Have you ever encountered a story that was too clumsy, slow, or flat to finish reading? It is probably filled with fiction-writing crimes you should avoid committing.
The world is full of bad fiction, and there are many different things that can make a story awful. Sometimes even professional writers come up with questionable stories or plots that don’t work well on paper.
Unpublished bad fiction can still be fixed with enough editing and writing. Published bad fiction is too late, and it’s either going to become a cult classic, or haunt the writer until they’ve written something else.
Fiction fatalities can be stopped.
Writing Better Fiction
I don’t think any writer sits down and says, ‘I want to write a story that’s received badly by readers, and panned by critics.’
Nobody thinks, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to have this idea rejected by the editor.’
Sometimes, though, it’s going to happen.
It’s better to catch potentially bad fiction in the draft phase. It’s always a better option to edit the first draft, than to see mistakes, flaws, or faults when your story has already been published.
What Do You Do With Bad Fiction?
If you’ve written a bad story, remember that it’s still a draft piece. At this point, the writer (YOU) can change anything about the story – including the most drastic plot points, or the smallest details.
What the heck do you do with ‘bad fiction’?
Hey, Who Are You To Judge?
I’m not judging anyone’s fiction. But readers, editors, and existing fans might have their own opinion (and often the writer has no guarantees what this opinion will be).
Use reliable beta-readers, or hire a professional freelance editor with proven experience. An honest look at a potential story could stop bad fiction before it escapes – and gives the writer a chance to edit.
Here’s how to spot some of the most common fiction-writing crimes.
Don’t Commit These 9 Fiction-Writing Crimes
Would you beat your beloved, ageing mother to death with a weighty typewriter? Writers should do their best to avoid murdering, mangling, or muddling their fiction.
As a writer, it’s probably as bad as the typewriter example I’ve given above.
If you don’t want to kill your story, avoid the following:
1. Over-Describing Scenes & Settings
A writer doesn’t require a 6-page description for the reader to know what the dining room table looked like (especially when it means nothing to the plot!). A lot of fiction still makes this mistake.
Don’t over-describe a scene or setting. Readers don’t need it, and editors won’t want it. Describe what’s necessary, and imply or show everything else.
If you’re looking for help with setting, buy our Setting Up The Setting Workbook.
2. Under-Describing Scenes & Settings
Scenes or settings can also be lacking proper description. Sometimes, it’s clear that the writer just took the easiest description out.
‘The table was red,’ is a fine description, but how much effort is shown on the writer’s part?
‘The table was an off-colour red, with green flecks showing underneath the old paint,’ is a second try at the same description.
Can you see a clearer picture of the same table?
If you’re looking for help with setting, buy our Setting Up The Setting Workbook.
3. Grammatical Mistakes
Grammatical mistakes happen, but that’s why writers are encouraged to edit their work past first drafts. Third-party editorial assistance also helps grammatical mistakes from making it into published work.
Check with spell-checking tools, then check again, then have a professional check. It’s the best way to ensure that your text isn’t full of mistakes you’ve missed.
This is one of the worst fiction-writing crimes to commit.
If you need help with your grammar, buy The Complete Grammar Workbook.
4. Hollow Characters
Characters should have personality, background, and life on the pages of your story. Write a rich character history before placing a character into your story as a first piece of advice on characters.
Effective characters should almost exist to the reader. We’re thrilled, saddened, angered, or even inspired by the things we read fictional characters doing in stories.
Are your characters complete enough to stand on their own, even if you took away the elements of your story around them? Make sure the answer is yes.
Use our Character Creation Kit to create great characters for your stories.
5. Robotic Dialogue
If you have never noticed this, fictional dialogue in stories always has a certain flow or feel. It’s intentional, and it’s written in such a way that it’s accurate as human conversation (but also not quite).
Study fictional dialogue. Now, study movies and TV dialogue scenes.
Next, I’d like you to look at documentaries and transcriptions of human conversation.
Real people say a lot of uhms, ahs, maybe’s, and other connecting words. Real people tend to derail conversations, or jump between topics.
Fictional dialogue intentionally does not, because it would distract the viewer or reader.
If your dialogue isn’t on point, the reader will notice, and often be unable to put their finger on what’s bothering them (unless, of course, they’re an editor).
Learn to write better dialogue with The Dialogue Workbook
6. Procedural Inaccuracies
Episodes of Nurse Jackie and Scrubs weren’t written by medical personnel, yet millions of medical staff watched and enjoyed these shows. Episodes of CSI or Criminal Minds aren’t written by police officers, yet many professionals watch and enjoy these shows.
How do writers get procedure for specific careers right?
They use consultants. Ask someone who does it for a living (or studies the direction you’re writing about) for accurate answers.
There’s almost nothing worse than getting procedure wrong. It’s when readers look at text and say, ‘That’s not how this really works!’
For legal stuff, ask lawyers. For medical elements, ask doctors. It’s a lot of fun.
7. Filler Text
Editors don’t have a lot of time, and filler text will make them want to beat you with a stick. Readers just don’t like having their leisure time interrupted with an increased word count.
You’ll know filler text when you see it, and so will readers. It’s when a writer describes things that have no importance or impact just to increase their word count.
Please, dear writer, don’t. If word count needs to be increased, add some senses or important character/scene descriptions.
8. Hanging Threads (Or Unanswered Questions)
Creating a plot is like weaving a blanket. Leave any hanging threads, and the whole thing can unravel when this thread gets pulled on by the next visitor.
Writers should never leave hanging threads or open ends. Tie up plot points, and any facts or questions about your fictional world that might be left unexplained at the end of the book.
Do you have any idea how many weird questions are asked about characters in the Harry Potter or Marvel universe every day? Go look. It’s amazing what people will ask.
If a writer doesn’t tie up any loose threads (even very strange questions) in the outlining or manuscript phase, you’re leaving holes for readers to pick at.
When readers have a question, have an answer, even for the weirdest plot questions.
9. Drastic, Sudden, Or Weird Detail Changes
It’s common for drastic, sudden, or weird details to change between chapters. What you don’t want is for these mistakes to remain beyond the second draft – or heavens forbid, to publication.
For example, in one chapter a character is called Jack, but in one scene it changes to John. Another example, a street is called Blossom Avenue in one section, but Blossom Road in the next.
Careful editing (and outlining of every detail) can stop changing details in their tracks.
The Last Word
Have you committed any fiction-writing crimes lately? Using this checklist will help you with your published or submitted writing.
By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.
If you enjoyed this, read other posts by Alex:
- 8 Unethical Copywriting Techniques To Avoid
- 8 Things To Do With A Rejected Manuscript
- 7 Lessons In Better Writing From The Beatles
- A Step-By-Step Guide To Help You Write Resolutions
- How To Write The Death Scene
- 9 Ways For Writers To Find More Clients, Customers, & Writing Markets
- 7 Bits Of Writing Advice From The Works Of Charles Dickens
- Sentences, Paragraphs, & Chapters Explained