Common fiction-writing mistakes


I read a lot of advice on how to write but more often than not, it’s never in the same place. It’s frustrating but I guess a bit obvious – everyone has a different idea of what works for them and if we had a definitive article, then everyone else would have to stop writing theirs or maybe that would be called a book? So, here’s my list of useful writing tips from a variety of sources (attributed and linked back to the authors and source material).

1. When planning your story’s structure, start with this no-fail method: Create a Doorway of No Return for your protagonist before the 1/5 mark of your book. Everything leading up to that doorway should, well, lead up to that doorway. Look at your own novel-in-progress:

  • Have you given us a character with following?
  • Have you created a disturbance for that character in the opening pages?
  • Have you established the stakes (the higher the better) for the story?
  • Have you created a scene that will force the character into the conflict/confrontation central to the plot?
  • Is that scene strong enough—to the point that your character cannot resist walking through that doorway (or has no choice but to do so)?

From James Scott Bell’s article “The Two Pillars of Novel Structure” featured in the January 2013 Writer’s Digest.)


2. At the beginning of your story, include minimal backstory.

Including backstory in the opening pages is the same as saying to the reader, ‘Wait a minute—hold on. Before I tell you the story, first there’s something about these characters and this situation that you need to know.’

In actuality, there’s very little readers need to know about our characters’ history and motivations that they won’t learn over the course of the book. Interrupting our story to tell the reader about something that happened *before* it began works against the very thing we’re trying so hard to accomplish: engaging the readers and sweeping them up into the world of our novel.

I love showing authors how they’re unwittingly sabotaging their stories up front and then watching their light bulbs go off, because the problem has such an easy fix: All they have to do is isolate the instances of unnecessary backstory, and take them out.

By Karen Dionne, in her article “Weaving a Seamless Backstory,”

(Ellen – I’ve read elsewhere that the first 50 pages of a novel shouldn’t contain ANY backstory).


3. Make sure you have a solid structure (by Victoria Mixon).

This is the biggest reason manuscripts get rejected. You’re telling a wonderful, powerful, gripping, complex story… but you’re the only person who actually knows that. Everyone else sees a long, rambling, uneven tale of various events happening to various characters. Why? What makes these things happen? And, most important to your reader, why are you telling us this?

Every novel needs a focus. What’s your point? What is it that you want the reader to know? That focus is your Climax, the one part your story simply could not do without. “I died of romanticism.” “I almost got et by a whale.” “I pretty nearly wrecked my life being a selfish grinch.”

At the same time, every novel needs a really good reason for the reader to care. That’s your Hook. The reader may have picked your book up for its snazzy cover, but you desperately need them not to put it down.

And every novel needs a series of intriguing, hair-raising, addictive events carrying the reader from the Hook to the Climax. You could just tell us the Climax. “The butler did it.” But long fiction is all about the wonderful, rollicking adventure building upon why that matters.

The hardest thing for aspiring writers to believe is that all this is holographic: what’s essential for the novel is also essential for the chapter, episode, even scene. Every single one of them needs a Climax, Hook, and some type of events leading from one to the other.

Read that again. Every single one.

4. Develop your characters (by Victoria Mixon).

This point can be difficult for the aspiring writer to grasp, because it just involves so darn much time. You know these characters! They’ve been coming to you in your dreams for years! Everything they do and say on the page makes perfect sense. How could it not be obvious?

I’m sorry. It’s not.

The craft of fiction is the craft of telepathy, of projecting the characters who are so much a part of your life and heart into the lives and hearts of total strangers. In order to do that, you need to spend an extraordinary amount of time getting to know them—not just their statistical data (although that’s a good start), but deep, complicated, intangible, detailed knowledge of them as living, breathing, suffering, contrasting individuals. You need to know their mannerisms, gestures, and expressions. You need to know their foibles, misconceptions, paradoxical needs. And, most of all, you need to know what they’re hiding from themselves.

Because how that comes to light is your story.

4. Polish that prose (by Victoria Mixon).

You simply have to learn how to write clearly. I know—no one can line edit their own work. This is true, and it sucks. But everyone can learn to write more clearly than they do.
Simple syntax: subject-verb. Simple rhythms: subtle variations on a few short sentences and a long, or a few longs and a short. Building and falling tension. Proper grammar and punctuation. Details that matter, both big to encompass atmosphere and tiny to create three-dimensional images.

Classic language is simple language. The reader’s pleasure lies not in the effort you put into a trumpeting voice, but in how invisible you make the words, just how close you can get to telepathy.

It lies in how your story rises up through all that clarity—a treasure surfacing from deep water.

Can you add any others? Feel free to add your own in the comments below.

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