How Not to Write a Novel
There are endless suggestions we are given on how to write a good novel, but there are a few frequently occurring mistakes we should almost definitely learn to avoid. When we first start out as a new writer it can be easy to fall into these writing traps, and so I have listed five common ones below; some from my own experience and some from observing others in my writing group.
Characters Without Character
There is a problem that usually happens in stories that are heavy with action and adventure, and is very much highlighted in the film Independence Day: Resurgence. Yes, it’s a sequel, so there are a small handful of characters we already know from the original film, but there are so many new characters that we are not given any time to get to know. I could see that these young protagonists were brave and passionate, and at times mildly humorous, but I felt no real connection to what they were experiencing because I hadn’t been given the chance to get to know them. In writing it can be so tempting to dive straight into action to first grab a reader’s attention, which can work really well, but once it’s over we must remember to pull back and let the reader get to know the characters a little. We need to let them see how our characters behave on a regular day, give them an insight into their natural personality, give them a chance to relate and empathise with them. If you don’t it will not matter how gallant, impulsive, selfish, or self-sacrificing your characters are, because your reader won’t know them enough to care.
Too Many Descriptive Words
This advice is also known as ‘show, don’t tell’ and is something more easily demonstrated with an example.
Kate swaggers assertively into the living room, her purposefully minuscule top glistening sexily in the sparkling disco lights. She searches eagerly through the crowd, first coyly then frantically, her eyebrows furrowing with anxiety. Then our eyes finally meet and her expression consequently relaxes. She abruptly turns and confidently saunters towards where I sit, suggestively licking her glossy red lips.
When we read too many descriptive words our brains switch off and we disconnect from the story. We are no longer discovering anything new or having to imagine anything for ourselves; it is all being done for us. Heavily descriptive words, usually ending in -ly and commonly found in toddler board books, rarely have place in fictional literature for readers over the age of twelve.
Yes, as with most rules there are some exceptions to this, such as if you are writing a first person narrative of a blunt and straight forward character who would likely prefer to use a simple and existing vocabulary. But most of the time we should try to forget the existence of these descriptive words and try our best to describe what is happening without relying on them.
Kate walks into the living room like she owns the place, hand on her hip, nose sky high. She shrugs off her coat as though she doesn’t know how much it costs and throws it down on the sofa. She’s wearing that sequin top she knows leaves nothing to the imagination, a rainbow of colours from the disco lights reflecting off the curve of her breasts. She stands there, in the middle of everyone, her back arched and on tip-toes, searching. Just before our eyes meet I see a brief hint of panic cross her face. But she keeps her cool, swings her long legs round and walks towards me. I’m not going to tell her how long I’ve been waiting here. As she walks her hips pop to the rhythm of the music, her tongue dancing over her red wet lips.
Of course, there are also times when description should be held back. A stack of books leaning up against the wall is just a stack of books leaning up against the wall—not a heavily inked piled of hard bound literature precariously teetering against the wall—unless you want the reader to know of the compulsive stacking needs of the character because it’s of importance to the story.
Repeating Thought in Dialogue
In real life, when we are talking to someone who we are not completely comfortable with or have only just met, we do often think through what we are going to say before we say it. But as readers, we don’t want to read a character’s thoughts only to have them instantly repeated in dialogue. It’s repetitive and futile and will make readers bored and frustrated. If you feel showing a character’s thoughts during a conversation is of importance, make it thoughts that are different from what they are saying; thoughts they keep to themselves and that can further express their character. In A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin, the dry humour and sarcasm of Tyrion Lannister’s thoughts while in conversation are not only amusing but keep readers turning pages.
Telling Too Much
Exposition. It’s practically a swear word when it comes to writing fiction, and it means telling far too much background information all at once in a way that is perhaps of benefit to the reader, but detrimental to the story. Right at the start there is usually some backstory we want our readers to be aware in order for them to understand the setting, but try to sneak this information in using a technique called ‘incluing’, with character thoughts between relevant dialogue or in teasing revealing snippets that offer clues, instead of just regurgitating it out in one ugly hunk of a paragraph. As human readers we enjoy asking questions and partaking in a satisfying clue-fuelled chase that leads to discovery. We want to search for answers in order to feel like we’ve earned that knowledge, and in doing so we often feel more closely linked to the story.
So, instead of just merely giving answers in the first few chapters, which can often bore a reader who wants to escape into fiction rather than read a factual biography, scatter those questions around. But also consider that readers, unless they are willingly reading a very confusing surrealist novel, don’t want to be stumbling around in complete darkness. Allow them a detail or two to light their path, and then for every few steps they take reward them with another orb of light, another answered question. The reader can only see what’s immediately in front of them, but not to the side or at the end of the journey. At this point they will hopefully be burning with anticipation and gripped with suspense of what they will find along the dark pathway of your story.
Writing a Story for Others
It can be very easy earlier on, and in fact all through-out your journey as a writer, to become influenced by current writing trends, and put off by clichés and tropes. Don’t let this happen. You can let your growing knowledge of the writing industry guide you, but don’t let it completely direct your story. Write the story you want to read.
It doesn’t matter who your reader is, or what genre, if any, your novel falls into. Well, it doesn’t matter yet. At this point you are writing a story because it needs to be told; a story that you wish already existed because you know you want to read it. Please stop pondering about how to tick certain boxes and how to write for your imagined target audience, because your most relevant reader insight is your own taste. And the most important thing right now is writing the story that you believe needs to be written.
So, to summarise, try not to be too heavily influenced by what’s going on around you that isn’t immediately linked to your novel, or you might just lose your passion for writing. Don’t be too easily swayed, because your story is all inside you, not out in the world for you to find. Write a novel that is true to itself, and that you enjoy reading and telling. Because if you enjoy it, chances are, quite a few other people will too.
Each of these five points are certainly mistakes that I have made over time, and whilst attending and learning from a writers group I have understood how to overcome them. I hope you find this essay helpful to your writing, especially if you are too shy to mingle with other writers.
© 2016 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.