Throwback Thursday: 7 Deadly Writing Sins
Originally published 01/11/2020
I’ve never been a huge believer in hard and fast rules for writing. Oh, sure there are techniques which general work better than others, but in general I find that authors work best if they work according to their own set of rules, and within the written work itself, it is sometimes helpful to defy conventions in a way which makes you writing stand out… to some extent.
But if you ask me, there remain some lines we should simply never cross; some crimes we can commit as authors which are just unforgivable. And so, I’ve listed a few of them here for your enjoyment and instruction.
One of the most frustrating things about writing a novel is the audience will seldom see just how much attention you’ve paid to the little details of backstory and worldbuilding. You know every character’s birthday, their favourite food, their family tree going back at least three generations, where they’ve lived and who they’ve worked for. If you are writing a fantasy novel, you will have done even more work, painstakingly realistic creating a world from scratch, including a full timeline of history leading up to the main events of your novel.
You might, therefore, want to include a two or three chapter history lecture or have your characters discussing the mechanics of your world. But don’t do it. This is info-dumping and it is boring, boring, boring with added boring.
Telling, Not Showing
Broadly speaking, there are two ways an audience can experience your fictional world, characters and the events that are taking place:
- As someone being informed about what happened, in much the same way you would if you read a newspaper.
- As a tourist visiting your fictional world, meeting your characters and experiencing events for themselves
It won’t surprise you to know, option 2 is the one you should be going for. Use all five senses and especially figurative language to draw the reader into the experience of your novel, rather than just using dry, technical descriptions.
I feel like I do nothing on this blog but rant about how important it is to have well developed characters and today is no exception. If your characters are nothing more than a name and a physical description, no one will remember who any of them are, nor will anybody care about them. Characters need depth. They need motivation, goals, conflict and a lesson to be learned. They need a meaty backstory (though don’t info-dump it on us!). They need clearly defined traits which govern how they behave. They need all the little surface details like a DOB, home town and occupation. And yes, in spite of what I’ve said, they do need a physical description too (though I would shy away from describing this in unnecessary detail).
In the same way as I want to be shown the places and events of your story, not simply read about them, I want to meet your characters as if they were living breathing people. I want to get to know them. I want to love them, hate them, care about them. Only then will your story be worth reading.
I love reading books where the author has a clear mastery of the English language. If you aspire to be the kind of writer who writes in elegant, poetic and striking ways then I take my hat off to you, because that’s the kind of thing you should be doing.
However, this does not mean you should write long winded sentences, pile up confusing metaphors or use any word other than ‘spade’ to describe a manual soil manipulator. Remember, your prose should be elegant, not sesquipedalian.
Keep it simple.
This one hardly needs any introduction. Sometimes you read a novel and you could swear you’ve read it a thousand times before.
That’s because you have. It just had a different title and someone else wrote it. For instance, how many sword and sorcery fantasy novels have you read about a young nobody who discovers he is in fact THE CHOSEN ONE referenced in some obscure prophesy? I know I’ve read a few. They are all the same. Dull, predictable, boring. And I use that only as an example, but there are many, many other fiction clichés out there across the entire genre spectrum.
While I’m on the subject, I would also be very sparing in your use of clichéd figurative language (‘as fit as a fiddle’) or clichéd sentiments in your main theme (‘love conquers all’).
Deus Ex Machina
There’s nothing worse than devoting several days or weeks to reading a novel you think is really good only to get to the end and realise the author gave up at the last hurdle. Instead of resolving the story’s main conflict in a satisfying way, he simply introduced some previously unmentioned magic, technology or (worst of all) mushy sentiment to zap the conflict away.
And the audience aren’t daft. They know why you did it.
You did it because you wrote yourself into a corner and didn’t have the foggiest clue how to get out of it, so you effectively gave up. But it gets worse. You didn’t just give up. You pretended you hadn’t given up by publishing the novel anyway, tricking everyone into thinking this story was actually heading somewhere, wasting not only your own time but also the audience’s.
The audience despise you for it, and quite frankly so do I.
Intended Audience (Lack of)
I’ve written about this before but it’s more important than a lot of people realise. Most half-decent stories will appeal to some cross-section of society or another. However even the best stories won’t appeal to everyone. If you try to please everyone, you will almost certainly please nobody, because the work you produce will have a nasty jarring quality to it like putting custard on your steak pie.
Instead, decide who your intended audience is and what they want from your novel before you start and write just for them. Don’t worry about if the rest of humanity hates what you’ve written. Write for your own intended audience and you won’t go far wrong.