Top Six Novel Writing Mistakes
by James Thayer
I run a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com), and I teach novel writing at the University of Washington extension school. Editing and teaching, I see six prospect-killing mistakes time and time again, errors so profound that once spotted an agent or editor will know there’s no point reading farther.
1. Beginning a scene too early, ending it too late: Writers often begin the scene during uninteresting preliminary matters, instead of at the core of the scene. And then the writers continue on after the crux of the scene has ended.
Begin the scene as late as possible in the chronology, and end it as early as possible. Here’s an example: a scene should begin not as the character gets out of the taxi, but five minutes later, after he has paid the cab driver, and after he has taken the elevator to the tenth floor, and after he has said hello to a lady carrying a shopping bag. The scene should begin when he opens the door to find the body. The scene should end as the character picks up the telephone to call the police, not as he talks over the phone to the desk sergeant, not as he goes to the cabinet for a shot of whiskey to calm his nerves, not as he sits down on the chair near the sofa to wonder what it all means.
It’s helpful to think of a scene as a row of dominoes laid on their ends. The row has ten dominoes. If you push one over, they will all fall in sequence, each knocking the next down. A scenario begins at the first domino, and ends at the last. But you don’t need all the dominoes. The first two dominoes and the last two dominoes can almost always be removed from the scene. They are the set-up and the wind-down.
Many new writers use these events to set up a scene: driving somewhere, walking somewhere, waking up and getting ready for the day, putting on or removing clothing, and making dinner. Most often, you can skip these and get right to the scene’s heart. Instead of driving somewhere, begin the scene as the character arrives. Instead of documenting the character getting ready for the day, begin the scene when the event occurs that she was getting ready for. Instead of writing about the preparation for the event, write about the event.
The same is true regarding the wind-down. After the character has purchased the illegal weapon, there’s usually no point following the character as he drives home.
2. Too much back-story. Back-story is an event that occurred before the beginning of the novel. Back-story is history. If a novel begins on Tuesday, March 1, anything that happened before that day is back-story.
An author should be wary of back-story because it stops the story’s forward momentum, and it is almost always more interesting to the author than to the reader. Sometimes back-story is necessary. It should not appear near the beginning of a novel. Get the story going before giving out back-story, then make the back-story short. When two pages of back-story appear on pages two and three of a novel—and I see this all the time--an agent reads no farther.
Why are writers tempted to bog down their novels with back-story? Because the writer has done a lot of thinking about this character, and it’s fun to invent a background. Once it has been invented, the back-story becomes inordinately important in the writer’s mind. But readers want to look forward to see what happens next, not backward to see what happened earlier.
3. Too many shifts in the point of view. Point of view is a way of saying who is witnessing the events, whose eyes are seeing the action. Generally, a scene should have only one point of view; that is, the reader should stay inside the mind of one person. Otherwise, the plot takes on a dizzying aspect as the POV jumps here and there.
Leaping back and forth with the POV is a mistake in a novel. Here’s the reason: all novels ask the reader to suspend disbelief, as novels are fiction. But when the POV switches frequently between characters, suspending disbelief becomes harder because the reader has a seemingly supernatural ability to go from brain to brain.
Here is an example of point of view that flits around so much as to be distracting:
“I don’t understand why Sandra puts up with him,” Jolene said, wondering if Ally was interested at all. “I mean, I’d have bailed out of that relationship a long time ago.”
“Me, too,” Ally replied. She didn’t want to upset Jolene, who she knew could get angry thinking of Sandra. “I would’ve been long gone.”
The waiter arrived with their wine. They were quiet until he filled their glasses. He returned to the service area.
Brushing her hair from her forehead, Monica smiled at Ally. Monica knew Ally had her own problems with her boyfriend. She wanted to yell, “Follow your own advice. Leave him.” But she knew better.
“Sometimes Sandra acts like a fourteen-year-old.” Jolene glanced again at Ally, trying to read her eyes. “Ally, you okay?”
Ally made a dismissive gesture. “I’m living the dream. Couldn’t be better.” She wondered if her words sounded hollow, and friends could see through her.
See how we hop around as we read this, from one mind to another at a dizzying pace?
Yet if the point of view is maintained with one character, you might ask, how can the reader learn what other characters are thinking? Two ways: We can observe the other character and thus learn what she is thinking, or we can speculate about what she is thinking. Instead of writing, John was puzzled, which instantly changes points of view to John’s, we write a puzzled look was on John’s face. The POV character is observing John’s puzzlement. Or we can speculate: instead of saying John was puzzled, we can write: as if John was puzzled or apparently John was puzzled. Observation and speculation don’t switch the point of view.
4. Interior monologues: Interior monologue is a fancy way of saying thinking. The novelist Jack Bickham offers this definition of a scene: “It’s a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story ‘now.’ It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater state and acted out.”
Thinking isn’t cinematic; it can’t be acted out on a stage. Most of the time, the reader can intuit what the character is thinking—a character’s dread and nervousness, or thoughts of love, or desire for revenge—without the character having to think it because the character is saying and doing certain things.
Some interior monologue is often necessary, of course, but too much will stall the novel’s momentum. A character’s thoughts are almost never as interesting as her actions or dialogue.
5. Failure to describe characters. Novels appear inside the readers’ minds as they read along. The writer’s job is to create mental pictures for readers, and that includes images of the characters. All main characters should be described in some detail, including the character’s face, body, gestures, and clothing.
The more important the character, the more specific the description should be. This description usually should be on the same page (or shortly thereafter) where the reader first meets the character. Even minor characters are worthy of some description. Generally, anyone who speaks should be described.
Sometimes I’ll see a novel where major characters are not described at all. More commonly, the character is described once, early, and then never again. A writer should periodically remind the reader of what the character looks like. The reminders need not be long, just a sentence or even just a phrase here and there.
6. Using summaries rather than scenes: The story should be told chiefly in scenes, rather than in summary. This is a summary:
My mother and father lived on Elm Street, and were happy for many years, until the truck ran over father's leg. We never knew if he tripped or was pushed under the truck. He was in the hospital two months, but never fully recovered. I had to get a job at the factory.
A scene is told in real-time, moment by moment:
Smith buttoned his coat and made his way down the sidewalk. An ice truck passed, leaving a thin trail of water on the cobblestones. Smith glanced over his shoulder into the wind, and pulled the coat's belt tighter. His foot missed the curb, and he tumbled forward, hitting a lamppost, then falling into the street. The pickup's driver tried to swerve, but too late. The fender clipped Smith’s shoulder, and his leg fell under the rear wheel. The sound of the femur breaking was as loud as a pistol shot.
Scenes are vastly more vivid and memorable than are summaries.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, will be published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008.