I came across a nice thread on Quora (here and here) about common mistakes in fiction. I am sharing here the ones that I agreed with. I found particularly interesting to see which mistakes different people mentioned, as many of them contradicted each other. This makes perfect sense to me: reading is a highly personal experience. That’s why I agree with Mary Gentle that there is only one sign that a novel is bad:
You’re reading the novel. You put it down. Somehow, you never pick it up again.
But it’s a highly personal thing and we can’t generalize. There are books that have made all the mistakes below and I’d still enjoy reading.
Having said all that, here are some of the most common mistakes mentioned:
This is most common in fantasy and sci-fi. Just dumping enormous amounts of facts and history on the poor reader.
It doesn’t matter how well-constructed your world is if you’re incapable of dishing it out in smaller portions that are relevant to what’s happening in that particular sequence. If there’s a city that’s important to the story, give the reader the necessary info when the characters actually go there, instead of dumping 500 years of detailed history and politics from three different provinces in a prologue.
Give the reader a reason to care about the facts you provide.
In a sense, bland introductions are the opposite of the info dump.
The story has started too soon. Nothing is happening yet, and the characters haven’t been given a challenge that shows why they’re interesting characters. Many readers will follow a dull everyman through a traumatic or thrilling experience, or a witty narrator through something mundane, but you’ve got to give them one of those to start out with.
Few readers will twiddle their thumbs through ten pages while the author tries to set the scene.
Also, avoid mirror descriptions. Writers don’t have to reinvent the wheel for every novel. It’s completely fine to keep things simple, and even some exposition is okay if it’s important to maintain a certain pace which the story relies on. But getting up in the morning and looking in the mirror has been overdone to the point of being considered lazy writing to be avoided.
Lazy writing is the opposite of show, don’t tell.
An example: “Martin was angry.”
In this sentence, I just told you that he was angry. This is telling and is hardly compelling.
You can show the reader the same thing: “Martin’s face grew hot. ‘Fine!’ he yelled, slamming the door shut.”
He’s angry in this sentence too, but we never used the word anger. Describing common responses to anger is showing that the character is angry.
Beats are particularly important if you choose to keep introductions and descriptions very simple. It’s not a bad idea to remind the reader of a character’s appearance or demeanor every once in a while. Phrases like “her dark eyes flickering towards the door” or “his gruff voice broke the silence” can help a lot in this respect.
As readers of my Emotional Beats author guide probably know, I personally like spreading little beats like that over time, to gradually create an image of the heroes in the reader’s mind.
Another example of lazy writing is the hard-to-believe coincidence that somehow propels the plot. Way too often, the protagonist is sitting somewhere minding their own business when someone approaches. And even though the character isn’t somewhere they’re not supposed to be, nor doing something they’re not supposed to do, they dive under a couch, just as the bad guys enter the room and start spouting exposition:
Yes, as I said, we will murder Herp Derpson at 4 PM tomorrow, at the intersection between X and Y. I know it will be hard for you, as he is your brother. Because you have the same parents and stuff. Just mentioning that detail in case you’d forgotten.
Exhessive idioms and clichés
“He thought it was a piece of cake to kill two birds with one stone, but little did he know that it takes two to tango.”
Need I say more?
Acting out of character
Sometimes you don’t need three-dimensional characters. Sometimes you may just need an archetype to get a point across. That’s fine. But characters important to the story should always be fleshed out enough that you can predict their reactions, at least to a certain extent.
Having someone act completely out of character to move the story forward is a cardinal sin unless it’s part of the character’s development and the reader can nod in agreement: “Yeah, I get why he’d do that.”
Underestimating the reader
Readers are happy to suspend disbelief. It’s part of our agreement when we tell them a story. So, trust them to fill in some blanks and don’t underestimate them.
This is particularly important when you feel the need to explain your world at inopportune moments. For example, “As she flew through the air, plummeting toward the ground below, she noticed how the castle was hovering above the ground on pink and yellow streams of air. She’d always wondered how that was possible, probably something to do with the Founders’ magick, but didn’t have the time to think about it right now.”
I don’t think people plummeting to their death will wonder about the mechanics of the place, and neither will the reader. Yes, castles usually don’t float in mid-air, but no one is about to call you out on it during an action-packed sequence. Give the reader some credit!
Breaking your own rules
This one is down the same alley as the previous point.
As a writer, you set the rules. But you need a really good reason if you want to break them.
Charles Yallowitz has built a world with a nice and concise magic system in his Windemere world. The reader knows the limits of it, and the dangers, and Charles usually doesn’t have his protagonists do stuff that shouldn’t be possible within those rules just for the sake of plot convenience. Breaking a well-established set of rules for the plot without any explanation is a big middle finger towards the reader.
And, in case you’re wondering, I’ve made more than a few of these mistakes myself in my own books. Learn from my mistakes and keep writing!