Is there anything worse than reading a story for two hundred pages only to have it fall flat at the climax? There sure is (though, that is also really awful). In fact, there are about a zillion oh-nos! Okay, maybe not a zillion, but there’s a healthy amount of them, so let’s talk about a few.
You think to yourself, I’m writing a romance so of course, they have to end up together in the end, right? But the question you should be asking yourself is: how do they end up together in the end?
The problem is that we get so used to tropes within the genres we write in that we sometimes think that there is a tried and true formula to how the story should unfold, but the truth is that fiction is fabulous in its ability to have a fun story that follows tropes while being unique in its own right. We learn about genre tropes because our readers come to our stories with certain expectations, but there is nothing that says we have to follow every single one. In fact, it’s more fun for the readers to see a trope in a fresh way; one that makes them think or one that feels relatable.
In other words, don’t limit yourself. Keep things fun, and keep them true to the story you promised to tell your reader from chapter 1.
2. Bad Guys:
The moment we’ve all been waiting for is finally here. The hero and the villain are in the middle of a real confrontation. And the villain takes a deep breath so that he can tell us all of his evil plans! Whahahaha.
Oh no! Please don’t make a boring bad guy.
Think about your favorite villain. Do you like them because they revealed all of their evil plans? Nope. You like them because they’ve got a depth to them that makes them interesting to read about. They have their own motivation, moral code, and most importantly, the hero is in their way.
The other extreme to this is making a bad guy that is totally evil for the sake of being evil. Now, there is certainly a place for villains like this (horror, I’m looking at you), but usually, the bad guys that make us want to hate them are the ones we remember. The ones that we can sympathize with (even if we wouldn’t take things that far) are the ones we sort-of want to root for even though the hero is likable. They create a kind of conflict within us that keeps us on our toes.
3. Lack of Conflict:
Another word for this is tension. You see, tension is the thing that keeps the story’s pacing alive. It’s the reason that the reader keeps turning the page instead of going to sleep for the night. If every problem has a nice, tidy and quick solution your reader is going to book your book down and never pick it up again.
The trick here is to introduce us to a problem, then complicate it, then complicate it again and again. Oh, and feel free to throw in other problems. Your main character shouldn’t have things too easy in their fictional world. By the time the reader reaches the climax of the story, the problem should feel insurmountable (or at least really, really hard to solve).
Keep in mind that tension doesn’t just come from your story problem. It can come from character relationships, situational issues, etc. Whatever the source, keep building the tension so that your protagonist has to change to overcome the problems thrown their way.
4. Bland Characters:
Heros are always good. Damsels are always in distress. Villains are always bad.
You cringed reading that line, didn’t you? Yeah, me too. Because it’s not true in real life or in fiction. Characters need depth. It’s one of the main reasons we’re drawn into the stories. Otherwise, we’d all chat with our kitchen tables and feel fulfilled.
Think about the things that make people people. We have flaws, goals, dreams, etc. We have foods we hate, reasons for our quirks (thanks mom), and things we’re obsessed with. Your characters should feel the same. Think about what motivates them to go after their story goal, and think about what kinds of flaws you can introduce that complicate the path to their goal. Now, you’re on your way to having a more relatable character.
5. Telling Instead of Showing:
Talk about cliches, right? How many times have you heard this writing advice? About a million times? There’s a good reason for that.
It’s so easy to say Jane was mad at Tim. It’s efficient and we understand exactly what you’re trying to say. But, dear friend, this is fiction. Your reader wants to see those kick-butt wizard-level word skills of yours, so spice it up. Instead of telling us she’s mad, show us she’s mad. Which means you need to understand how your character works from the inside out.
For example, my grandma is the cutest lady. She also has the patience of a saint, seriously. But when she gets mad, and she does, she’s feisty.
- Cliches: Don’t use the same turn of phrase you would if you were chatting with a friend. Try something new.
- No sense of setting: If you want us to see where the character ends, we have to understand where they started. Setting can absolutely be physical, but it can also be emotional. Keep that in mind as you introduce us to your character.
- Being wordy: You will get no extra stars from modern readers for your best Charles Dickins impression. Say it in fewer words.
- Description lists: Why yes, my room has a desk, chair, window, several house plants, carpet, two bookshelves stuffed with books, loads of post-its sprawled across the wall, and a sleeping cat, but you don’t care about any of that stuff. You want to get a sense of my space without the actual list of items in the room. The readers want the same, so choose a couple of things to mention. Bonus points if they are things the character would actually notice and not things you, the author, thought to mention.
- Dialogue tags: He raged. She swooned. He growled. She yawned. AH! Don’t do it! Keep with he said/she said, and this is why. Your reader won’t notice these, even if you use them a trillion times. They will absolutely stumble over your fancy dialogue tags. Keep the dialogue tags simple, and for the love leave the adverbs alone at least 98% of the time. A well placed “he said curtly” goes a long way unless you add an adverb after every “said.”
If you want to laugh while learning more about common mistakes, check out one of my favorite books: How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid them by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
There are plenty more don’ts in the fiction-writing process. The trick is to learn what they are and why they don’t work so that you can tell a story the best way you can. Keep learning, and keep writing.
Happy writing, friends.