Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
I won’t presume to say I know the 10 or 25 most common fiction writing mistakes of all writers of all time, but I will give you a list of those mistakes that I see again and again.
I’ve covered this topic to some degree before, but since writers diligently seek ways to eliminate the most egregious errors from their work before others read those works, I’ll point out the errors that I’m seeing these days in the hope that the list—and the sampling of fixes for each mistake—will be helpful. The total came to a perfectly imperfect double dirty dozen. And the article is a long one. My apologies. Read it at your leisure and use it for reference. And please don’t try to work on all the mistakes listed here at one time. Some have quick fixes while others deserve and require more time and attention.
There’s no rank or order to the list. And while I’m pointing these out as mistakes, keep in mind that what may be a weakness for most stories can be finessed into a strength. That is, you might want to play up what is typically regarded as a writing mistake, turn it inside out, and make it work for your story.
For the most part, however, you won’t want to include these kinds of mistakes in your fiction. They weaken stories and can identify the writer who uses them as an inexperienced beginner. While you do have to begin somewhere, your stories have to compete with the stories of experienced writers. Give your work all the advantages you can. Your stories can sound fresh and new; they shouldn’t sound amateurish.
To compete with experienced authors, bring a product worthy of competition. This means cutting out the common mistakes of beginning writers.
And lest you think the competition for readers has eased because of self- and e-publishing, I’ll remind you that there’s even more competition now. There are more stories out there capable of capturing the reader’s time and money. Give yourself every marketplace advantage. Eliminating common errors before you submit to agent or publisher or before you e-publish with Smashwords or Amazon or some other group gives you one advantage. A great big healthy one. Use it.
Common Writing Mistakes of fiction writers
~ Writing reports rather than scenes. I see this one frequently. The writer mistakes writing about events in report form for writing scenes that engage both characters and readers. If you’ve been accused of telling rather than showing, if the story is all in your character’s thoughts rather than playing out in real time on the page, your fiction may be more report than story.
Fix: Write scenes. This means characters doing something (including talking) in an established or identifiable place and time (setting). Think interaction—characters using props and responding to other characters. Think motion. Show cause and effect, stimulus and response. Think real-time unfolding of events. Cut back on narrative summary and exposition.
~ Writing boring dialogue. Writers can forget that dialogue should raise the conflict level as well as advance the story. Dialogue that’s bland, too agreeable, or too complete doesn’t create conflict.
Fix: Write in incomplete sentences. Have characters deliberately not answer or answer a question that’s not asked. Have characters lie. Make characters interrupt one another. Write fictional dialogue that seems real and not real conversations that seem contrived.
~ Using clichés and common phrases. This is in place of fresh wording or phrases specific to a particular story and its characters. While I’m suggesting you use words and phrases that are peculiar to your characters, I’m also talking about removing clichés and banal phrases that could be found in any story. Rather than make your story sound familiar or stale, make it sound new.
Fix: Cut all clichés unless one is exceptionally apt or a character is prone to using them. Substitute your own words for common phrases that you’d find in any and every novel. Cut common three-and four-word phrases that add nothing to the action, tone, or emotion of the moment and that aren’t needed for rhythm. One tip is to root out unnecessary prepositional phrases—at this moment (time), under these circumstances, the master bedroom down the hallway.
~ Turning characters into taking heads. This happens when the writer fails to include setting details, character movements, and character interaction with props from the setting. If your characters talk non-stop, without pausing to move in or interact with the setting, you’re essentially presenting readers with bodiless talking heads. While not every section of dialogue must be interrupted by character actions or movement (that creates a new problem), you don’t want readers having to wonder where the characters are or what they’re doing. You should make that apparent.
Fix: Interrupt dialogue with character movement, including quirks and habits that reveal personality and motions that reveal emotion, and have characters connect with objects from the setting.
~ Omitting sensory details. Both characters and readers have senses—put that knowledge to work for your fiction. Omitting the sense element can leave your stories flat, unable to compete with real-world distractions. Give characters sounds and sights to respond to. Show what scents move them. Have the feel of objects and the touch of other characters mean something to them. Characters who react to sensory elements seem real. And their reactions help ensnare the reader, give them shared experiences.
Fix: Add something of the senses, beyond what a character sees, to each scene. Give your main character a link to a particular sense. Perhaps she has an overly sensitive sense of smell or hearing. Perhaps physical touch moves her beyond the norm. Use a variety of sense references but make each fit your characters and the genre and the unfolding plot.
~ Failing to push or increase conflict. Some writers shy away from conflict, even with imaginary people. But conflict is one of the primary elements of fiction. Your main character should face conflict, should instigate conflict. Conflict should be of varying levels and come from multiple sources. And the level of conflict should increase as the story advances.
Fix: Add conflict to dialogue. Create friction between even the best of friends. Look for ways to set your main character at odds with others, whether that means a simple difference of opinion or a major difference in philosophy. Even when there’s agreement about a problem, characters could disagree about the course of action needed to solve the problem. Also, give your lead character conflicts within himself. Make sure there is some kind of conflict in every scene.
~ Failing to vary the pace. Stories should not maintain the same pace or same intensity throughout. Readers should instead feel an escalation toward some climax. The failure to pick up the pace and/or push the emotional stakes as the story heads toward the climax is a mistake I often see.
If, at about two-thirds of the way into the story, the reader isn’t anticipating the ending, isn’t feeling that something’s about to break open, you haven’t upped the pace and begun to push the emotions. It’s not that you don’t vary pace and introduce emotions earlier as well, but the reader should feel the difference as the story heads toward the showdown. What’s at stake for the character, both losses and gains, should be greater. The story should feel as if it’s moving to an inescapable conclusion. Readers should both think that the lead character can’t stop until he solves his problems and feel that they themselves can’t put the book down until they discover what ultimately happens.
Fix: Starting at about the midpoint of the story, begin to up the stakes for the characters. Introduce more problems and at the same time shorten the time available to fix them. Show the emotional toll the adventure is taking on the main character and then add more that will challenge his emotions further. As the story’s climax approaches, speed the pace by writing less fluid sentences and/or sentences of shorter length. Make paragraphs and chapters shorter. Put more white space on a page. Cut rambling dialogue and make each word count.
The ending should be a natural outcome of the story’s opening, but you need to give the ending half of your story a different feel in terms of consequences. Infuse character actions and words with importance as the story approaches the end. See what’s happening at the two-thirds mark. If the story and emotions are not yet moving—if the pace hasn’t started to pick up—go back to the midpoint and make some changes.
~ Misusing flashbacks and back story. No matter how often they’re counseled against the practice, many new writers still introduce flashbacks and back story too soon and use them too often. Readers can’t get immersed in the present story if a flashback is included in the first couple of pages or if back story is dumped onto the page in clumps or introduced too soon. Flashbacks by definition stop the forward motion of a story. If you need one, introduce it after the current story is well underway and the main character and his problem are introduced. Establish the unfolding story before yanking the reader out and into something incidental. Back story can be beneficial to reveal character motivation and necessary history, but it should serve the true story, not be a substitute for story events. It shouldn’t take over. That means back story shouldn’t get more page time than current story events.
Fix: Take out any flashback that’s in the first chapter; make the story’s present work without it. Immerse readers in the current story—hook them—before distracting them with side issues. Get them involved with what’s happening now before giving them what happened then.
Use flashbacks sparingly. Use other ways of introducing character motivation and history. Present important revelations from the past via a single line or two of back story rather than using full flashbacks. But be miserly with back story as well. Think of it as spice, not a side dish and certainly not the main meal. Also, when characters go into flashbacks or think about the past, provide a stimulus for their thoughts. That is, don’t have them thinking about the past with no prodding. Show the reader what induces the memories. Make flashbacks fit seamlessly into the current story, as if they belong.
~ Giving readers too much time in a character’s head. I definitely see this one a lot, especially in first-person narration, though it’s not unknown in third-person POV. Rather than showing action or putting the emphasis on what’s going on around the character, the writer who keeps us in a character’s head filters everything through the character. The reader is told what the character hears instead of merely hearing for himself. Symptoms of this mistake include phrasing such as I heard a footstep rather than A heavy foot found the squeaky third floorboard.
Fix: Search for I in first-person stories and he/she thought, felt, heard, saw, noticed, and so on in third-person stories. Make changes if too much emphasis is placed on the character rather than on the actions or events themselves.
~ Explaining too much or too often. Unless readers can’t possibly catch on without help, writers shouldn’t be explaining dialogue or actions. Tip-offs for explanations are phrases such as “so as to” and “in order to” and “as if.” If you find yourself writing sentences such as He peeked through the blinds to see who was inside the room or He said it with a little-boy voice so she wouldn’t take it too hard, you’ll want to make changes. Readers are smart—let them read intent and meaning into actions and dialogue.
Fix: Don’t explain. Make the action and dialogue convey the message. Search for words that introduce explanation and then rewrite.
~ Using wacky grammar. Dangling and misplaced modifiers, absolute phrases that don’t make sense, and present participles showing simultaneous actions that should be sequential are some of the common grammar mistakes I see often. Yes, sometimes these are hard to identify in our own writing, but you should catch most on a read-thru from the hard copy. If you don’t know what these terms are, take a moment to look them up. I’ll provide brief examples.
Dangling Modifier: Powering down the court, the basketball popped out of his hands. This is wrong because the subject should be he—Powering down the court, he lost the basketball or He powered down the court, and the basketball popped out of his hands.
Absolute Phrase format used incorrectly: She sang about ballet shoes and tutus, the sun going down. The sun going down is not appropriate for an absolute phrase because it doesn’t expand the first part of the sentence nor narrow the focus onto one part of it. What would work—She sang about ballet shoes and tutus, her music playing loudly from the speakers or The sun having gone down, the night air grew quickly cold.
Present Participle used incorrectly: Racing her horse through the park, she skipped into the restroom to wash her face. While she’s actively riding the horse, this character can’t also skip, on her own two feet, into the restroom. The two actions should be written so they’re sequential, or the character needs an action she can perform as she’s racing. So both of these work: Racing her horse through the park, she pondered her step-mother’s ultimatum or After racing her horse through the park, she skipped into the restroom to wash her face.
Fix: Proofread your work so you can find and change these kinds of grammar errors. Look carefully at present participles, especially at the beginning of sentences. They’re often problem phrases. Not only do you want to correct them, but you also want to make sure they’re not used too often to begin sentences. Think variety in sentence construction. Also, since the format and rhythm for absolute phrases stand out, don’t overuse absolute phrases.
~ Repeating words. Sometimes a writer has a favorite word that shows up a couple of times on a page. On every page. Other times an unusual word, one that calls attention to itself, gets too much play in a story. Even if it’s only used half a dozen times in a novel, a word such as farctate is going to stand out. The reader will notice—and be at least momentarily distracted. Intended repetition can be powerful. Unintended repetition can be annoying.
Fix: Proofread for repetition. Reduce the number of uses of favorite words. Have a critique partner point out repetition that doesn’t work.
~ Writing unlikeable characters. Readers don’t have to like every character, not even your leads. But since they’ll be spending a lot of time with your characters, readers should find something in them to admire or latch on to. If readers should be rooting for a character, give them someone to root for. Give readers a reason to care whether or not your protagonist succeeds. Unlikeable characters are not the same as flawed characters.
Fix: Give characters, especially those who get a lot of page time or who should be sympathetic, at least one or two endearing traits. Ask beta readers if they like your leads and want to see them succeed or fail. Make changes if readers don’t want to spend time with your characters.
~ Switching viewpoint characters within scenes. Unless you’re using the omniscient point of view, the viewpoint shouldn’t be bouncing from character to character within one scene. Even with omniscient, readers shouldn’t have to figure out whose thoughts they’re hearing or which character is noticing something happening in the corner of a crowded room. A single viewpoint per scene helps with tone and emotion and consistency. It also helps the reader get to know a few characters intimately rather than all characters only superficially.
Fix: Decide who gets to present a scene and maintain that character’s viewpoint until the scene changes. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, the exceptions can work and work well. But the techniques to make this work require work. If you need to portray part of a scene through the eyes and reactions and emotions of one character and another part through the eyes of a second character, read up on tips for how to achieve the best results for doing that.
~ Forgetting character reactions. Characters, especially the major ones, should have reactions to story events, the actions of other characters, and to dialogue. The purpose of including such events, actions, and dialogue is to stir up character response. You should intentionally make things happen so characters respond and then make something else happen in response to their reactions and so forth and so on throughout the book. Remember to have your character respond when a city is bombed or his dog dies or he learns his wife left him.
Fix: Make sure each action or event or revelation is followed by a response. Vary the level and length of responses. Use thoughts, dialogue, action, and emotion in your responses. Ensure that responses fit the character and the action that prompted the response.
~ Gentrifying the words. This is not a technical writing term, just one I borrowed. Writers often try to pretty-up their phrasing by using fancy-sounding words to make the story feel and sound more literary. Unless the full story has a literary flavor and adheres to other story elements that make it fit the literary genre, a few phrases here or there won’t work. In fact, they’ll probably sound silly and out of place and pretentious. Let your words fit the genre and your characters and the story as a whole.
Fix: Edit phrases that jump out from the rest of the text, that don’t match the story’s feel and the characters’ personalities. Write poetic and lyrical phrases if doing so fits the story; otherwise, leave such phrases for another story. Cut out all instances of purple prose unless a character is using it to make a point or to be humorous.
~ Giving characters words they wouldn’t know. Similar to the previous mistake, this one speaks to word choice in general. Many writers forget that not all characters know what the writer himself might know or use the same words he’d use. Poor word choices stand out when characters use words they should be unfamiliar with or words that feature in professions or vocations they know nothing about. Writers sometimes remember to use the correct words for character dialogue and yet forget when they write character thoughts. Incorrect word use by characters is obvious and may have readers thinking about the mechanics and foundations of the book rather than the story.
Fix: Proofread for word choices. Learn who your characters are and familiarize yourself with the kinds of words they’d use as well as those they wouldn’t use. Use word choices to reveal your characters.
~ Failing to include chapter-ending hooks. If you don’t invite the reader to turn the page at the end of a chapter, if you don’t give that reader a reason to turn the page, she might not do it. She might instead put the book down, never to pick it up again. The ends of chapters should both satisfy at least some of the story threads that have come before that point and entice the reader into reading more.
Fix: Check the last couple of paragraphs of every chapter. Make sure they give the reader a reason to keep reading. Think tease and anticipation. Think about planting a question in the reader’s mind, a question she must have answered right now.
~ Ignoring setting and props. Unfortunately, I see this one a lot. Writers give characters a place to act out their story and then walk those characters through the setting without letting them interact with the locations and the props they should find there. Sometimes both writer and characters forget where they are. Characters don’t react at the size and beauty of buildings or to the unusual sounds that should fill the air. They don’t snatch cookies from the tray that’s just out of the oven or run their fingers through the cat’s fur or use a fingernail to pick at something stuck to the kitchen table.
They don’t hear music or react to too much salt on their fries. They don’t see colors or note textures or have to dodge the 20 neighbor children celebrating a daughter’s birthday in the middle of the living room.
They don’t read newspapers or observe holidays or get paper cuts.
But when characters interact naturally with setting, the reader can see and feel it. When characters deal with political news or mention sports events or noteworthy moments in the life of their village, country, or people group, then setting helps frame character. Setting details and character interaction with setting bolster the reader’s belief in story events. If the setting is solid and real for characters, then the characters and their events seem solid and real and plausible to the reader. Give readers enough setting so they can picture the feel of a town, understand the belief systems, see those objects and people, places and constructs, that are important for the characters. Fill your stories with the kinds of everyday details that give meaning to a human’s life.
Fix: Make sure you have included something of the setting in every scene. This doesn’t mean you need to write a paragraph or more of description for each scene. It does mean that readers should know where a character is and that the character should be more than a doll plopped down onto a stage set. Give your setting more than stage dressing. Put in objects that characters can use. Add cultural touches that make each story different. Create a real world and show characters relating to that world.
~ Overplaying dialect or accents. Using spelling to show dialect and accents has been out of favor for a long time because we learned other ways to convey differences in speech and pronunciation. You don’t want readers struggling to understand what a character is saying because you’ve thrown odd spellings at them. Instead, you want to convey dialect and accents almost instantly so readers can get on with the story. Dialogue is a report of the words that are spoken, not a visual of how they’re spoken. Show the how through means other than odd or phonetic spellings.
Fix: Have a character observe, in thought or dialogue, how unusual someone’s accent is. A character can try to guess where another character is from or note how another man drops his Gs or even appreciate how melodic an accent is. Have a character say that he has to listen carefully to understand another character’s words. Use an unusual word or two to convey a character’s voice or the rhythm of his speech, words that evoke accent or dialect or a character’s background, rather than trying to portray all the words as they sound to the viewpoint character.
~ Making characters oddly self-aware. Real people who think about brushing back their silky raven locks or who note the way their sinewy muscles bulge when they lift weights would be odd. Odd too are characters who think of themselves in ways that real people don’t. This usually comes down to a viewpoint error. If you’re giving us thoughts about a character through his viewpoint, make sure to report only what a person would really report about himself. Would you write Max patted his smoothly shaved cheeks and jaw, noting how the deep cleft in his chin felt especially deep and manly or something such as Max picked at his chin, ticked he’d missed the same damned spot he missed every time he shaved without a mirror.
If a character is the viewpoint character, most of the time he’ll respond as if he’s actually living in his skin and seeing out through his eyes and feeling with his heart. He doesn’t see himself from the outside looking in but from the inside looking out. Give him words and phrases and descriptions of himself that reflect the direction in which he is looking. Characters can’t report what their facial expressions look like (for the most part). But they can report how their faces and bodies feel to them and they can report the emotion behind their expressions.
Fix: This mistake can be tough to find. In every scene, put yourself in the character’s head. Understand what the character can see or know, and report only that information. Also, rather than simply report description, put description to work in an active way, in a way that reveals character personality and emotion and not just the character’s looks.
Rather than saying Tia’s red hair was wildly curly and reached past her shoulder blades, try something such as Tia fought her hair for 45 minutes, until every stubborn curl was glass smooth. Then she forced each strand into the extra-strong clip to secure it off her neck. She was tired of it getting plucked out by the slats of her office chair. She admired her handiwork from every side. Hmm . . . The color was subdued too. Maybe she wouldn’t have to smile off any more catcalls and the remarks about being a red-hot mama.
~ Hedging. Writers are guilty of using hedge words—seemed, sort of, kind of, perhaps, a bit—rather than simply making assertions. The impact is almost always stronger without the hedge. Writers may not want to antagonize the reader or may not want to be overbearing, but while we may want to get along with others in our real worlds, we don’t want our characters playing nice and being meek.
Don’t hedge. Make assertions. Be bold and clear. Make your characters say what they mean. If a character is diffident, that’s a different issue, of course. But not all your characters will by shy or unsure or always eager to please. Rather than saying She noticed that he seemed to be angry, try She blinked at his unusual anger.
Fix: Search your manuscripts for hedge words and replace them, when appropriate, with bold statements. Or simply cut out the hedge words. Give your characters backbones. Make characters stir up trouble by speaking, and thinking, their minds.
~ Having characters declare conclusions. When a writer describes a character’s expression and then has another character conclude what the expression means, the reader is deprived of the satisfaction of drawing that conclusion herself. When a character states a conclusion that’s obvious to the reader, that may tick the reader off. If you imply that readers can’t pick up on your clues, they’ll notice. Pull readers deep into emotions and story problems by allowing them to draw conclusions.
Rather than saying Dell’s face went from white to red in an instant. He was no doubt mad, and Kelly had no intention of angering him further, try something like Dell’s face went from white to red in an instant. Kelly stepped out of the reach of his fists and fought to keep from shaking. The reader’s going to catch on and you won’t have to waste words explaining what Kelly concluded about Dell’s expression.
Fix: Give the reader enough information and then let her come to the conclusion you want her to reach. While a very few readers might not catch on, that’s better than alienating the majority of the readers by spoon-feeding them everything. Remember the advice to show and not tell? Follow that advice for these kinds of situations.
~ Failing to go all out. When writers commit to the heights and depths and breadth of action and characterization and emotion, they create powerful, even magical, stories. When they fail to go all out, when they hold back out of fear, the story is compromised. Weak. Ineffectual.
For any number of reasons, some writers don’t go all out. But those writers do themselves, their stories, and their readers a disservice. Stories that make an impact are remembered. Characters who stand out are celebrated. Writers who write boldly are read again and again.
Go all out with your fiction. For the reader who’s reading you for the first time, you get to make only one first impression. Make it a kicker. Don’t hold back; there’s no reason to keep anything in reserve. You’ll be starting fresh with the next story—give everything that you have in you to the current story. You’ll be replenished when it’s time to write the next one.
Fix: Allow yourself to write anything—any situation, any word, any event. Cut out weak phrases. Cut out weak events. Cut out weak characters who aren’t strong enough to make an impact.
This one is beyond long, so no drawn-out conclusion. Do keep in mind that there are always exceptions to every rule and every bit of advice, so assume there are exceptions here as well. Sometimes you’ll want to commit one of these mistakes and when you do so, when you do it on purpose, it won’t be a mistake. However, for the most part, avoid these mistakes in your fiction. And if they slip in, correct them.
Write bold fiction. Write to make an impact.
Write stories that readers will remember for all the right reasons.