Due to technical difficulties, the new post I’d planned for today will have to be moved to next week. Instead, I hope you’ll enjoy revisiting this post from the archives!
Previously, I listed 7 common mistakes I see as an editor. Today, I’d like to follow up on that post with some additional mistakes I’ve seen recently. I’ve blogged about some of these issues before, and some I plan to discuss in more depth in the future. But here is a general overview of 5 (more) common mistakes I’ve seen:
- Starting in the wrong place
I’ve talked a lot about this issue in the past (including here and here and here), so I won’t go into too much detail. But this is such a common problem that it bears repeating: start your novel when the story starts. Don’t include unnecessary backstory beforehand, and don’t drop the reader into the middle of the action with no context. Ideally, you should be starting at or just before the inciting incident. Which leads me to…
- No inciting incident
By “inciting incident,” I mean the catalyst that starts your story. This is the moment when everything changes for your protagonist and the story begins. It’s the first domino in the chain, the event that sets everything into motion. (For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s the moment when Harry gets his Hogwarts letter. In The Hunger Games, it’s when Katniss volunteers.) If you can’t pinpoint exactly what your inciting incident is and when it occurs, you might need to rethink the beginning of your story. I see too many manuscripts where things are happening, but there’s no cause and effect. For example, “Event A happens, and then Event B happens, and then…” But a story with cause and effect should look something like this: “Event A happens, which causes Event B, but then C happens which changes B, therefore D happens, but also E and F…” If you aren’t seeing cause and effect in your story, it’s possible that you’re missing the “Event A” that sets everything into motion.
- Convenience and coincidence
Make sure that you aren’t making things too easy for your characters. Your plot shouldn’t feel overly convenient or coincidental. A quote that I’ve heard before (I can’t remember who said this, sorry!) is that you can occasionally use coincidence to get your characters into trouble, but not out of trouble. They have to earn their way out. If you rob your characters of the chance to earn their way out by making it too easy for them, their victory won’t feel satisfying to the reader.
- Poor antagonists
In a similar vein, I see a lot of manuscripts with plot points that rely on the antagonists not being very good antagonists. I see a lot of bad guys who are unintelligent and reckless, allowing the protagonist to triumph not because they earned it but because the villain made a mistake. It makes a much more powerful story when the protagonists win (or lose) because of their own skills and intelligence, not because the villain is incompetent.
Also, I see a lot of villains who are evil just for the sake of being evil, and their only characterization serves only to establish just how evil they are. Personally, I find it much more compelling to see complex antagonists with complex motivations. Keep in mind that your antagonist doesn’t actually have to be a bad person, just someone whose goals conflict with the protagonist’s. (Think of popular rivalries in fiction like Valjean vs. Javert or Mozart vs. Salieri. None of these characters are evil, but they’re standing in each other’s way, and that’s what makes their rivalry so fascinating.)
- Characterization via telling
I see a lot of manuscripts that describe characterization directly via the narrator, which causes several problems. Mainly, it’s telling instead of showing. If you want the reader to believe that a character is funny, for example, don’t have the protagonist say so; instead, show her telling jokes so that the readers can see how funny she is. It’s a much more powerful way to include characterization. Use their actions, dialogue, and internalization to show who they are, what they’re like, and how they think.
It can be okay to include characterization via telling occasionally, but it should be used sparingly. Additionally, make sure that you’re not contradicting what’s told and what’s shown. For example, I read a manuscript where a character was described repeatedly as “creepy,” “psychotic,” “twisted,” etc. But during his actual interactions with the narrator, he seemed perfectly normal. There was a major disconnect between what was told and what was shown. Focusing on showing the characterization will help eliminate this issue.
What do you think? Do you struggle with any of these issues? What are some other common problems, either in your work or in published books? Let me know in the comments!
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