Story flaws: Finding and fixing them—PART 2

From Rick:

In PART-1, I talked about three major flaws a story can have:

(1) The story fails to engage the reader
(2) The characters fail to engage the reader
(3) The story takes too long to become interesting (or to get moving)

A writer friend of mine pointed out that he generally likes stories “that have backstory, build slowly, and emphasize character over plot.”

Reader preferences vary widely. I love strong characters, but I also want a good story to go along with those characters. Some readers, like my friend, love a slowly building story, while others like openings with a bang. Good backstory enriches the narrative by making both the characters and the main story more interesting.

However, no matter what a reader’s preferences are, unless you’re an author with a proven track record of always delivering on story, then you’re going to need something interesting to grab your reader’s attention in the beginning. All the great writing, great character development, and rich backstory will go to waste if your prospective reader doesn’t get past your opening.

The three major story flaws apply irrespective of the reader’s preferences. It does not matter in the grand scheme whether the story builds slowly (suspense) or builds quickly (action/adventure) if it doesn’t grab and hold the reader’s attention along the way.

In an online workshop I recently attended, I heard some great bits of advice on openings:

—GOLDEN RULE: Your novel’s opening should be interesting.

—Show what’s interesting before you show what’s mundane.

—If you want to know how to craft a good opening, pull a number books by respected authors from your bookshelf and look at their openings.

But while the first three story flaws I mentioned last time are vital ones to avoid, they are not the only potential pitfalls stories may fall into.

FLAW #4: TOO MUCH TELLING

This is another big one because it can sap a story’s strength. Telling occurs in two forms. The first is direct exposition (which includes description and explanation), where the author tells the reader what’s going on either directly or from the perspective of the POV character. The second is exposition masquerading as dialogue, where the characters tell the reader in their dialogue what’s going on. The latter is necessarily bad unless it’s the only purpose that dialogue serves. In the worst cases, the characters discuss what they’re going to do and the narrative later repeats it.

The way to avoid this flaw is to ensure that any descriptions and explanations come out naturally and don’t go on too long. There are times when direct telling is warranted. That can happen when the information is important but not important enough to bother showing it, which usually takes a lot more words. If a thief needs to pick a lock, it may not be best to go through the details of his actions in picking that lock. On the other hand, if there is some trap on the lock or other complications to the picking that will add suspense, then showing the actions would be better.

Go through your story and look at every place where you’re imparting information to the reader. Ask yourself first if the information is necessary. If it is, try to decide the best way to impart it to the reader so that it comes out naturally and smoothly without being boring or disrupting the story’s flow

FLAW #5: WEAK WRITING STYLE

This goes beyond basic errors in grammar and misused words. Are your sentences stiff and is the writing itself boring? Novice writers likely won’t pick up on this, so this is where outside readers can help set you straight. However, if you read the story out loud or have someone else read it to you, then you might hear the problem.

Compare the following two examples:

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EXAMPLE 1:

Eli had finished teaching his night class at Wayne State University. He packed up his things and left the classroom building. The campus streets glistened. A brief thunderstorm had passed through an hour before. The air was muggy. The campus streets were deserted.

A young woman exited another building ahead of him. She walked toward the parking lot. She carried a folded denim jacket on top of the books under her arm.

EXAMPLE 2:

After Eli finished teaching his night class, he packed up his things and left the classroom building. Outside, the Wayne State University campus streets glistened from the brief thunderstorm of an hour before. The storm had left muggy air and deserted campus streets in its wake.

Ahead of him, a young woman exited another building, carrying a folded denim jacket on top of the books under her arm as she walked toward the parking lot.

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Both contain the same information, but in the first the writing is stiff and boring because all of the sentences have the same structure. I’ve pointed out in previous posts that you have to be careful when varying your sentences. If you vary them all the same way, you haven’t solved the problem and may have made it worse as in Example 3 below.

EXAMPLE 3:

Eli finished teaching his night class, packing up his things before leaving the classroom building. Outside, a brief thunderstorm passed through an hour before, leaving the deserted Wayne State University campus streets glistening and muggy air in its wake.

Ahead of him, he saw a young woman exiting another building, carrying a folded denim jacket on top of the books under her arm, walking toward the parking lot.

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This last example overdoes the -ing verb form clauses and places them all at the end of the sentences. The writing is not stiff like in Example 1, but the same sentence style begins to annoy, and if continued, will grate on the reader.

FLAW #5: GORGEOUS WRITING THAT GOES NOWHERE

This is sort of the opposite of FLAW #4 except that the writer decides to choose more erudite or flowery words or writes a lot of complex sentences or goes overboard with details. While such language has its place, when overdone, it gets annoying for the reader.

EXAMPLE 4: After Eli finished imparting his wisdom to the students of his night class, American History from 1865 to the Present, he methodically placed his computer-printed notes on top of the laptop computer in the open black leather briefcase on the long lecture table at the front of the classroom. He locked the case and spun the combination dials, then he retrieved his long leather coat from the hook next to the white board. Walking back to the desk, he picked up his briefcase and headed toward the exit door near the front corner of the room. Pressing the release lever on the door, he exited the building.

Outside, the Wayne State University campus streets glistened from the brief thunderstorm of an hour before. The wet streets and sidewalks reflected the orange overhead lights and made the campus seem brighter than usual at this time of night. The storm had left muggy air and deserted campus streets in its wake…

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I think you get the picture. In certain circumstances, such more detailed description might be appropriate for setting the mood of the scene, but while this description is being delivered, nothing significant is happening to advance the story. Knowing when such description is appropriate is the difference between writers who know what they’re doing and those who don’t and who feel that such description is always necessary.

In the story I took this example from, the details of Eli packing up and leaving are irrelevant because we never visit that scene again. The exterior doesn’t need all that detail either, just enough to paint the mood because what happens next overshadows everything else, and again, this scene is never revisited in the story.

Now, the details of the campus in the second paragraph, with the streetlights reflecting off the wet streets making the scene brighter than usual do add to the setting, but you have to ensure that those details matter to the scene and that the extra brightness makes a difference in what Eli sees.

Knowing when details are NOT necessary is just as important as knowing when they are. And you can determine this by asking yourself what’s gained by adding more detail. Does it matter to the story? More importantly, does it matter to the CHARACTER, and would the character notice those details?

The next time you have your character enter a home and you describe one piece of furniture as being an Eames chair, for example, make sure your character even knows what an Eames chair is.

FLAW #6: AN UNREMARKABLE STORY OVERALL

What makes for a remarkable story as opposed to an unremarkable one?

It has nothing to do with the story idea having been done before. What makes a story remarkable is how it surprises by being different, despite being the same story idea done before.

How many stories, movies, or TV shows can you think of that involve a love story, or someone dying from some incurable disease, or a murder/detective story, or aliens attacking earth, or zombies, vampires, werewolves…? Yet we continue to see all of these done successfully.

Lately I’ve been watching the old Stargate SG1 series, based on the original movie Stargate released in 1994. The series began in 1997, ran for ten seasons then switched over to a new series Stargate Atlantis then to Stargate Universe. The combined three series ran for seventeen seasons. At the core of these is basically “aliens vs. earth,” but the combination of the concept and the strong main characters—the same factors that made Star Trek and Star Wars remarkable—kept them going.

I’m not suggesting that your story needs to be on the level of those, but you should be asking yourself whether your story stands out enough to make it memorable. Don’t lie to yourself and think that just because you wrote it, readers should automatically love it.

The difference between remarkable and unremarkable stories has nothing to do with the basis of the story and more to do with connecting your idea to your reader.

FLAW #7: TOO MUCH BAD/WEAK DIALOGUE

Dialogue in a story is great, and strong dialogue can carry a story along, but if the dialogue is mundane or goes nowhere, or if it’s just talking heads (characters talking back and forth without visuals to accompany the dialogue), then it’s weak dialogue.

I’ve said on many occasions that good dialogue should either tell us something about the characters or advance the plot—and the best does both. Examine each line of your dialogue to be sure it does this.

FLAW #8: WEAK STORY THAT LEADS UP TO A SURPRISE ENDING

Stories that are nothing more than a great surprise ending are likely not going to engage the reader if what leads up to that ending is an unremarkable story. Let’s say you have a story about a boy who adopts a stray dog, loves it, feeds it, teaches it tricks, and at the end discovers the dog is really an alien from outer space. Cool ending, but the journey to the ending must be worthwhile as well. I plan on doing a future post on the different types of story endings, hopefully with examples.

These are certainly not all the flaws a story could have, but these are important ones to watch out for as you write and before you give it to your beta readers. They will hopefully identify all the problems you may have, but the more flaws your story has, the harder it will be for them to analyze it. If the flaws are too extensive, they may just see it as a bad story overall, and that’s not going to be much help to you.

—Rick

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