There’s a great article in The Writer, April 2012 issue (1). If you’re able to get your hands on a copy or find it online, it’s worth the read.
Delving into this article, I did some additional research and came up with eight elements that are probably the most common fiction writing mistakes.
1. You start your story too soon.
The very first on the list of writing mistakes to avoid is beginning your story too soon.
To give you a rough idea of what this means, suppose you start the story with the protagonist waking up. She brushes her teeth then gets dressed. After that she makes herself breakfast (coffee and a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and almonds). Suppose again that this beginning scene takes a paragraph or two. Then she get a phone call. The coffee mug drops out of her hands. Her knees go weak.
Are bells and whistles going off here?
Do you think an acquisitions editor will bother reading to the good part where the protagonist gets that phone call that shakes her world?
Start the story at the phone call. Start your story where the action begins.
This goes for self-publishers as well. You may not have to get past the publishers’ gatekeepers, but you do want to be recognized as a good writer. You don’t want the reader to say, “What the heck do I care about her morning routine.”
For more on the gatekeeper, check out:
How Do You Make a Good Story Worthy of Getting Past the Gatekeeper?
2. The plot can’t be found. Where’s the plot? There’s got to be a plot.
Every story needs a plot. It’s the reason why the story is being told.
Literary Devices says, plot “describes the events that make up a story or the main part of a story. These events relate to each other in a pattern or a sequence.” (2)
Think of the plot as the foundation of a pyramid. It’s the base of the story. It’s the basis for the other elements, such as the characters and settings to be.
There are five basic elements to a plot:
– At the bottom left point of the pyramid is the introduction, which is called the exposition. You can think of it as a landing.
– Going up the left side of the pyramid will be rising action and enhanced conflict.
– At the peak of the pyramid is the climax.
– Going down the right side is a decline or falling in the action.
– At the bottom right side is the resolution. At this point, the story, all the conflicts and loose ends, are all tied up. (Hopefully, the protagonist is triumphant!)
Keep in mind the resolution evolves from the falling action and could take a while. Or, it can be sudden, like when Thelma and Louise drove off the cliff.
3. The protagonist’s conflict isn’t strong enough.
Let’s go back to Thelma and Louise. Once Louise shot the man who attempted to rape Thelma, they chose to run rather than call the police and face the consequences. After that the stakes and rising action kept on coming. Events kept piling up to the point of ‘do or die.’ At least in their eyes.
Suppose they had called the police. They’d be arrested and go to trial. The story would be about them fighting a murder conviction.
If the second scenario was used, the story wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting and ‘heart tugging.’ The reader wouldn’t have had the same emotional connection with the main characters.
Bottom line, make your protagonist squirm. Put the pressure on. Don’t play it safe.
4. The point-of-view (POV) isn’t clear.
Whose point of view is the story being told from? Is it omniscient? Is it third-person?
The POV helps the reader make a connection to the protagonist. Your story needs one POV. Choose the one you’re comfortable with and the one you think will resonate best with your readers and keep it focused.
If you mix up your POV, your reader will most likely become confused.
There are four basic points-of-view in writing: (1) first person, (2) second person, (3) third person, (4) omniscient.
To clarify these POVs, here are examples:
First person: I should go for a walk. (The protagonist is telling the story himself.)
Second person: You should go for a walk. (The narrator includes the reader in the story.)
Third person: Joe should go for a walk. (The narrator tells the story.)
Omniscient: Joe decided to go to the gym. Mary also decided to go to the gym. They ran into each other at the gym. (This may be a bit crude, but you get the idea, the reader is privy to everyone’s thoughts and actions.)
According to an excerpt from “Elements of Fiction: Characters and Point of View” by Orson Scott Card, with omniscient “you can show the reader every character’s thoughts, dreams, memories, and desires; you can let the reader see any moment of the past or future.”
In regard to which POV to choose, Robert J. Sawyer puts it best, “The rule is simple: pick one character, and follow the entire scene through his or her eyes only.” (3)
Remember, clarity rules in all writing, so choose the one that will allow the reader to easily know who’s telling the story.
5. Not all scenes are active.
What keeps a reader reading?
Action. Whether it’s physical (the protagonist is running from a barrage of bullets), mental (he’s figuring out a mathematical problem that will bring him closer to resolution), or emotional (the journey or obstacle is causing emotional upheaval), every scene needs to let the reader think the protagonist is trying to answer the current question or overcome the current problem.
6. You’re not taking the time needed to do it right.
While you may want to get your story finished. You need to take your time. When writing my middle-grade fantasy, Walking Through Walls, I took two years. And, I’m antsy – if it could be done yesterday that’d be great. But, some things take time.
First, if you’re an outliner, you need to create your outline.
Next up is your first draft, but this is just the beginning.
You need to read that draft for clarity, tightening (including dialogue), enhancing plot and characters. This will lead to another draft and probably another.
7. You still have loose ends.
This one has to do with subplots or even things you might have mentioned within your 80-100,000 word novel. All loose ends must be tied up.
I’ll use “Walking Through Walls” as example of this. When the protagonist, Wang, reached what he was looking for, a mystical temple, a black bird was circling above his head. The bird was again mentioned in two other scenes.
Why was the same bird in at least three scenes? Even if the bird had been specifically mentioned once, there should be a reason.
In another scene, the Master Eternal, who Wang was learning from, told him, “Today you begin a new life. Take an axe with a purple tip.”
Why did he have to take one with a purple tip? If it wasn’t significant why was it mentioned?
If it’s mentioned in the story, it must be relevant to the story, and any questions or loose ends pertaining to it must be answered / resolved.
8. There’s no take-away value. The theme can’t be found.
After you’re finished with the initial revisions and edits, you need to determine if your theme is clear. If you didn’t have one when you started, see what take-away there is in the story.
If you’re not familiar with ‘theme,’ it’s what gives your story meaning. It’s what the reader can relate to in his own life. According to an article at Writer’s Digest, “Theme is the relevance of your story to life.” (4)
For more on theme, you can check out:
Theme and Your Story
(1) The Writer, April 2012, “9 Writing Mistakes.”
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