Maybe you’re like me when I was a new writer. I wrote my heart out, not giving any attention to the “rules” of writing. Frankly, I didn’t know there were rules. It wasn’t until I finished my first novel and submitted it to an editor, and got rejected that I realized there were a million things I didn’t know about writing a novel. That’s when I decided to learn the “rules” of writing and discovered I was not alone in the mistakes I made.
Too Much Backstory
Everyone falls in love with their characters, and we want everyone to know everything about them so they can fall in love with them too. But what new writers don’t realize is that you don’t have to tell a character’s entire backstory to hold a reader's interest. In fact, the less you tell up front, the more intrigued your reader may be about your character.
So what if you have a bunch of backstory? That’s okay for now. Sometimes writers have to get to know their characters before than can tell their story. So let the words flow. Just remember you will have to go back and do some editing.
Then once you know your character’s story, ask yourself “What is the most important thing about my character the reader needs to know NOW to understand my character’s action.” Include that piece of information and then later look for ways to weave in your character’s history instead of explaining it all at once in narrative. How do you do that?
You can show your character’s history through her present actions. Did something happen in her past to make her angry or cynical? Did something happen to cause her to have a bad relationship with a friend or family member? Resist the Urge to explain (RUE) why a character is acting the way she’s acting and just show it. Then as the story progresses you can drop little nuggets of information, one liners, or subtle comments through dialogue or internal thought to give the reader a HINT at her backstory. If you drop all the information about your character up front, the mystery and intrigue will be gone, and your reader will be bored and not want to turn the page.
Improper Use of POV or Head Hopping
Many new writers like to get inside the head of every character, but this can be confusing to the reader. The basic rule is to tell the story through the eyes of one character during a certain scene or chapter. The character whose eyes you see through is called the POV character and when you write action or description, you only write what that character sees and feels. Think of it like looking through a camera lens. Whatever your character sees through the lens is what you have them see in your story. That means they can’t see when someone sneaks up behind them, but they may be able to hear footsteps or smell a distinct odor as the person approaches. This also applies to emotions. You can’t know what every character thinks or feels. Just the thoughts and feelings of your POV character. Yes, some writers break the rules, and it works. But usually not for new writers.
Telling Emotions Instead of Showing
Though many new writers may have a good grasp of showing the actions in a scene instead of telling, most still have difficulty showing emotions. Instead of naming the emotions, writers can show the emotion in an action beat by researching how that emotion is displayed physically and viscerally. So a better way to convey to your reader that a character is angry is to show him being angry instead of telling the reader the character is angry. No one likes to be told how to feel. The same is true with the reader. If you allow the reader to feel your character’s emotions instead of telling them, it will make for a richer reading experience.
Not Enough Conflict
Once your character starts her journey toward her goal, there should be conflict, preferably on every page. But remember conflict comes in many forms. There’s internal conflict which stems from opposing goals, dreams, fears, insecurities, and past mistakes. There’s relational conflict where another character causes problems (external or internal) for the main character. And there is external conflict that comes from outside the character. Conflict is anything that slows the journey of your character and makes it more difficult (yet not impossible) for them to reach the end of their journey. And conflict is what drives a story and makes a reader turn the page.
No Story Structure
Instead of thinking of story structure as a bunch of rules you have to follow, think of it as destination stops on the way to where you want to go. If you were taking a cross country trip, there would be certain places you’d stop. This is the basis of story structure. But how you get to those different places has endless possibilities. For example, you can start in New York and drive to Philadelphia. Then you can take a plane to Dallas, take a bus to Oklahoma city and maybe rent a motorcycle for the rest of your journey. Not so structured, now is it?
Though many writers start out making these writing mistakes, learning the rules of good writing isn’t hard. Are there times writers break these rules? Yes, and it can work, especially when you have a reason for breaking the rules and know why you’re doing it. But to do that, new writers should learn and the “rules” to great writing.
Gina Conroy, a.k.a. "the other Gina," is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket. She's the founder of Writer...Interrupted and is still learning how to balance a career with raising a family. She is represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary, and her first novella, Buried Deception, in the Cherry Blossom Capers Collection, released from Barbour Publishing in January 2012 with her second novel Digging Up Death recently contracted with Stonehouse Ink.