Jan 26 2010

A Vast List of Storytelling Blunders

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

Characters

–The protagonist(s) don’t have significant flaws.  (For more help on flaws, please see this and this).

–The names are goofy and/or wildly hard to pronounce. I’m looking at you, Anamamana’Qupy.  For more help, please see this.

–Characters act the way the author needs them to, not because they have a compelling motivation or logic. “Let’s split up to cover more ground!”  Please see #3 here.

–The main character(s) don’t make mistakes or face no consequences for them.  Guardian angels are a red flag here.

–The main characters don’t have setbacks. If the villain can’t beat the heroes once in a while, he will probably be pretty disappointing.  Also, if the villain defeats the heroes in combat, don’t just let them go.

–The main characters don’t have distinguishing traits.  If that’s a problem, please see this.

–The characters don’t have urgent goals.  Please see #3 here.

–The protagonist is hated by an antagonist for no discernible reason. Common offenders include teachers, bullies and adopted parents. If you go down this path, at least make them stylish. Thanks.

–The author focuses on visual details rather than establishing anything interesting about the character. In particular, eye color and hair color don’t say all that much about a character–I’d recommend focusing on these details instead.


–A main character shares a disability or rare illness with the author. If you want to write about yourself, write a memoir! You’ll probably go further that way. Otherwise, it’ll probably turn into a wish-fulfillment fantasy starring you.

–Too many characters (especially too many main characters). When I’m reading a synopsis, my eyes usually glaze over somewhere around the fourth or fifth protagonist. I’d much rather read about 1-2 protagonists that have been well-developed than a large cast of cliches.

Powers and Capabilities
–The main character(s) aren’t sufficiently challenged. Make them prove themselves.

–Overemphasis on capabilities (such as superpowers/magic/combat skills) over personality and distinguishing traits. If your character’s capabilities are really the most interesting thing about him, I would recommend going back to the drawing board.

–Too many superpowers in play.

–The superpowers and/or spells require too much explanation.  If you need more than two sentences to explain what the character can do, I’d recommend going back to the drawing board.

Plots and Plot Developments That Make Me Want to Cry
–Characters discover that they’re secretly related.

–That mysterious old person is actually a god!

The mentor doesn’t tell his or her protege what the hell is going on. IT IS NOT AS COOL AS YOU THINK.  If you plan to go down this dangerous, dangerous road, please at least give the mentor some reason to make life harder for his protege.

–If the climax reveals that one of the characters is Jesus or Hitler, please go back to the drawing board. Note that this is not true for all famous people. If the climax reveals that one of the characters is actually the Pillsbury Doughboy, please send me the manuscript.  Hoo hoo!

–Idiot plots: a plot that only holds together because the characters act too stupid to live.  Covering your plot holes with satisfying motivations makes for a stronger story.

–In a tense moment, the characters are saved by discovering new powers. This is a red flag because it suggests that the author doesn’t know how to write the characters actually losing. If the story is just an string of victories for the protagonists, it probably isn’t very interesting. How do they deal with setbacks?

Voice
–The characters all sound alike. If your voicing is sufficient, you can probably cut out most of the “John said” and “Mary said” tags from a page of dialogue without confusing any readers. After all, if John and Mary sound distinct, readers don’t need the tags to know who is saying what.

–The character voices are inconsistent.

–The character voices don’t feel believable. (Particularly kids that sound way too old and well-educated).

–The accents are obnoxiously strong.

Dialogue
–The dialogue has niceties, filler and other lines that fail to develop a character or advance the plot.  Please see #2 here.

–“As you know, Bob.” This is when characters talk clumsily about stuff they already know to inform the readers.

–Characters that refer to each other by name pretty much every sentence. It’s annoying, Jim. Humans don’t talk like that, Jim.

Introduction
DO NOT START WITH THE CHARACTER WAKING UP. NO NO NO NO NO NO. NO. Seriously, isn’t there SOMETHING more interesting the character could be doing than getting out of bed? If not, I would highly recommend going back to the drawing board.

–It’s not clear what’s going on. Don’t make your readers struggle to understand the story.

–There’s nothing to hook in readers on the first page. For example, one of the easiest ways to hook in readers is to introduce a likable character with an urgent, high-stakes goal.

–The narrator introduces himself in the first paragraph. “Hi, I’m X, but you can call me…” …unpublished, probably.

–The author throws around too many imaginary words.

–The beginning is disjointed from the rest of the plot. For example, we might be looking at a different main character, a different sort of writing style, a significant passage of time, etc.

–Slow-paced prologues are rarely appealing. If you include a prologue, I would recommend thinking long and hard about whether it’s really necessary.

–The first sentence uses a pronoun without an antecedent, particularly “it.” Try rewriting the sentence to either get rid of the pronoun or specify the antecedent–that will make it more clear to readers what the character is talking about.

–The book fails to introduce us to an interesting protagonist early on.

–The book fails to name the main character early.  There’s rarely a good reason to do so and it deprives the readers of the most natural way to mentally refer to the protagonist.

–Concealing the premise. “Eventually, the readers will discover that all of the characters are squirrels!” If your premise is actually good enough to read, making it clear to us can only help you. Hiding the premise suggests you are not confident.

Middle and End
–The plot loses steam.

–Random stuff starts happening. This usually means the author is trying to waste space.

–The main character hasn’t changed enough by the end.

–The book doesn’t resolve enough, usually because the author’s planning a sequel (the villain escapes, the hero hasn’t won the love interest yet, etc). Give us at least some intermediate victories.

–The author tries to pull off a twist ending but he hasn’t really thought it through.

Style & Mechanics
–Sloppy grammar, spelling, capitalization, etc. If you look like you will need intense proofreading work, your manuscript will probably get axed early. Editors would rather spend their time on substantive matters (like sharpening plots and stories) than on remedial proofreading.

–Too much telling, not enough showing.

–Characters say or narrate what they’re thinking rather than showing or suggesting it.

–The author relies too much on on narration/exposition to give information rather than actions and dialogue.

–The author overuses generic words like good, fine, well, alright, etc. Be specific! For example, if I said that Jamal was a “good” writer, that wouldn’t say nearly as much as calling him “hilarious” or “informative” or “concise.” Be specific!

Perspective
–A limited narrator describes something that he can’t or shouldn’t know. For example, he might slip into someone’s head.

–The point-of-view (POV) switches mid-chapter. This is highly risky– if you plan to do it, at least show the break with a line of asterisks.

–There are too many POVs. For your first novel, I’d recommend 1-2. Publishers will feel more comfortable letting you experiment if you have a history of success.

–IF THE POV KNOWS SOMETHING, THE READER IS ENTITLED TO KNOW IT, TOO.

Plotting and Pacing
–The plot isn’t urgent enough and/or the characters lack high-stakes goals. Depending on the story, a high-stake goal might be defusing the bomb before it explodes, sneaking off to prom without alerting Mom, getting a raise to avoid eviction, etc.

–A scene fails to advance the plot or develop a character. If it doesn’t do either, it can probably be removed or shortened. Eating scenes are a repeat offender. I blame Tolkien.

–Chapters that end with a whimper. Chapters should leave us with a reason to keep reading. Readers should feel like they’re on the verge of learning something interesting, or that something interesting is about to happen, or that someone is in peril. That’s especially important in the first few chapters.

–Don’t write your story assuming that readers will patiently wait for it to make sense at the end. If they don’t understand it as they’re reading, they’ll probably put it down.

–The chronology is hard to follow. Flashbacks, convoluted backstories and poorly-executed time travel are the worst offenders here.

Death by Publisher
–The author didn’t read the submission guidelines.

–The author failed to pick out publishers that liked handling his sort of story.

–The book feels too much like a second-rate clone of everything else on the market.  Differentiate your writing!

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34 responses so far

34 Responses to “A Vast List of Storytelling Blunders”

  1. Olivia16on 26 Jan 2010 at 1:46 pm

    B. Mac, I was wondering how I can get a review forum…

  2. B. Macon 26 Jan 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Sure, Olivia. I’ve set up a forum for you here. Welcome!

  3. Lighting Manon 26 Jan 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Well, that’s just offensive! Up until a few years ago, my lead antagonist was secretly (to the world, the protagonists figured it out pretty quickly) a superpowered Joseph Goebbels that revived due to his biological matter converting to a strange energy following his suicide (due to his exposure to it during a secret meeting, before American involvement) Think of it! The master propagandist in a world with Twittering twits and Facebooking faceless? He could take over the world in a few short years without a single person casting a vote! Just a reality TV show and an appropriately timed sex tape and he’d have won at supervillaining.

    And people wonder why I’m afraid of the Kardashians…

  4. Susan Boneson 26 Jan 2010 at 7:04 pm

    I’m guilty of bad spelling and sometime telling, not showing.

    “Hi, I’m X, but you can call me…” This sometimes works! Exibit A: Animorphs.
    Exibit B: Uhh…
    Exibit C: Maybe you are right.

    I will keep the above in mind.

    On another note, hello, Olivia! Welcome to SN!

  5. B. Macon 26 Jan 2010 at 7:10 pm

    That’s why I said probably unpublished. 😉

    I generally recommend against the “Hi, my name is X but you can call me Y” introduction because it focuses the most important sentences of the story on a detail that is rarely interesting. If the character’s name really IS the most interesting thing about him, I’d recommend going back to the drawing board.

    It has gotten published before, but I think your odds of getting published would be stronger with a more effective opening.

  6. Contra Gloveon 26 Jan 2010 at 9:20 pm

    I’ll tell you right now, “overemphasis on capabilities” definitely isn’t a problem in my story! Oftentimes, I forget that my protagonist even has superpowers!

    But these are good, useful tips nonetheless. Thanks a lot, B. Mac. 🙂

  7. joel wyatton 27 Jan 2010 at 9:29 am

    I really dig this; injecting humor into these “advice” entries serves you well…

    Trying to be as objective as possible about how all this relates to my own writing. My biggest concern is with my character’s “voices”; whether they’re all just pendantic mouth-peices for myself…

    Review Forums! Long time reader, but never checked any of those out until i saw Olivia’s comment. Can I get me one of those? (a review forum, that is…)

    My serial Flyover City is a blog-novel, detailing the trials and tribulations of a regular guy living in a world chock-full of super heroes and villians. Only 4-5 more entries before the story is complete…

    Hit my name for more!

  8. B. Macon 27 Jan 2010 at 10:05 am

    Hello, Joel! I’ve set up a forum for you here.

  9. Lighting Manon 27 Jan 2010 at 2:35 pm

    That joke seemed a lot funnier in my head, it’s really quite terrible, and I put nothing in to indicate it was referencing the Hitler or Jesus line in B. Mac’s article. I think I’ll be leaving the comedy to B. Mac in the future, for the betterment of humanity.

  10. deloson 27 Jan 2010 at 8:16 pm

    Wow. This should be a checklist for new writers as they finish each chapter. Bravo!

  11. B. Macon 27 Jan 2010 at 9:24 pm

    I’m glad to hear that you liked it. Thanks.

  12. S.V.T.on 14 Feb 2010 at 3:49 pm

    B.Mac, I liked the article, but I can’t find any remedies for some of the problems on this list.

  13. B. Macon 14 Feb 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Hmm. I have some helpful articles for probably around 80% of these. Could you tell me which ones you’re having trouble with?

  14. S.V.T.on 14 Feb 2010 at 8:05 pm

    The ones about too many characters, how alike the characters sound, the plot losing steam.

    Also how exactly do you make your protagonist interesting?

  15. B. Macon 14 Feb 2010 at 9:08 pm

    Hmm. With too many characters, I think the safest approach is to read books in your field and stay pretty close to what other new authors have been able to get published. So, for example, if you were writing a superhero novel, I’d say that five main characters would be pushing it. Doing more isn’t impossible*, but probably makes your job more difficult. If you’d like to try that, I’d recommend coming up with some reasons to sell that decision to publishers. (For more on that, please see this comment thread).

    *Of the ~20 independent superhero novel series I’m familiar with, Soon I Will Be Invincible had a main group of seven and the first Wild Cards book had more than ten.



    With regards to plots losing steam… especially in the middle of the book, does it feel like the plot is going anywhere? Or are you just wasting space until you have enough pages to sell? One tip that may help is ending each chapter with a cliffhanger or revelation or foreshadowing that pushes readers to keep going. If readers urgently want to turn the page from chapter 30 to 31, you’re probably fine. Another problem with middles that sometimes crops up is a flood of new characters that distract us from the characters we’ve actually grown attached to. Also, are we learning enough about the characters? Is the plot progressing? Are characters accomplishing goals? Are characters facing sufficient obstacles? Are characters changing?



    Character voice is particularly subjective. One sign that you’re headed in the right direction is that reviewers will express their fondness for a particular character. That happens far more often to characters that have unique voices and/or personalities. Another sign that the voices/personalities are different enough is that your readers know who’s saying what just based on what they say. For example, here’s a page from my webcomic with all the faces and visuals removed. Even though readers can’t see who’s saying what, anyone who’s familiar with the series can easily tell which character is Gary the accountant and which is Agent Orange the mutant alligator. (Both characters have disparate vocabularies, personalities, knowledge sets, and objectives).


    I think that you’re doing the voices right when your readers can figure out who’s saying what because “it sounds like something he would say.”



    “How do you make the protagonist interesting?” There are many, many possibilities. Here are a few that come to mind.
    –A likable character faces a high-stakes problem.
    –An ordinary/relatable character is forced into an unusual, uncomfortable situation. Gary the accountant definitely won’t win any awards for exoticness, but I’m betting that the story of how he survives his mutant alligator partner is interesting enough to sell.
    –The character has unexpected qualities that make him or her a fresh protagonist for this particular story. This could be because the character is unusually well-suited or unusually poorly-suited for what the plot has in store for him. Or both. For example, Adrian Monk’s freakish attention to detail makes him an unusually skilled detective, but his wild fear of germs and poor social skills give him some trouble working alongside the local police force and living a normal life. Likewise, Chuck would probably be well-suited to a story about a Best Buy salesman looking for a raise. But he really struggles in a story where he’s forced to become a secret agent. A lot of that series’ drama comes from the fact that he’s poorly prepared for his role.

  16. S.V.T.on 15 Feb 2010 at 7:52 am

    Thanks, B. Mac.

    That was extremely helpful.

  17. B. Macon 15 Feb 2010 at 8:44 am

    You’re welcome. I’m glad to help.

  18. Contra Gloveon 23 Apr 2011 at 8:50 am

    Quick question: is a end-of-chapter perspective switch ruinous? I don’t intend to do it frequently, I just need to do it to highlight an ominous new threat that will attack the protagonist’s village in the next chapter, as well as to keep the reader on edge so that they’ll be wondering when I’ll drop the hammer.

  19. B. Macon 23 Apr 2011 at 9:36 am

    I’ve mellowed out a bit on perspective switches within a chapter. I still find they tend to be awkward and frequently disorienting, but I wouldn’t go as far as “ruinous.” One way you can make it clearer is to set off the POV switch with a line of asterisks. The new POV’s first few paragraphs can also help readers make the transition without getting lost–the more obvious there’s been a change of POV, the better.

  20. Contra Gloveon 23 Apr 2011 at 9:55 am

    Thanks for the answer.

  21. JVKJRon 04 Dec 2012 at 3:10 pm

    How many main characters counts as too many?

  22. B. McKenzieon 04 Dec 2012 at 3:45 pm

    I think it depends on the author, JVKJR. I think 4+ is a major challenge and would be strongly inclined to put down most books at 6 or 7. That said, there are some authors that are really good at handling large casts (e.g. George RR Martin).

  23. JVKJRon 04 Dec 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Er- let me check…
    Book 1: Alastrina, Alistair, Adelphia, Tanek, and Evan are the main characters for about half of the book, but I also separated it into sections, some of which are about Thomas. In his sections, he’s pretty much the only constant character.
    Book 2: Pretty much the same characters, without one of them, but the addition of Eleanor and Nikanor.
    Book 3: Again the same, but without Eleanor and Nikanor. Evan is not as prevalent either.
    Book 4: Mostly the same again, but this one has… more total than the others Ii think. This one also has Orik, Cathrovir, Aiola, Alastren, and Hwen (short for Hwenzanra.) Evan also becomes more prevalent.
    Er…yeah…
    Book 5: Eleanor and Nikanor return, but Aiola and Evan fade back again, Hwen and Thomas are mostly alone, and their story is also no as prevalent. Cathrovir is much more prevalent.
    By this point it’s mostly revolving around Alastrina, Alistair, and Cathrovir, with the others pretty much just behind them.

    Wow. Err… any advice?

  24. JVKJRon 04 Dec 2012 at 6:49 pm

    So that’s 6 in the first, 7 in the second, 4 (5 if you count Evan, but he’s really isn’t that central) in the third, 10 in the fourth, 10 in the fifth, and in the last one it may as well just be 3.
    In several of them, that’s practically breaking the scale. What do I do? How can I simplify it?

  25. B. McKenzieon 04 Dec 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Some strategies here:
    –Could you demote some of them from main character to major character? For example, Dumbledore has a major impact on the Harry Potter series, but he’s only present on maybe 10-15% of the pages.

    –Could you merge and/or eliminate some of the characters? Are you accomplishing as much with your characters as you could be? (E.g. check out some of the best books in your genre(s)–how many main and major characters do they have, and how does the author use the characters to develop the story rather than bring in additional characters?)

    –Can you shed characters as soon as you’re done with them? For example, Wild Cards did an excellent job handling a HUGE cast by sidelining and/or eliminating characters as soon as they had served their main purpose.

  26. The Writeron 04 Dec 2012 at 10:43 pm

    Hey, B. Mac,
    I read your article and it stated that it should not begin with the main character waking up. However, would it be alright if my story started with my character being woken up to go take a science final, but he is hungover and has two girls in bed with him? Would that be enough to start distinguishing his character or should I just make a new beginning?
    Thanks

  27. JVKJRon 05 Dec 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Hmm… Evan can be reduced in book 2 (poor guy always seems to get the short stick), in book 4 Aiola and Alastren can sort of be… not huge characters, books 5 & 6 can’t have the characters reduced, though.

  28. JVKJRon 05 Dec 2012 at 5:21 pm

    Merging them probably wouldn’t be possible- they’d all have to be able to be in two places at once. Plus, they have their own distinct roles, which the others couldn’t do.
    Also, I can’t really shed most of these characters, because I’m not done with them until the end. I think I may be able to get rid of Thomas and Hwen, and possibly Aiola.

  29. FVE-Manon 06 Dec 2012 at 10:21 pm

    The Writer: That sounds similar to the opening of a story I plan to write. The protagonist is a college bro and a womaniser, who gets woken by a bucket of water to the face thrown by his roommate. He then chases said roommate down the hall in his boxers, realising at some point between waking and vomiting that he’s hung over.

    I feel that this sets up a story much better than having the protagonist wake, eat breakfast and take a shower (the opening to a novel I wrote when I was 15), which I think is the type of opening criticised in this article. What I want to know is what traits to give a womaniser/”player” to make him stand out from every other womaniser/player in fiction.

  30. Dr. Vo Spaderon 06 Dec 2012 at 10:30 pm

    Depression. The one woman he truly cared for rejected him, so he tries to drown his memory of her out with other women. (Or at least, that’s a theme I’ve seen several times.)

  31. The Writeron 06 Dec 2012 at 11:34 pm

    One trait I gave my character, besides a certain shallowness with being a womanizer, is a sad quality. He often has multiple relationships going on, realizing that each woman can give him a certain aspect of what he is looking for, but not all of it. He has to combine the characteristics of various women to feel happy, but even then he realizes that it is not the same. It makes him sort of act withdrawn and sad, knowing that he will never find exactly who he is looking for.
    My character also acts a bit arrogant and loud, typical of a “college bro”, but he is also compassionate and composed when he has to. This gives him more depth, knowing how and when to control his traits. He is also very strong-headed and will be quick to point out his personal opinion.
    In terms of relationships, I wrote kind of a complicated one for my character. He quickly falls for a pretty girl he meets and sees her often. He likes her because she is similar to him, like she likes to go to parties and have fun, but he realizes very quickly that there is not much more in their relationship besides sex and he begins looking for other women. He then goes for a coworker while maintaining the relationship with the first girl. He sleeps with his coworker occasionally, but most of the time they argue with each other. The latest part is when he has to go to Switzerland and meets a quiet, reserved Swiss girl. They have a more passionate relationship, but become more friends than anything beyond that. He also knows that he has to go back to the United States and tells the Swiss girl. When he returns he stays in contact with her, but is always sad remembering that he won’t see her again.
    Does this idea of the protagonist being a partying womanizer who is incomplete and also somewhat misunderstood sound reasonable, or does he come across as to sleazy?

  32. FVE-Manon 08 Dec 2012 at 5:03 am

    “Depression. The one woman he truly cared for rejected him, so he tries to drown his memory of her out with other women. (Or at least, that’s a theme I’ve seen several times.)”

    Yep, I’ve noticed this trend too. Depression alone isn’t an overdone trait, but these womanisers always seem to have that one that got away.

    “Does this idea of the protagonist being a partying womanizer who is incomplete and also somewhat misunderstood sound reasonable, or does he come across as to sleazy?”

    That sounds reasonable. I think if you make a character’s entire goal “Get lots of sex”, the plot will drag on and the reader won’t care much whether they succeed or fail. If sex is just tied into their journey somehow – like it’s a big part of their relationship, or they have to score with the Seven Crystal Babes to defeat the dark wizard Monogamoor – then the reader will more likely empathise with their actions.

  33. B. McKenzieon 08 Dec 2012 at 9:23 am

    “Depression alone isn’t an overdone trait, but these womanisers always seem to have that one that got away.” Otherwise, I think a womanizer would probably be less likable and less dramatic.

  34. FVE-Manon 09 Dec 2012 at 5:19 am

    I’m sure there are other ways to make a womaniser likeable. Of course, my protagonist does have an ex that causes trouble for him towards the end of the story, but the most likeable and dramatic aspects of his quest would come from trying to woo the woman who changes him (the one he meets after all the others).

    I’m thinking this love interest would be a tomboy. Or at the very least, wise to the underhanded methods of a player. Can anyone think of clichés typical of this type of girl in fiction?

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