Jul 10 2008
This short article will help beginning novelists avoid another five common mistakes that will usually cause publishers to throw out a manuscript.
26. Don’t let your chapters end with a whimper. Each chapter should present at least one reason why we should keep reading. Will readers feel they’re on the verge of learning something interesting about someone? Will readers think something exciting is about to happen? Is someone in peril? Note: even if something interesting is around the corner, readers will drop out unless they know that. Give us enough to pique our interest!
27. Stream of consciousness narrations are extremely hard to sell. Fragmented thoughts are confusing and not very fun to read through. When a reader is confused, anger is rarely far behind… To help readers, I recommend avoiding verb-less sentences, particularly in any scene where you’ve removed the verbs to show how disorientated the character is.
Some authors are very attached to stream of consciousness. “It worked for James Joyce,” they usually say. Unfortunately, James Joyce’s success doesn’t seem very applicable to a little-known author trying to publish a SOC novel. First, you probably don’t have James Joyce’s talent, authorial credibility or reputation. Second, if James Joyce were getting started today, he probably couldn’t sell Ulysses or his more convoluted works to a large audience.
28. Don’t predicate your book on the assumption that readers will finish the book. “My book might confuse readers at the beginning, but it’ll make sense when they get to the end.” Wrong! If readers don’t understand your book as they are reading it, they will not keep going.
Most overly cryptic stories try to redeem themselves with a “surprise” ending like “Haha! It turns out all the characters in this story were squirrels, wasn’t that witty?” Hiding something like that will confuse us so much that even simple questions about the story will make our heads hurt (why are they spending so much time in a tree? Are they kids in a treehouse?). Having to puzzle through basic aspects of your story’s plot is not “intriguing.” It’s painful. The first Harry Potter book twisted readers far more effectively. The book strongly suggested that [spoiler] Snape was trying to kill Harry because he was nearby when Harry got cursed. At the book’s end, however, the author revealed that the characters misunderstood why Snape was nearby. Snape knew that someone else was trying to kill Harry and he took it upon himself to make sure Harry didn’t get killed. [/spoiler]. Even though readers didn’t know the real reason Snape was nearby, they had a reason that was entirely plausible. Conversely, if your readers don’t have at least some way of understanding the story (even a flawed one), they are going to be confused as hell.
29. Don’t make unnecessary chronological shifts. The most simple and reader-friendly way to tell a story is by telling us what happens first and proceeding in chronological order. However, beginning authors sometimes overwhelm readers with flashbacks and sometimes even flash-forwards. If you want to use a flashback, it’s probably a better idea to tweak the story a bit so that you tell it in chronological order. If you’re dead-set on using a flashback, make sure that it will be easy for readers to figure out which scenes are happening in which order. Cuing readers by telling us when each scene is happening may help.
UPDATE: An e-mailer asks “and what about flash-forwards, when you move forward and then return?” Flash-forwards are like nuclear weapons: dangerous and unforgiving. If you are an unseasoned author, I’d recommend avoiding them. Virtually only Vonnegut has ever been able to make them work.
30. Motivate your characters. When you’re writing a horror scene, you might decide that you really need something to happen. John needs to check out what just screamed in the basement, so the monster will kill him. From your perspective, it wouldn’t be much of a horror scene if John didn’t get devoured. But that’s the writer’s motivation for having John go down there. Why would John want to? It’s really important to make sure that the characters have their own reasons for going through with their part of the plot. Otherwise, the characters will feel two-dimensional and the plot will seem shoddy.
Here are a few questions you can ask to test how strong a character’s motivations are. Why is he doing the actions you portrayed in the scene? Are the character’s actions and motivations consistent with how you’ve portrayed him in previous chapters? Does the character do anything in this scene that he had the ability to do earlier in the book? Why is he doing it now instead of earlier (or later)? Are these actions consistent with his level of intelligence? Does he have more intelligent alternatives? If you want him to do something stupid, please explain that with some in-story reasoning.
This article was the sixth part of a series. If you’d like to read about how to avoid other common writing mistakes, please read the other articles.