Writing fiction is a funny old game. There are so many rules and conventions that you must absolutely never break, unless of course you want to break them . It can be difficult to know for sure if there really are any hard and fast rules for writing than are universally applicable and must never, ever be broken, even if you as the author think it’s justified.
Nevertheless, there are some mistakes you can make which will almost invariably drag your pace to crawl, bore your readers to tears and perhaps even upset or anger some. If you’re writing a story, I’d suggest that you avoid the following:
When a reader reads your book, they are stepping into an imaginary world of your creation. They will meet people who do not really exist doing things that have never really happened.
You’ve got to bring all this stuff to life in your reader’s mind using nothing but words. You need to make sure, therefore, that your characters are distinctive and portrayed in a way which brings them to life. Names and cosmetic descriptions alone will not suffice for this. Backstory; personality types; hopes and dreams; fears and pet peeves; distinctive voice and clearly established motives and goals all go into making characters who really stand out as believable people. Click here for more on constructing vivid characters.
In a similar way to characters, your story’s setting must be brought to life in the imagination of your reader using only words. A vague setting will create the sense that the action is taking place in a vacuum. The characters might be walking about, but they go from nowhere to nowhere. They might be doing stuff, but they are interacting with a non-existant world. This can lead the reader to completely lose track of what’s going on in the story, as they struggle to to envisage if they are even supposed to be outdoors or indoors.
Moreover, setting helps to establish mood. Imagine if the famous ‘I am your father’ scene from Star Wars had been set in a fertile meadow on a bright spring morning instead of over a sheer drop at the heart of the Death Star. It would’ve spoiled the mood, right?
So remember, whenever you write a scene to consider the five human senses. What does the place look like? What sounds can you hear? What can you smell? Now you have your setting!
The thing about fiction is the reader comes at each story afresh. The reader knows nothing of your backstory, your characters or anything else you have created from your own imagination. This is especially true in high fantasy (though it can happen in any genre), where the entire world is made up from scratch.
But you need your reader to know all this stuff, so it can be very tempting to pile on the info in a long-winded, clinical sort of way. E.g.: ‘Madeupland was once a mighty empire spanning eleven continents, all the way to the Dragonsea. After the civilian revolts of 1203, the empire was fractured, and many kings arose to rule small communities throughout the Empire. King Sumwun, the forth child of a blacksmith, rose to prominence in the Wher’er District, wresting power from the legitimate governor seven years ago…’
I got bored writing that. You can bet your life your reader will bore reading it. Weave the facts through your story and allow your reader to become acquainted with your world by spending time living in it and experiencing it through the eyes of your character, rather than giving them a lecture.
Low Stakes or No Stakes
Reading a book takes time and your readers are busy people. They won’t sit through a 90,000 word novel unless they care about what happens, so be sure to raise the stakes a bit. If you write a story in which failure or taking no action is an option for your protagonist, it really won’t be worth the reader’s time reading it.
High stakes doesn’t necessarily mean the entire universe is in danger of destruction or that an evil sorcerer will take over the world (though those motifs are popular for a reason; the stakes are high). It could be as simple as Bob being secretly in love with Betty but now Johnny Sparklepants has proposed to her and she’s ‘thinking about it.’
Boom! There you go, high stakes! Without Johnny’s proposition, Bob’s story about secretly loving Betty would be stagnant and boring. But now Bob’s about to lose the love of his life if he doesn’t act quickly and decisively. Make sure your protagonist is facing some kind of crisis, where inaction is not an option and failure would spell disaster.
So you’ve got something important you want to say with your story: a real life theme you’re passionate about, with a core belief you want your audience to understand and perhaps even accept for themselves.
Good for you. I’m all for that. But you need to be careful not to make your audience feel preached at. That can feel patronising, even if the audience happens to agree with your message. It will also drag the pace of your story to a slow crawl if you’re constantly detouring into political, religious or ethical treatise. ‘Instead,’ to quote myself, ‘focus on telling the story. Make it as true as you can and fill it with believable, sympathetic characters to whom your reader can relate. They’ll start to understand what it’s like to be in that position and will begin to think. And that’s all you can hope to accomplish as a writer: provoke thought.’
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Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlight, drop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.
I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.
You can check out our previous interviews here:
- Sharleen Nelson, author of The Time Tourists 
- D. Wallace Peach, author of the Shattered Sea duology 
- Jacob Klop, author of Crooked Souls