy to make characters seem dishonest when dialogue is too straightforward and unequivocal.

Hello I'm the Mommy, or characters announcing things they shouldn't #

Don't convey information in unrealistic dialogue where they just state who they are, their relationship to another, and the meaning behind their name.

But Captain, or characters telling each other things they already know #

If two characters already know something, there's no need to repeat it. It gives the impression of the character talking to the reader.

And That's When the Vaginal Thrush Returned, or characters sharing inappropriate, intimate info #

Strangers don't share backstories right away, and even friends use diplomacy when sharing info. Only strong relationships or outcasts are pure honesty.

El Foreigner, or nonnative speakers being poorly rendered #

Avoid constantly using signs and words that signify a foreign speaker, or rendering accents phonetically.

Style - Perspective and Voice #

Narrative Stance #

I Complete Me, where the novel is a work of auto-hagiography #

Autobiographical fiction is okay, but using it to blow up your sense of self in fanfic is not okay. These kinds of novels shouldn't too closely resemble the author's life.

Grabbing the Mike, where the point of view momentarily strays #

Don't stray away from the set POV for a paragraph, a sentence, or even a word. Any POV less than a page should usually be cut.

The Tennis Match, where the point of view bounces back and forth #

Rapid bounces between POVs means the reader is unwilling to identify with either since they're uncertain how long they'll be there. Holding back a POV for a time is better since it builds suspense.

The Democracy, where everyone is heard from #

Every character having a POV is less a novel and more a focus group. Omniscient POV novels must have an authoritative voice that can pick up other voices as needed.

Reading Over Your Shoulder, or the characters hear each other's thoughts #

Characters shouldn't respond to others' interior monologues as if they heard it. Any knowledge they have must have been gained in a plausible way.

The Paradigm Shift, where the characters are of one mind #

One character's new insight shouldn't automatically be acted on by the others. This quickly pulls the reader out of the novel.

The Service Interruption, there the POV suffers a temporary blackout #

Withholding info is fine, but don't abruptly pull the reader from the scene. Avoid using any info in a scene that you'd need to remove in the middle.

Tip: Avoid the following POVs

Tenses: The Past Oblivious, or the verb tense shifts unexpectedly #

Deciphering verb tenses takes readers away from the story's emotional impact. Always edit verb tenses before submitting a manuscript.

Tenses: The Past Intolerable, or a single tense used for each event #

Make sure all uses of the past tenses are also consistent. Pay attention to these subtleties.

Interior Monologue #

The Hothouse Plant, or a character overreacts to each stimulus #

Drama is not dramatic reactions to mundane events. This only works for characters on the brink of insanity.

Every Breath You Take, or every passing mood is lovingly detailed #

The reader doesn't need to know each flicker of a character's emotion. They're good as spurs to action or reactions to scene events but shouldn't overwhelm the action itself.

Failing the Turing Test, where characters have no reactions #

Emotions shouldn't be undersold as well as oversold. Writers should check in with the POC characters thoughts and feelings from time to time, to remind readers they exist.

You'll Have to Go Through Me, or the fact a character has senses is paramount #

The POV character asserts they reacted to everything described to the reader. This gets between the content and the reader, muffling the experience. Focus on the event itself unless the character's reaction is the whole point.

Hamlet at the Deli, or the character's thoughts are transcribed to no purpose #

Occasional reflections are good for segues or notes in a scene but are never a scene on their own.

The Skipping Record, where a character has the same thought repeatedly #

Give the thought once, and the readers will assume it's the same unless otherwise stated.

Jekyll and Hyde, or where a character and his inner voice are mismatched #

Keep their words and internal monologue consistent enough. There should be some distance since our public voice is different from our private one, readers should still detect their relationship.

I, Youngster, or the author is behind the times #

If you're older and writing about young people, check to see which parts of youthful culture have changed. Avoid idioms you know unless you can confirm they'll still be used.

Preemptive Strike, or the author anticipates criticism #

The writer acknowledges their flaws to deflect criticism, often by claiming it's real life. Acknowledging there's a problem isn't the same as fixing it.

Swann Song, or a character ignores the occurring scene to reminisce about a scene that's not happening #

Don't choose a character's fantasy world over the action happening right now. It wastes the setting and action the character is really in.

The World of a Bad Novel #

Setting #

The Sharper Image Catalogue, or technology porn halts the narrative #

Any object shouldn't be described so much it halts the story. The description shouldn't convey everything in the plot, even in genres focused a lot on certain details.

The Food Channel, or the author stops to describe the specials #

Only use food descriptions relevant to larger plot elements or action. Otherwise, skimp on the details and make it quick.

Magic-onomics, or characters funds are from nowhere #

Novels have some suspension of disbelief with funds but don't stretch it too much. Don't half-bake the reasons either. Don't randomly introduce these reasons unless they're focal to the plot.

Tip: Avoid these common setting pitfalls.

Research and Historical Background #

Hello I am the Medieval Knight, or characters making their own context #

Characters who understand cultural norms at that time don't explain them to others who already know them. A way around this is introducing a foreigner and using misunderstandings to explain the culture.

Zeno's iPod, Anachronism in Historical Fiction #

Avoid small bits of historical inconsistency, such as doctors prescribing antibiotics when it should be leeches.

Yo Charlemagne how dost the big war, or the author not controlling his idiom #

Avoid more anachronism issues slipping in through the language characters uses.

The Whatchamacallit, or gaps in the author's research make themselves known #

Characters smart enough to know a field's jargon should actually use it when expected, or any indication they actually have the expected knowledge. You don't need to show all your research, but enough to show the character is smart.

Then Mel Gibson Raised his Mighty Broadsword, or the author unconsciously appropriates #

Do more research on historical events other than popular fiction, like the Titanic movie.

Class Struggle, or the author can't imagine an unfamiliar class #

If class differences are part of the novel, do research instead of relying on stereotypes. The best research is immersion with primary sources, like documents or books by this class.

The Research Paper, or the author overdoes their research #

Limit your use of specialized knowledge to where it's needed and appropriate. Smart characters aren't constantly thinking in terms of their expertise.

Theme #

The Overture, or the prologue is a brief guide to life's meaning #

Giving a speech on life's meaning in the start is just being some person with an opinion, and the reader has no reason to take it seriously. They don't see the plot that gives that meaning weight and context. Fiction is entertainment, not lectures.

The Timely Epiphany, where symbols conveniently make themselves known #

Symbols that trigger epiphany shouldn't be so bad in the character's path they trip over them. Symbols and action shouldn't be too clearly linked together. Symbols shouldn't be obvious, and readers who don't understand the symbols should still enjoy the story.

The Fig Leaf, or the author has their cake and eats it #

Don't write a novel full of sleazy, exploitative material while apologizing and pretending it's not what you want. If you're going to be sleazy, at least be honest about it instead of fighting against it.

The Commercial Break, or where the author borrows #

Don't bow out of the story and use other passages of writing to spell out your message. Works if the medium is a plot focus (poetry, etc), or it expands on what you've said. Don't have the quotes do the work you, as the author, should be doing.

The After-Dinner Sermon, or the author wields a mallet #

Characters stating their philosophies is okay in moderation since everyone has them. Too much and the author is being heavy-handed. Said philosophies also have higher standards for originality and insight. Familiar themes should be shown through the story, not directly stated.

The Educational Film, where the deck is stacked #

Every single situation shouldn't be focused on the same kind of injustice. These are best expressed over a longer period of time so they're more realistic.

Three common issues in novels with themes by which no one agrees:

The High Colonic By Mail, or the author's worldview doesn't intersect with the readers #

Novels for the public should consider how far away the expressed ideas deviate from the mainstream. Don't assume fringe views will be shared with the reader like vaccines kill puppies.

Obsession by Calvin Klein (you know he's Jewish right?) or the author accidentally showing their harder biases #

Expressing more fiercely held opinions and saying them on almost every page, taking them from motifs to alienating the reader. Present uncommon opinions sparingly, since the real aim is telling the story.

The Voice in the Wilderness, where the view expressed is universally detested #

It doesn't matter why you express it, a view that everyone will likely hate (there was no Holocaust) won't get published. Don't do it.

Speciality Effects and Novelty Acts #

If you can't do the following topics correctly, don't even bother. Doing your best isn't enough since it will make you fail.

I don't plan to ever tackle the below topics, so I will simply list them for now: