Every author struggles with some aspects of writing and storytelling. Yes, even the bestselling authors. You may not believe it, but they do.
Writing can be a lonely process. Maybe you are just starting out and don’t want anyone to read your work, or you don’t have support from your friends or family, or you’re simply a private person. In any case, you may not realize what you struggle with is typical.
I’ve worked with so many books and authors, I know this is true. I want you to know you aren’t alone in your struggle. Everyone has some issue with their craft.
In my experience, the most common mistakes are:
1. Telling, not showing (I know. You’ve heard it before.)
2. Weak hooks or introductory narrative
3. Point of view consistency
4. Lack of conflict
5. Impossible simultaneous actions.
Telling not showing
It’s what I come across most when I’m editing.
Telling is when the narrator explains backstory and what is happening, describing settings, relaying emotions, and reveling intentions.
Showing is when characters interact with each other through actions, dialogue, and silent communication (expressions and body language), and when they interact with their surroundings.
It’s more difficult to show than tell, which is why this mistake is so common.
Telling is like our default setting, and the narrator is the one telling the story, so it feels natural.
However, when the narrator is describing everything, this keeps the reader at a distance rather than making them an active participant. And they want to be in the story.
You don’t have to write in second person to make them feel like they are immersed in your world. 😊
In high school, Mary was shy and had only one friend, Jenna. She didn’t like parties or even go to the movies. She liked to hang out at home or at her friend’s house, where it was only them and their families. Sometimes, even the families were too much for her.
“Back in high school, you were shy, and I was your only friend,” Jenna said. “You didn’t like parties. We never went to the movies. We just hung out at our parent’s. Sometimes, you couldn’t even handle that.”
Basically, I just turned the narrator’s explanation into dialogue, but I bet you were more engaged!
Weak Hook and Introductory Narrative
You have about six to ten seconds to grab your reader, which equates to about four to ten lines of text.
Backstory doesn’t cut it. Gone are the days of ‘It was a stormy night.’ (I know the quote; I just didn’t want to cite it.) While Shelly’s first line will draw some readers in, at this point in time, people are reading it because they already assume it’s a great story.
Today’s trend is to start with something more exciting. Sorry, waking up isn’t exciting.
Lead with some type of action. It doesn’t have to be an alien attack in progress or exploding bombs, but a character should be doing something.
It could be simple.
Lucy punched the back of the bus as it pulled away.
It's tempting to tell the reader she missed the bus that would have taken her to work or to her date. But the reader will understand she missed her ride. And where she was going could be revealed through her next action or statement.
“Great. Now how do I get to my audition?” She switched her violin to her other hand and pulled out ten dollars from her sweatshirt pocket. That wouldn’t her anywhere in Atlas.
The character can give away a bit. The narrator can expand, but the action should continue. But the narrator shouldn’t go into where the audition is, why it’s so important, how many years she’s been practicing, or describe what Atlas is like.
All that information isn’t exciting enough to keep the reader interested.
Point of View Consistency
Perspective is difficult to adhere to, because you, the author, know exactly what every character is thinking, feeling, and their intentions behind what they do.
Your narrator shouldn’t know these things, unless they are omniscient, and omniscient is even harder to pull off.
Make sure what you write can be known by your point-of-view character.
Alex wondered why Caleb was staring at her, then he pointed to his head to let her know her hair was on fire.
Since the narrator is revealing what Alex is thinking, the point-of-view character is Alex. So, the narrator can’t know why Caleb pointed to his head.
You can understand why this is so easily done, right?
The author knows Caleb’s intentions and wants to reveal them to the reader, but it’s a shift in perspective. His intentions will need to be revealed through his actions or dialogue if he’s close enough to Alex.
Alex wondered why Caleb was staring at her. He pointed to his head, then at her. She reached back and singed her fingers. “Not again.” She yanked the rag from her waitress's apron and slapped it over the flames.
Lack of Conflict
Lack of conflict is most noticeable when things come too easily for the characters or poor conflict when the issue could be solved if the characters simply talked about it.
For external conflicts, the characters should try and fail, their plans unsuccessful, the antagonist throws a spanner into the works.
In almost every scene, the character should be worse off at the end than at the beginning.
Internal conflicts should also be present. The ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ debate or deep contemplation about their feelings, their past, their future.
Without conflict, the story reads flat. Even the uplifting, happy novels have conflict, so the reader enjoys their success even more.
Conflict leads to tension and suspense. Most likely the reader knows the character will get out of a bad situation, but it’s the how and when that keeps them up at night.
Impossible Simultaneous Actions
This is an issue on a smaller scale, but no less important.
Mostly, I see this with dialogue.
“It’s not your only problem,” she said, sipping her coffee.
The character can’t speak and sip at the same time. 😊
And no, we can’t smile and say lines of dialogue. We might be able to smile through a word or two (some will debate this), but it’s physically impossible to smile the entire time we talk.
There are less obvious instances, though.
Running through to the cab, he opened the door and hopped in.
The character can’t run and do the two other things simultaneously.
These errors in concurrent actions usually happen when the author is trying to create sentence structure variation.
For instance, they know too many sentences in a row start with ‘he’ and can’t think, at the time, of a better solution.
Obviously, there are more common mistakes, but these are the ones I see most often.
If you are struggling with anything from plot to grammar, contact me! I’d love to help.
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