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Forty-five more flaws that expose your lack of storytelling experience, part 3

Rookie stonecarver mistake

This is part 3 in a series of 45 common writing mistakes which mark a writer as a rookie. If you’re new to the series, here’s part 1. Parts 1 and 2 covered the first 18 mistakes. Here, then are mistakes 19 through 27:

19. Imbalanced dialogue attributions. I talked in part 2 about problems with tagging, and I should have thought to mention this problem with dialogue attribution along with it. The mistake lies in not finding the right balance between too many and too few attributions. If you put a “Jane said” on every single line of dialogue, that’s overkill. Similarly, not providing any attributions is also bad. The trick that often trips up rookie writers is that different kinds of conversations require different levels of attribution.

A typical conversation is between two characters. Theoretically, if you let us know who began the conversation, we ought to be able to track the entire rest of it by relying on the fact that people take turns when speaking. True in theory, but in practice you should add extra attributions if dialogue is interrupted by some substantial amount of narration, if there is a pause in the conversation, or once every few lines of dialogue in long, uninterrupted stretches of talk. An atypical conversation involves more than two people. Movies and TV shows have no problem with this, because we can see who’s talking. But in books, you can’t rely on the characters to take turns in any predictable order. In a novel, unless each character’s voice is so amazingly distinctive as to be unmistakable, you pretty much have to attribute everything.

20. Confusing names. In real life, you probably know dozens of people named John, Anne, Steve, and other such common names. In real life, sometimes that causes confusion. I’ve caught clients actually giving different characters the same name, and since they’re just people in a book and all we really have to go by are those names, it can be incredibly confusing. But fiction is not real life. In fiction, you have the luxury of keeping the names of all your significant characters distinct. So do that. Help your readers out by keeping the names of all your characters different. Ideally, try to keep the first letters of their names unique, and avoid pairs of names that have similar rhythm and cadence. Don’t give us “Taylor” and “Tucker,” for example. We’re bound to mix them up because they sound so much alike.

21. Explaining the magic. This one relates to fantasy and sci-fi, genres that contain outright magic or technology which, to us, may as well be magic. The rookie writer errs in thinking that he needs to justify the magic to the reader in order for the reader to accept the premise of the book. Not so. It turns out you get one suspension-of-disbelief for free, concerning the element of your premise which is most central. Readers will accept that one gratis, because without it, there’s no story. Need magic or faster-than-light travel in your story? Great. Put it there. You don’t need an explanation of why it works because we all understand that such stories are “what if” explorations as much as anything else. Don’t try to make us believe in the magic because of some arbitrary and mysterious connection between a person’s strong emotions and the fundamental forces of nature. Don’t try to make us believe in how your faster-than-light travel works on the basis of some Star Trek-like paragraph of techno-babble. Just leave it out.

If you’re still not convinced, let me give you a case study. What was the ONE thing fans hated most about the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace? Other than Jar-Jar Binks, anyway. It was that whole ridiculous business with midichloreans as an explanation for what makes The Force work. Partly, it was an eye-rollingly stupid explanation. But mostly, it was entirely unnecessary. We already bought into The Force as part of the Star Wars universe back in 1977! Back in the original Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan gave us a perfectly satisfactory, short explanation of what The Force is, but said nothing about how it works. We then saw him use the force, and teach Luke how to use it. That’s enough. We bought into it just fine. I have no idea what part of George Lucas’s otherwise fine storytelling brain went insane in the 22 years between those two movies, but jeez, that whole midichlorean business was a travesty.

Don’t explain the magic.

22. Thesaurus writing. Stephen King once said:

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

That’s pretty much right. If your story gives us “Chester MacPhearson was widely regarded as the finest sartorial mind in all of England,” rather than “Chester MacPhearson was well known as the best tailor in all of England,” we’re going to know you’re trying too hard to impress us with your big words. Words like “sartorial” stick out, by virtue of their uncommon usage in general, as something that probably didn’t come naturally to you. They reveal you to us, at the expense of the story.

“But wait,” you say, “what if ‘sartorial’ fits the voice of the story?” A fair point, in which case use it, by all means. But if it does in fact fit the voice of the story, if you get to that line in the story and it just feels right to use ‘sartorial mind’ rather than ‘tailor,’ then I’ll wager that you didn’t have to look it up in a thesaurus in the first place.

23. Infodumps. So I harped on backstory infodumps in the previous installment of this series, and someone pointed out “well what about infodumps generally?” They’re exactly right. Cold, lifeless, expository blocks of information dumped into the middle of your story just suck. Let’s not mince words, right? Just as with backstory infodumps, they kill your pacing by bringing the story to a crashing halt. With backstory infodumps, the information being dumped is all about the characters. The rookie mistake here is to do it for non-character related information as well. Often this includes world-building (e.g. “The land of Faerieken lay nestled between adjacent mountain ranges, some twenty days ride north of the human lands of Manniken, blah blah blah..."), and information relating to the setup of the story’s core conflict (e.g. “The fair folk of Faerieken lived in fear of invasion by the men of the south, ever since that dark time aeons ago when Faerielord Elgorn Leafhaven had denied the man-king’s impudent demands for magical favors. The two races had been at war ever since.")

But weirdly enough, as often as not the infodump will contain some kind of random technical or historical tidbit that is utterly irrelevant to the story. For techno/spy thrillers, you’ll get ridiculously detailed specs for the firearms—rate of fire, magazine size, ammunition caliber, et cetera. In historicals, you might be subjected to the architectural history of a building before the characters are allowed to actually go inside it in order to have a scene. One time—and I’m absolutely not kidding you on this—I saw a client include the history of the ice in somebody’s glass. Really. I couldn’t even make that up if I tried.

In both cases, just cut this stuff, ok? Readers will thank you. The world-building and conflict setup information is important, but just as with backstory information, don’t give it to us all at once. Dribble it out a little bit at a time. The irrelevant stuff, it’s just a waste of space.

24. Formless void syndrome. This is a failure to sufficiently present the physical space in which a scene takes place. The rookie mistake here is forgetting that readers can’t just see what’s in your head. Seems obvious when put like that, I know, but it happens. This is a particularly acute problem for rookies who are trying to open a book in media res (which is just fancy writer-talk for “in the middle of some kind of action"). It’s doubly problematic when the scene takes place in some kind of location that is unfamiliar to readers in their daily lives. Again, fantasy and sci-fi writers, watch out, because you face this issue more than most.

I’ll get manuscripts from rookie writers where I can tell you who the people in the scene are. I can name their actions. And yet I still don’t have enough to contextualize those actions into a holistic picture of what’s actually going on. It feels like the characters are in a formless void, and doesn’t create the kind of engaging, high excitement opening the writer is going for. In media res is a great technique when it works, but it isn’t always possible to pull it off, and the less familiar the setting is to your readers the harder it’s going to be.

25. Insensitivity to connotation. Words have two layers of meaning. You’ve got the surface meaning, which is what you’ll find in the dictionary. Linguists call this the denotation of a word. Then there are the extra, hidden, social-convention meanings that aren’t written down in the dictionary. In terms of our nuanced understanding of language, these are no less real than their codified counterparts. Linguists call this second layer the connotation of a word. Where the rookie writer will make a mistake is to use a word that is appropriate for its denotation, but inappropriate for its connotation. You must consider both.

Take a nice simple word like “snack.” The dictionary’s going to tell us that this means, “a small portion of food eaten between mealtimes.” Fine. But what extra meanings does “snack” carry with it? Softer, more slippery concepts like a notion of casualness, of food that is ready-made or minimally prepared, potentially of being eaten in haste, et cetera. Whether “snack” is the right word for a given scene depends on whether these connotations match the tone of the scene. I recall once a manuscript in which the protagonist was attempting to make his way out of the wilderness alone, with very limited food supplies at his disposal. There was a spot in the manuscript where the character had “a snack” of venison jerky. It felt wrong, because “snack” connotes casualness (among other things), and in that situation the character’s treatment of food was anything but casual. Food was a precious resource to that character in that situation, not to be consumed casually. A snack, when you think about it, is as much eaten for its entertainment value as for its food value. It totally clashed with the scene. Easy fix: a “mouthful” of venison jerky instead. That word has a connotation of specific quantity, and thus, of carefulness and self-restraint. Qualities that protagonist was surely going to need if he was to escape his situation.

26. Anachronistic language. This is when a writer uses language that does not feel like it is in keeping with the time and place of the story. Writers of historicals suffer from this, when they let overly modern turns of phrase slip into their characters’ speech. Let us imagine three eligible young ladies taking tea in a Victorian-era manor; one of them snubs another with some catty remark. The victim becomes flustered, and dashes out of the room. The third one then says “Alice, you bitch! That was a really mean thing to say!” It just feels wrong, doesn’t it? That’s not how people talked back then.

On the flip side, a contemporary story that has a character using dated slang ("groovy, man") is going to feel the same way, unless done for specific effect. Still, it’s rookie historical writers who suffer from this the most. Indeed, one of the hardest things in that genre is scrubbing both your dialogue and your narrative of overly modern language.

27. Improper earth idioms. I should come up with a better name for this one, but for now “improper earth idioms” will have to do. This is another one that plagues fantasy novelists, and lately, sometimes steampunk too. The rookie mistake is to accidentally break your world-building by using idioms that are clearly derived from our own real world, Earth-based history. Start paying attention to the little descriptive phrases in our language. When you do, you’ll be amazed at how many of them derive from something that is (presumably) unique to the Earth.

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” “He’s as timid as a mouse.” “She’s a raven-haired beauty.” “Give him an inch, and he’ll take a mile.” We all know exactly what these things mean, because we live here, on Frank Borman’s Good Earth, and we’re used to them. But why should your characters, who grew up on some other world, necessarily know what a penny, a mouse, a raven, an inch, or a mile even are? These phrases stick out to the reader as being wrong for the world of the story.

For the cliche type idioms like “timid as a mouse,” well, they’re cliches and you shouldn’t be using them anyway. Have your beta readers flag them for you, and re-write them into something that derives from your world’s extended backstory. For units of measure both Metric and English, beware. These are notorious for sneaking past our writerly language-filters. I suggest explicitly searching your manuscript for all the common time, length, and weight measures. You’ve got two strategies for dealing with them. One, as before, render them in whatever units of measure are used in the world of your story. However, this can often end up feeling unnatural, if readers get the suspicion that you just renamed “feet” to something else. Better, much of the time, is simply to avoid any kind of specific measurement. After all, does it really matter if the reader doesn’t know exactly how big something is, how far away, et cetera? Probably not. Write the descriptions of these things such that we get a general sense for the measurement, and that’s good enough.

Oh, and for a great example of how to do it right, check out D.M. Cornish’s amazing Monster Blood Tattoo series. For all you world-builders out there, this is one to study for its masterful example of world building done through non-Earth language. Great story, too.

Got a favorite rookie mistake of your own? Share it in the comments.

< Back to part 2 | On to part 4 >

August 12, 2011 22:06 UTC

Tags: writing, writing mistakes, rookie, D.M. Cornish

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Posted by Terry Odell on August 12, 2011 22:53 UTC

A LOT of meat in this one (although nobody seemed to mind that Robert B. Parker tagged pages and pages of dialogue — just shows how invisible “said” is.)

And word usage — sometimes a door is a door and calling it a portal is worse than repeating the word door.


Posted by Jason Black on August 12, 2011 23:07 UTC

“Sometimes a door is a door.” Heh. Freud would be proud. :)

Yeah, “said” is pretty invisible, and you’re right, most of the time it’s not going to bother anybody. But if you are attributing that much, and someone does happen to notice, then I’d bet for that reader it’s going to become a bother pretty fast.

That’s the thing: until somebody notices, any linguistic tic like that is harmless. But once someone does notice, it’s game over. And as a writer, the only control you have over when and whether anybody notices is to not have those tics in the first place. Or at the very least, to heavily police them before you let the manuscript out into the world.

Posted by WRH Soland on August 12, 2011 23:26 UTC

I hear you on #27. I’ve been watching a lot of original series Star Trek recently, and for some reason, time is measured in days, hours, minutes, and seconds based on Earth’s rotation around the sun. And this isn’t just internal to the ship, either. Aliens from across the galaxy seem to have standardized their timekeeping based on the solar day.

I hear you on #26, too. I recently wrote something set in present day where a character discovered an excerpt from a journal written during the US Civil War. It was integral to the plot, but I’m not a linguistic historian and it really slowed me down, double checking the origins of words like “pistol,” and suffixes like “-ish".

Posted by Esther Sparhawk on August 13, 2011 19:48 UTC

Mr. Black, yours was probably my favorite class at the PNWA summer conference. I’m ashamed to say I was expecting your presentation to contain much of the same old-hat writerly tips and scattered presentational methods that other classes offered (i.e. not enough handouts, couldn’t get the projector to work, rude criticisms of audience members who foolishly offered up snippets of their writing), but to my pleasant surprise, yours was the one I talked about most after the event was over.

And what did I have to say about your class? Well organized. Humorous. Thought-provoking. Inspirational. I absolutely loved it.

Having taught English for the past 18 years, I’m sort of critical when other people take the podium. Let’s face it, a good WRITER does not necessarily make a good TEACHER. You, however, have the gift. Thank you for sharing your insight with us, in such a polite, well-organized, and interesting fashion.

Incidentally, my educational blog will post the notes from your class on August 19th under the heading, “Journal Online". I believe you can click on my name above this comment to access my blog.

Posted by Jason Black on August 14, 2011 20:07 UTC


Why thank you! You’re going to make me blush. :) I ought to link that comment to my testimonial page.

I’m so glad you enjoyed my presentations. As you surmise, I’m not big on same-old same-old advice. To me, what’s important is ferreting out exactly why and how narrative fiction works, and what makes it not work. That’s what I want to help people understand.

Posted by Esther Sparhawk on August 15, 2011 16:40 UTC

No blushing necessary. It’s the truth.

If you do decide to include my comment on your “testimonial” page, a link to my educational blog would be appreciated (though it isn’t required). Thanks.

Posted by Frederick Fuller on August 29, 2011 17:15 UTC

Another SF author who created wonderful worlds using original terms is Frank Herbert in his “Dune” series.

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