Fiction, storytelling, is the same regardless of genre, and over the past century, we’ve made some gradual concessions in favor of organization and clarity over artistic expression. In other words, there are rules to good writing. Not about the word choice or material itself, but in the presentation of material. To take it from a handful of jarring, undeveloped flights of fancy or snippets of unfinished (and uninspired) scenes and characters, to an actual, real, living story.
So in this (short) article I’m going to look at some of the most egregious writing mistakes and errors most authors make, with the understanding that none of these are really mistakes at all: these are all pretty normal for quickly jotting down a FIRST draft. But if you want to polish your first draft into anything even approaching an actual novel, these are things you should look at, identify and fix. Because they aren’t typos.
1: get rid of melodrama
Melodrama is basically, unbelievable emotional outbursts. Emotions needs to build throughout the book and erupt towards the peak… so everything that happens in the beginning needs to be toned down. If your characters are bursting out into tears and laughter every other page it will feel unbelievable.
It’s also cheap: instead of showing the emotion in the scene and letting readers feel it (which only happens after you’ve built sympathy and understanding so we know what it means and feels like for them) you’re basically trying to force the emotions with a physical outburst (wailing, pulling hair, gnashing of teeth) which feels unjustified at best. Especially in the beginning, emotions should be muted, because the stakes aren’t high enough yet.
Emotion is rarely something you see, outburst, failure to contain, the struggle to contain. The stakes need to grow. All emotion is wasted if we don’t care about the character.
Character = someone likeable + something keeping them from their goals, wrestling with a crisis that means everything.
2. repetition & redundancy
You want to say things once. Many newer authors take a heavy hand and try to impress upon readers, often by over-establishing things by repeating them in a variety of ways.
Instead of 5 adjectives to describe a character’s emotional state, choose one good one.
3. unrealistic facial expressions
This one almost fits in with the previous 2: most normal people don’t broadcast their emotions or have physical outbursts. Our emotions are more subtle and controlled. Specifically, don’t have a character go through a bunch of different expressions in the same few moments.
Also try to avoid cliches: “jaw dropped” “gasped in disbelief.” They aren’t realistic, because they are melodramatic (caricatures of emotional reaction).
4. cut metaphors
New writers *love* creative metaphors, but they’re almost always distracting. A metaphor plants a picture in readers’ minds; but it’s a *different* picture than whatever is actually happening in the scene – so it pulls them out of the vivid scene and towards something else which is rarely as interesting. Limit them as much as possible; leave the ones that convey an emotional depth or foreboding. They’re often lazy writing, and you should be focused on real scene description instead.
5. flashbacks and backstory
This one is tricky, but in general, the full backstory character reveal belongs at the end of the book, in the middle of the final battle or climax (not the beginning!). Many writers begin with a characters full backstory or at least an important childhood scene – full of emotion or drama – but we don’t care yet about the character.
We need to see them in the real, current world, being likeable and having a goal and facing an immediate challenge. People don’t sit around suddenly reflecting about childhood trauma for no reason; nor do they casually bring it up with new acquaintances.
It’s very important, however, to show how THIS one challenge is impossible for them, because of that early event, and so in the final moment rather than always making the same decision, this time in THIS story they choose differently, by finally facing their fears and overcoming them. You can show how important this new choice is with a great backstory or flashback but they really should be fleshed out near the end.
Otherwise, for more general world-building background stuff, find a way to slowly creep it in through action scenes (conversation, discovery) – the information should be presented when it’s relevant and when it matters: also, answers should only be given with a cost, and after questions have been raised, not gratuitously without effort.
6. body language
It’s common in a first draft to try to add a little bit of “scene” with body language, but you’ll notice you’re relying on the same things. He bit his lip, frowned, leaned, tapped his fingers, etc. Try to avoid anything static: instead of “he turned to face her” or “began to leave the room” just use the action verb – or skip it (we don’t really need to see him turning and her turning, they could just be talking to each other; and you don’t need to announce every entry or exit. If it can be implied, replace it with something more specific and unique.
7. scene description
Description is usually something I add in late, after about four rounds of revision. First you need to get the actual story (what happens) then the character motivations (why are they doing this?).
Once everything is in the right place and you’re sure, you can start building out everything by asking “what does this look like?” That’s a very powerful prompt, which I’ll expand on later.
With description, you want to avoid any symbolic reference to shared knowledge. Don’t say “it looked just like a normal, everyday high school classroom.” That doesn’t tell us anything, it’s vague and universal.
The trick with description is to focus on the differences. How is this space *different* from a normal high school classroom. What’s unique about it?
Focus on the constrast. If he lives in a converted bus, first fine: that’s a quick mental image. But now, how do the details of THIS converted bus color the character.
– a converted bus painted black with purple furniture and candles, and a cello.
– a converted bus turned into a wide loft with colorful pillows and sandalwood.
Same thing with character description: avoid faceless groups that all act the same, like goons or henchmen that are cartoonishly simple, or mobs of people all expressing the same words, movements or emotions together – it falls flat.
This is tricky, especially in fantasy – but lots of capitalization gets distracting. So decide if you need to capitalize Prince and Chosen and Kingdom and everything else.
Typically, “King Richard” is a proper noun and capitalized. And “Your Highness” might be, or even “Dear” and terms of endearment. But “the king” or “the council” doesn’t have to be. There’s some wiggle room on these, but try to avoid them when you can and keep them consistent when they’re called for. It’s easy to get carried away and have wildly different use cases throughout the book.
Now let’s dig a little deeper. Narration is basically, the narrator just telling readers what’s happening. Ideally, you want your narrator to be invisible – without a strong, active voice or personality. Of course there are genres and books with a strong narrative voice (which is fine for example, in a first-person POV young adult novel or in some comedic fantasy). But it’s hard to pull of well and usually distracting to break the fourth wall and speak to readers.
The main problem here is that it’s easy. You’re injecting information over the characters’ heads while they’re just standing there. You want all your content to be within the scene; you want the information to be discovered and engaged with by your active characters.
The problem that sometimes happens with narration, is that you start with a general summary of all the stuff, and THEN you show it playing out in active scene. But it’s not exciting because we already know what’s going to happen. Summary is best kept to a paragraph or so between scenes, but everytime you do it, you’re pressing “pause” and you need to give your characters something to do in the meantime.
Think about, who is saying this, who is hearing this? Where is it taking place? There’s no active scene, and it brings us out of our entrancement, to focus on the narrator sharing these facts with us, instead of the characters (information shared this way has no drama or emotion because it doesn’t affect the characters…. so it’s fine for general, quick background info, but not good for deeply personal stuff that characters will have emotions about.
11. Thinking out loud
There are two big problems with voicing a character’s inner thoughts.
First, they aren’t happening in scene; they aren’t action. You can’t see it on stage, so it’s like pausing the story and adding a 3rd person omniscient narrative voiceover.
Second, they interrupt and stop the actual scene and can be very distracting, if we see the character pause to reflect, parse or mentally respond to everything that happens.
Thoughts can be a big red flag of amateur writing, because they are often done poorly, and entirely unnecessary. You need to ask, does this contain essential, relevant information that will affect the characters’ later actions? And the answer is probably not, because thoughts are contained and not shared. They won’t have an affect unless they are voiced. If it is absolutely necessary, it should be given in a conversation with another character – usually much later (serious, deep thoughts should be reserved until they are forced to the surface through conflict and increase intimacy with side characters after trust is built).
While thoughts can reveal character, often it’s an author trying to make their character cool and witty with internal one-liners; or it’s to overexplain and overreveal everything that’s happening (if you want an Event to Affect a character, show it; thoughts are mental, which makes them logical and also trivial, rather than traumatic; they can lessen the suspense, conflict, intrigue and drama).
If you do have thoughts, keep them brief and in italics. You don’t need to preface it with “she thought.”
Good thoughts are questions or fears that focus on the conflict or drama. Bad thoughts are unnecessary, casual affirmation of what’s already in the scene.
ie. She glared at the phone, dreading the inevitable ring as her controlling ex-boyfriend called to check on her. Maybe he won’t call tonight. The phone rang.
Her ex-boyfriend called every night to check on her. He’s so controlling, she thought. I should have dumped him ages ago. The phone rang. Oh my! she thought he’s calling again. I should just ignore it. But maybe it’s something important this time?”
The point is, keep an eye on it. Long, running italicized thoughts mean you’re in your character’s head, but you’re hitting pause between every single action. This gets very distracting in conversation, where the character has to think and reflect and comment on each thing before replying.
12. Don’t hit pause
Since I’ve mentioned it a few times now… try to avoid hitting pause or freezing your scene. Always ask, what does this look like right now? Something should be happening. If all the characters are sitting around doing nothing, you’re on pause. It’s OK to have slow, thoughtful scenes where stakes are low and they can relax (usually in the middle, after you’ve got things going). If you can’t picture it because this is all in some character’s mind, figure out a way to turn it into active scene. See if you can take that summary or backstory infodump and reveal it in a powerful way.
13. Show don’t tell
Of course you’ve heard this one before, but few people can explain what it actually means. If you start with “what does this look like” then you’ll be doing it right. If you can’t picture it, you’re telling.
She cried, or she was upset so she cried, is telling.
Her lip trembled and she felt a tear on her cheek. She wiped it away in frustration, dampening her sleeve.
You can use both, but in general, showing is better.
14. Avoid hyperbole & adverbs
You may have heard this advice before about adverbs. Basically, it’s a squinting modifier. So instead of she was angry, you say she was extremely angry. And if you wanted it stronger, you’d do she was extremely furious. Most of the time, adverbs are telling, not showing – and you can usually just use a stronger word instead of the modifier (and if you use both, like extremely furious, it’s a tautology or redundancy). We may not believe it because it sounds melodramatic, and may not be warranted in the actual scene (WHY was she extremely furious – this would have to be explained in context). Fixing your -ly adverbs and modifiers will strengthen your writing.
15. Intrigue and suspense
These are the motor of your fiction: unresolved questions and unresolved conflict. First you have to establish sympathy with your main characters and give them something they want, that they’re struggling towards; then you add danger and opposition. The way to keep suspense and intrigue high is by removing information, which usually means rebalancing things so you don’t give away too much too early.
16. The MAIN story
The Main story will have the most conflict, and be centered around the main character with the most to lose; the one whose challenge or struggle will be greatest. Don’t begin with a sweeping big conflict and then get distracted on fun, light stuff. Every scene needs to present something new, something that changes.
Check out this big list: 14 crucial things you need in every scene.
The main story begins in the normal, status quo, just before things change for the protagonist in a big way. Start there, with unresolved action (the backstory is all resolved action, so there’s no conflict or tension: there’s only some intrigue, until you’ve given it all away – and much too early for us to care). The main story is the one that is not resolved, that is still unfolding. But we need to be invested first, which means sympathy+stakes.
Everything else that isn’t the main story, should have a lot of detail so we can picture it, and emotion so we can feel it. Otherwise, if it doesn’t impact the plot or color the character’s emotional reactions, it doesn’t need to be included.
This means, characters who obsess about their problems or themselves; or casually reflect through their own biography. Try to find one specific instance that expresses the personality traits. Show your character’s personality in action/reaction, not soliloquy. *Until* they are forced to face cutting moral issues, that’s when their past, baggage, or feelings will come up in a dramatic way. When the events force them to do things they absolutely do not want to do, when they’re forced into something that brings up their fears or insecurities – that’s when they may have an emotional outburst and then maybe reflect. But the real change will happen as it’s forced, not through a thoughtful introspection.
18 Dual POV
It can be hard to tell a whole story from one POV (point of view), but there are dangers with using multiple POV.
The main thing is, try not to repeat the same scenes or information from another vantage point. Give it, the first time, in a direct way to the character who is most emotionally upset or personally invoved.
Introduction to a brand new character/POV jump… this can work with high stakes and lots of drama, tension and action. But you need to build the first story up to maximum conflict first to hook interest, and then hope your readers won’t mind putting all that on pause to build up a whole new character. It’s hard to sympathize all your main characters, and if you’re doing this for side characters or villains, it can weaken your novel by presenting all viewpoints: we’ll sympathize with everyone and then root for nobody.
19 Avoid dreams… in the beginning.
This is so common and overdone: starting with a dramatic scene and then “poof, they woke up!” it’s fake conflict. It can be great to use scenes to add vivid images later, but it needs to have context in the story, and is rarely the place to start. Dreams usually have zero stakes, so they don’t really matter.