One of the harshest truths to anything you do in life is: no matter how hard you try to be perfect, perfection doesn’t exist. You can rewrite the same story over and over again, and while you may get better each time, you’ll make new mistakes and repeat old ones, even if you know better.
I’m no exception to this flawed existence; in fact, since I’m still relatively new to the whole creative writing gig, I’m still learning the rules as I go. We’ve all made most of these mistakes as writers at one point or another, and if you’re a fledgling, you’ll probably see a lot of these examples in your current writing.
One of the most frustrating things about creative writing is there is a lengthy set of rules, but those rules can change. And now for the cliché: you have to learn the rules first before you can change or break them. So, on to the mess.
Telling vs Showing/Infodumps
Let’s just get this out of the way first. Telling and info dumping are two sides of the same coin. Notice how I didn’t type “show don’t tell?” Well, that’s because it’s the wrong advice. There is a time for telling and a time for showing, and it takes practice to learn when to do what. If a book is 100% showing, it would be the biggest trudge to get through and several hundred pages longer than it should be. It a book is nothing but telling, you’ve completely deprived the reader of an experience.
What makes a work of fiction an interesting read? Well, a lot has to work in tandem for a story to be interesting, and the two biggest things you’ll notice in some of the greatest stories of all time are: They have amazing characters, and they are written in such a way that the reader gets to experience the story as if they were there.
Here’s an example of telling from a 10-year-old first draft of my book, The Mark of Amulii:
Alexander Hunt was seventeen when he moved to Jasper National Park in Alberta. His father was an ex-United States marine who worked closely with the park as a ranger and hiking guide. His mother was a doctor in the field of biology. She was a renowned geneticist, and had published a few books on biochemistry. They weren’t thrilled with the idea of moving from suburbia to live in the middle of nowhere. Alex had to leave his school and friends, and his mother had to quit her job after twenty years of employment.
Keep in mind, this was the opening paragraph of chapter one. Few people would continue reading after this, and mechanical/stilted prose aside, it’s incredibly boring. This is an example of both telling and info dumping; in fact, all of chapter one in this first draft was a huge info dump. When I read this last year after not having seen this draft in a decade, the first thing I asked myself was ‘why is this so boring?’
For one, are you, as a reader, getting any kind of experience from this paragraph? We are told his family isn’t thrilled with the move, but how could I make the reader believe they are upset? How do I prove it? Well, I would set the scene at the moment this life-changing event happened, and I would allow the reader to experience the crush of Alex’s emotions as he’s told he has to leave his friends and school behind.
In the published book, I have Alex being told he’s moving in a text message while he’s at his best friend’s house. He anxiously stares at the phone in disbelief while trying to get a response. His best friend tries to comfort him, but he’s just as upset. The scene plays out in descriptions of panic, anger, annoyance, and even embarrassment as Alex is also attracted to his best friend. I allow the reader to experience this moment through Alex’s eyes, and I take care of that info dump by weaving character information naturally through the narrative and dialogue of chapter one as Alex interacts with his parents.
When you tell the reader how things went, it pulls them out of the story. It becomes a textbook, not engaging story-telling. This is why showing instead of telling in a lot of places is repeatedly beaten into every writer’s head. You don’t want the reader to skim through important details of your story because they are bored.
Now telling has its place in writing too. Remember how I said earlier that if all a book did was show, it would be twice as long? Well, that’s because in order to show, you have to engage the reader’s senses. How do we do that? LOADS OF DESCRIPTION. You get to feel the waxy texture of Bermuda grass as the character plucks a blade of it from the ground. You get to smell the sickly sweet odor of a corpse and hear the squelching of crawling maggots in exposed organs. To make the reader experience those scenes, it takes quite a lot of elaborate description, and how much you want the reader to experience will shorten or lengthen that description.
If the character stumbles upon this corpse, don’t tell us she’s scared. Show us her reaction.
Side note on this: there comes a point where things are overly described, and it can have just as much of a negative effect as telling would. Keep your descriptions to the point, and try not to get too ‘purple.’
In scenes where detail is not relevant, for example: a car ride where nothing useful happens, or a long period of time that has passed (if the plot moves to the next event two weeks later, you’re going to gloss over what occurred in those two weeks instead of dragging us through each day that doesn’t matter). Basically, any information important enough for the reader to know, but unimportant enough to go into detail, tell, don’t show. A good balance of telling and showing will improve the pacing of your story dramatically.
White Room Syndrome/Talking Heads
So above we either did too much telling or too much showing, but what if we did neither? What if my characters are talking to one another, but no one knows what they look like, where they are, when they are, or who they are? OOPS! Setting the scene is just as important as that dialogue you wrote. If the reader can’t picture the character or setting in their mind’s eye, they have to create their own, which will get REALLY jarring later when that beach they were at in your mind turns into an empty back alley downtown. And that guy with tan skin and rippling abs turns out to be a twelve-year-old.
Set the scene and character descriptions as soon as you can. If you’re in first-person point of view, describe the characters the main character interacts with, and weave that main character’s description naturally through the story. In my book, we don’t get an in-depth description of Alex’s appearance because the story is taking place through his eyes. Unless he comes into contact with something that has his reflection or even a memory, it has to be handled differently. However, we get elaborate descriptions of Jasper National Park, and every character he interacts with. The reader can now picture themselves standing in these places, looking at these people.
Elaborate when your character first interacts with a person or first visits a place. After that, only minor descriptions are necessary. You could use one or two sentences of description if you’ve started a new scene, but it’s in a place your character has been before, or a person the reader has already been introduced to. It’s good to remind the reader of things like hair or eye color, but don’t make that every interaction because then it gets repetitive. Confused yet? Frustrated? Trust me, once you practice this enough and go through enough critique partners and editors, you will learn a good balance.
Said is NOT dead, but she makes an appearance once in a while
Dialogue tags. Sometimes you need them, sometimes you don’t. In fact, you can use them a lot less frequently than you think. You’re probably wondering, well… if I don’t put ‘Tabitha said’ after what Tabitha says, how will anyone know Tabitha is the one that said the thing?
To answer that, you could use an action tag. Or, if there are only two people talking, the reader can pick up on who is saying what by their unique voice.
“That werewolf is so hot,” Tabitha said, looking through the window at the beast howling at the moon outside.
“I know, right?” Randy said. “I should be scared, but I kinda want to open the door and let him in.”
“Don’t do it,” Tabitha exclaimed. “As hot as he is, he’s still a werewolf. He might eat us.”
“That’s a risk I think I’m willing to take,” Randy said with a grin. “I mean, look at him.”
“You’re right,” she said. “Let’s open the door and see what happens.”
There are probably three things you noticed from this exchange: 1) Tabitha and Randy have great taste in men. I approve. 2) the dialogue tags stick out like sore thumbs and break the immersion, and 3) I may need to see a therapist about this unusual obsession I have.
How can we make this dialogue flow more naturally? Well, let’s see what it looks like without some of the dialogue tags, using action tags instead.
Tabitha looked out the window after hearing a howl from outside. “That werewolf is so hot.”
“I know, right?” Randy said, tiptoeing behind her. “I should be scared, but I kinda want to open the door and let him in.”
“Don’t do that.” Tabitha yanked the curtain closed, but left enough of an opening to ogle the beast outside. “As hot as he is, he’s still a werewolf. He might eat us.”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.” Randy shoved Tabitha out of the way to get a better view. “I mean, look at him.”
After a second of deliberation, Tabitha shrugged and walked toward the front door. “You’re right. Let’s open the door and see what happens.”
There are also times you don’t need action tags or dialogue tags, especially if Tabitha and Randy were arguing with one another. Since we just met both characters above, we needed to know who was saying what. Now that we know this story is about Randy and Tabitha, we’ll know who’s speaking without putting dialogue or action tags after everything.
Randy grabbed Tabitha’s arm. “Hold on, maybe I’m having second thoughts.”
“You just said you wanted to let him in.”
“I know, but what if he’s hungry?”
Tabitha’s eyes lit up, and she pointed to the refrigerator. “I bought some steaks yesterday.”
Tabitha pressed her index finger to Randy’s lips. “You’re getting a hot werewolf boyfriend, and I’m going to lure him in here with those streaks.”
As you can see from the sentences above, not only is Tabitha a true friend, but we also didn’t need to use action or dialogue tags after every bit of dialogue.
And now for the confusion: overusing action tags can be just as jarring as overusing dialogue tags. The reader doesn’t need to know every facial expression, every head turn, breath, blink, or swallow. If you’re using action tags so much that your characters turn into those bobble head toys, then you should probably dial that back.
I am guilty of doing this in my own writing, and when I see it, I cringe a bit. Though I tried to take most of it out of my debut, there are examples of unnecessary actions that linger, even after editing. It just goes to show that while we may be aware of writing mistakes, we aren’t immune to making them.
Writing pretty prose is an art, and regardless of each writer’s skill level, it’s a constant struggle to improve upon. It isn’t always about flowery metaphors or flexing your vocabulary; when you drill down to the basic structure of the written word, you realize pretty prose is all about proper cadence. It’s a mixture of long and short sentences, action and dialogue tags, or no dialogue tags at all. Cadence is something you learn with a lot of practice, and you can usually pick out awkward cadence or sentence structure by simply reading your story out loud. You’d be surprised by how much you’ll pick up on by listening to what you write.
I’ll also mention one more thing about dialogue tags: unless your sentence demands a stronger or more descriptive tag (exclaimed, demanded, interrupted, shouted, etc…), your best bet is to just use said or asked. When you use said in combination with action tags, it almost becomes invisible to the reader. The moment you drop something stronger, it will draw the reader’s attention immediately. Make sure that’s your intention when you do it, otherwise it will break immersion.
Lacking well-rounded characters
It’s time to be a bit controversial.
I’m one of those pesky readers who doesn’t care how detailed and beautiful your world-building is, how amazing your prose is, or even how well thought-out your plot is. If I can’t connect with any of your characters, I see no point in reading what you wrote. This is going to be more opinionated than anything, but there are readers like me who are very character-driven. This means instead of the plot driving the characters, we enjoy the characters driving the plot.
If your story is just a bunch of things happening to the character and the character reacting, it doesn’t make an interesting story to me. Don’t get me wrong, there are people who enjoy plot-driven stories if the world and plot have enough substance.
This is one of the main reasons I hated Dune (the book and the movie), and why some of my friends loved it. They saw this beautiful, unique world, amazingly descriptive writing (I admit I hung onto every one of Herbert’s words as I read it), and a decent plot that drove the story forward. HOWEVER, I couldn’t give a damn whether any of those characters lived or died.
If I don’t care about any of the characters, the story has no meaning. Herbert was a literary genius, and his world would inspire everything from Star Wars to Wheel of Time. But while his worlds are memorable, his characters are flat and uninteresting. Every person I’ve mentioned this to agrees to some extent, even the people who really loved Dune.
Dune has decades of following and was written in a different era. The Hero’s Journey hadn’t been done to death, and he brought something new and exciting to the literary world. His book is so memorable because it was a foundation for the genre to build on, much like Tolkien’s fantasy. Many people love The Lord of the Rings and medieval fantasies, but very few people actually enjoy slogging through Tolkien’s info dumps and God-awful prose. It was a story written in an era when there were fewer media vying for a piece of everyone’s time. People read more for entertainment, and everyone had longer attention spans.
Readers are not so forgiving today, and if anyone were to replicate a ground-breaking and unique, plot-driven story like Dune as a new author using the same writing style, they’d likely never sell to a publisher, and very few would show interest. In today’s world, not only do you need a strong plot, but interesting, well-rounded characters. Give your characters flaws, have them make mistakes, and have them learn throughout the book. Give them a reason to exist, a goal, a need. Have them struggle and overcome the obstacles thrown at them in their unique, imperfect way.
If you start a book where the character knows everything, does everything perfectly, doesn’t struggle, can overcome any obstacle with the slightest effort (ugh, having flashbacks to Paul from Dune again), that character can’t grow and change in any meaningful way. They remain flat or 2 dimensional, and the reader can’t even come close to relating. Adversity brings about change, and if your character can overcome adversity with ease, there’s little change or growth to be had. If your character is the same person by the end of your story as they were at the start, you’ve failed at creating a well-rounded and engaging character people will root for. You’ve just created a plot device to move the story forward, nothing more, nothing less. There’s no emotional investment. No stakes. No story. That’s harsh, but good characters should be your entire reason for writing a story, in my opinion. If you build a world and simply have people living and dying in it, I don’t care. If you give me compelling characters that grow with the story, I’m invested.
POV and Tense shifts
This is probably the newbiest of the newbie mistakes, and once you learn and practice, you’ll never make it again. I promise.
Stories are always written in ONE point of view. Pick a point of view and don’t change it. This could be first-person, third-person limited, third-person omniscient, or very VERY rarely, second-person.
First-person point of view is told directly from the character in narration.
I walked to the store with Mike and bought some milk. We passed a stranger sitting along the side of the road, begging for change. His gentle, weary eyes and friendly gestures didn’t worry me, but I could tell Mike was uncomfortable.
Third-Person Limited is told from one character’s point of view by a narrator. We know what the main character is thinking.
Steve and Mike walked to the store to buy milk, but passed a stranger sitting along the side of the road, begging for change. His gentle, weary eyes and friendly gestures didn’t worry Steve, but Mike shifted his uncomfortable stare from the man back to the road.
Third-Person Omniscient is told from multiple characters’ points of view by a narrator. We know what each character is thinking.
Steve and Mike walked to the store to buy milk, but passed a stranger sitting along the side of the road, begging for change. His gentle, weary eyes and friendly gestures didn’t worry Steve, but Mike had a feeling the man was hiding something under his jacket.
Second-Person is told from the reader’s point of view.
You walk to the store with Mike to buy milk, but see a stranger sitting along the side of the road, begging for change. His gentle, weary eyes and friendly gestures put you at ease, but Mike gives the man a suspicious sideways glance before facing forward again.
The most popular points of view are first-person and third-person limited, but there are certain points of view that work better depending on what genre you’re writing in. For example, third-person omniscient works better if you have multiple main characters in a fantasy novel, but it might break the reader’s immersion if you use it in a romance or hero’s journey where the point of view is usually focused on one character at a time per scene.
Choosing a point of view for your story is very important, and sticking with that point of view is imperative. I remember beta reading a story where it was written in third-person limited until the main character started talking on the phone. Suddenly, we’re seeing the person on the other end of the conversation nodding their head and using other forms of body language. How does the main character know what that other character is doing when he can’t see them? It broke my immersion.
Another mistake I see a lot when critiquing other writers is tense shifting. There are two tenses: present and past. If you write a story in present tense, the story is happening to that main character right now. If it’s in past tense, the narrator (either the main character or the third-person narrator), tells the story as if they are recalling what happened.
I wander by the old wooden shed before peering inside; my heartbeat pounds in my ears.Present tense
I wandered by the old wooden shed before peering inside; my heartbeat pounded in my ears.Past tense
Once you pick a tense, you need to stick with it. If you’re constantly shifting between present and past tense (unless the character is recalling a memory), you’re going to piss your reader off.
I wander by the old wooden shed before peering inside; my heart pounded in my ears.This mixes present and past tense
It’s very easy to veer into past tense from present and vice versa, but the more you write and self-edit, the less likely you are to make these mistakes.
Well, that was long
There are more mistakes beginners make, but these are probably the most common ones I see most often when beta reading or critiquing. These are also things that occasionally pop up in my own writing, even when I’m aware of the mistakes. We’re all human, and every writer has a weakness they need to work on—even the greats. Don’t get discouraged or frustrated, but always keep these in mind when drafting and revising. If you keep at it, you won’t make as many of these mistakes…
You will just make new mistakes.