Stumbling Blocks

Friends who have achieved a similar age received diamonds, or trips to Venice. What did I get as a birthday present? An invitation to take part in a bowel cancer screening programme. Be still my beating heart.

Epic Fail!

But it got me thinking about the nature of failure in general, and that of budding writers in particular. I thought it would be useful to discuss some of the pitfalls that can betray us as amateurs and which should be avoided at all costs.

  • Too much information

Why is that teenager unusually tall? Why are we told he’s six feet nine inches tall if his height isn’t remotely relevant to the plot?

I had an argument with a member of my writing group about this recently. He argued that the boy’s height was relevant because it suggested a lanky, nerdy appearance and helped with the characterisation. I agreed, up to a point, but I maintained that 6’9” is huge; completely outside the norm and by drawing attention to it, the author was suggesting something other than just loftiness, but she didn’t expand on it, so rendered it redundant.

Remember Chekhov’s rifle, which I mentioned in an earlier post.

  • A very big coincidence

If you’re planning for your villain to make his escape from the scene of the crime down a conveniently placed ladder, think again. Why is the ladder against that wall in the first place? If it just happens to be there at the right time, and therefore a coincidence, you’ve failed. But if you’ve already had a scene where the decorator who’s been painting the window frames since Chapter Two is called away urgently, leaving his ladder against the wall, you have foreshadowed.

  • The Unexplained

Who was that character that made a fleeting appearance in Chapter Three, never to be seen or referred to again? He might have made a humorous contribution to that scene but if he’s not pertinent to the story, he’s a loose end that needs to be tidied up. Murder your darlings.

  • The Rules

If the competition judge/agent/publisher stipulates double spaced, 12 point Times New Roman (I hate TNR), printed on one side only with extra wide margins, headers and footers, don’t assume you know better. In this electronic age an email submission makes more sense on all levels, but you must stick to the rules. If you don’t, that judge/agent/publisher will assume that your writing is as unprofessional as your presentation.

  • Non-sequitors

You might have mentioned that faulty connection to the gas cooker in the second chapter, but when the house blows up in the final paragraph, 350 pages later, you’ll leave your readers asking, ‘Where did that come from?’ You need to be clever, to foreshadow critical events, by dropping subtle hints, so your readers will say, ‘Ah ha!’  and congratulate themselves on spotting the clues. But don’t leave such large gaps between the hints that your readers forget they’ve read them.

  • So what?

Your prose might sparkle and your dialogue be the stuff of dreams, but if none of it leads anywhere your readers will soon give up. If the story doesn’t really get going until page 150, it’s probably best to rethink the first 149. I remember starting a very popular novel several years ago, but couldn’t get into it. I put it away and thought I’d give it a second chance when I was on holiday. What a waste of space in my suitcase! I left the book in the apartment for some other hapless reader to come across. I later had a conversation about it with a friend who said, ‘Oh, it’s good, but it doesn’t really get going until the last quarter…’ Sorry, Louis, but that’s three quarters too late for me.

  • Create some space

Long tracts of unbroken text are hard on the eye. Break up the narrative passages with some dialogue and introduce lines of reflection to break up pages of exposition. Rather than have the narrator describe a scene, let a character do it with a few apt and well-chosen comments.

  • Archetypal nonsense

Mainstream fiction editors have probably been ‘surprised’ by the hero turning out to be an animal or a ghost more times than they care to remember. Some plots are so clichéd they’ve become archetypes. That’s not to say you shouldn’t attempt such a story, but your treatment will have to be very original indeed to resurrect it from the slush pile. And that means an extremely arresting first paragraph.

  • Construction work

A story must have a structure for it to work properly. It needs an overarching narrative, a beginning, a middle and an end, with some character development, maybe a mental struggle, or some conflict to overcome. It needs to be going somewhere. Real life in microcosm. And whether it’s a comedy, a romance or a thrilling tale of derring-do, it must end in a satisfactory fashion, so your readers aren’t left wondering if someone pinched the last page.

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8 thoughts on “Stumbling Blocks

  1. More great writing advice as always. I think your points about foreshadowing are so important. Something can’t just come out of nowhere, but we also don’t want to repeatedly hammer the point so as to make it too obvious. Always a balance and often not easy to find.

    • Thank you! I’m just coming to the end of a Patrick Gale novel, which isn’t in any way chronological, but succeeds in foreshadowing so beautifully, it makes me sigh. I wish I had that talent, but I do enjoy learning from the masters

  2. You do a wonderful job of making these important points understandable. I have a hard time balancing foreshadowing with giving everything away too soon. And helpful coincidences. I hope I’ve gotten most of those out of my most recent draft….

    • Just going on my own experience, I read and hear lots of writing advice, but some of it it so indigestible it needs a translation before it’s of any use to those of us just starting out. Like I said to Carrie, we learn by reading those who’ve got in right. 🙂

  3. Great advice. Loads of good pointers here.
    Especially on that foreshadowing thing. Got to let the reader know stuff, without the reader really knowing she knows stuff, but knowing she knew it when she knows the end. Or something! 🙂
    Start at page 149.
    And white space.
    Flick through modern books – they are full of it.
    Good post:-)

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