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Monday, November 18, 2013

Problems that will Kill Your Story

Picture Credit: http://bittsandbytes.net/MAY_2010/05.02.10.html
This is not way intended to be an exhaustive list of everything that can be done wrong in writing. I don't think that such a list exists anywhere on the planet. And if you can make a complete list, then you'd better publish it and the rest of us can all learn from you. :)

This is going to cover just a few common problems in beginners' stories.

1. Too much backstory

This is especially a problem when the backstory shows up at the beginning of a book. If the reader really does need to understand a list of things before they will appreciate the opening scene, then maybe you have started your book in the wrong place.

No matter where backstory shows up, a tidbit at a time is generally all a reader will stomach. Paragraphs of the stuff--or even pages of it--will take away more than it adds. Find ways that fit into the story to share bits at a time. In writing, less is usually more. The fact that you could write a discourse on your characters' pasts is a good thing--that means you know your characters well. But please refrain from sharing the discourse when two sentences at the perfect time will be sufficient. 

This is like setting the scene. Just because you draw out a detailed map of a character's house (which I would recommend doing) does not mean the reader has to have a step-by-step tour. It just means that you won't get lost in that house when you're talking about your character's actions.

2. Too many scenic details

Wherever you are reading this posting, stop and look around you. If you wanted to describe every single detail perfectly, you could probably write volumes about your current setting. But guess what? It would be insanely boring! 

Readers will fill in details with things that they are familiar with--all you need to do is give them a rough outline. A word or two here and there is generally all you need to set your scene. Make sure the details you give count. If you're going to stop and talk about a specific tree that the character sees, you'd better have a reason that the tree is so important that the character stops to examine it.

The classics are generally full of descriptions that wouldn't be included today. I would never condemn them for it--I really like the classics--they just ran with different rules than we have today. But if you are using Charles Dickens as your guide in how much description your scene needs, then you are writing to an audience that lived and died quite a while ago.

3. No consideration of emotions

Think about how things affect your characters. Consider them to be real people. Do their thoughts and feelings make sense? If your character witnesses a murder on page 5, is she absorbed by her hairdo on page 7?

Feelings and emotions are motivating factors. They should drive what your character is thinking and doing. And they don't disappear just because you're ready for a new scene.

4. Unmotivated emotions

This may seem similar to the last one, but I believe it's a different category. The point is that people have reasons for their emotions. If your character is a control-freak, then please give me a reason for it. Something in his life or emotional well-being has to contribute. Once I understand why he is so afraid of being out of control, then I can appreciate his temper when things don't happen the way he wants.

This is true of any emotion, fear, or feeling. It does not always have to be because of something her parents did wrong when she was a child, but give her some basis for why she feels the way she does.

5. Every character acts/reacts the same

I talked about this one just a few weeks ago, but it bears mentioning again. Don't slide into stereotype reactions. Every teen in the world is not a rebel; every man is not insensitive; every woman is not an emotional basket-case; every murderer is not trying to reap vengeance. If your characters all react and feel the same based on their category, none of them will be genuine. 

Get to know your characters as individuals and look at their response based on who they are and their past experiences. Trust me, taking this time in the preparation stages will pay dividends once it comes time to write.

6. Specifically in childrens and young adult books, too much adult involvement

I couldn't resist this one even though it doesn't apply to much of literature. If you are writing young adult, middle grade, or any of the children's categories, then please avoid having the adults swoop in to save the day. Think Harry Potter here. Harry and his friends must be the ones to save the day even though they have limited magical experience. Even when the adults get involved, Harry and his friends are still in the major problem-solving roles. You may argue that it doesn't make sense--no adults are going to sit back and wait for a 12-year-old to save the day. That's true. But guess what? It's fiction. Find a reason for the kid to have to be the one to do it. The audience that is reading the book longs for the power to make a difference in the adult-run world where they live. They enjoy the release of seeing kids their age save the world (literally or figuratively). And admit it, you get into the books too or you wouldn't be writing them.

Speaking of adults swooping in to fix all the problems, be cautious of parental involvement in the story. You don't have to give broken homes and neglectful parents to all the kids in your book, but if half the book is about how much fun the main character has going around town with her parents, then your book is not likely to grab hold of your intended audience. This is back to the idea of independence. It's great if your main character gets along well with his parents and grandparents, but they should spend the vast majority of the book on the sidelines. The exception is that if the parents are the problem the main character is dealing with, then they should be present more.


  1. The good old "too much backstory" used to nip me. I'd rant on and on about my character's past but that came to a halting stop when my editor said that I went on FOREVER about it.
    Hopefully I managed to edit that out. I think when you're first starting out that adding a lot of backstory is okay because then you can go back and chuck it into the places that it needs to be, but don't repeat it. I read a book series where every book had the same listing about the character's pasts literally in the first chapter of every book. By the 12th is easily said that the readers KNOW why the characters act like they do, they don't need a page full of reminders.
    It's all a balance a really tough balance. :)

    1. I know what you mean. My first attempt at a book had a habit of leaving the plot to announce back story with the addition of almost every new character. Live and learn. :) But I've read your book and I can say that you have done a good job balancing back story in a way that it is a part of the plot.

  2. Excellent post! When I first wrote my MG book I had way too much back story included in the beginning. It all seemed interesting to me. Luckily, I realized through some great feedback that the back story was weighing down the story. Taking it out made such a difference! :) Now I know all the back story and snippets can come out here and there- which is much better.

    1. Adding backstory in the right increments really does seem to be an art--especially when you are in love with all you have created about the character's past.