Five Common Problems I See In Your Stories

This past weekend, I served as faculty at the wonderful Pike’s Peak Writing Conference in lovely Colorado Springs, Colorado. There, my first job on the first day of the conference was to take part in a roundtable blind critique session of the first pages of several manuscripts.

It’s very cool to be asked to do that, because rarely do I have the opportunity to crush souls and milk dreams of their precious dreamjuice in person. Like, I could critique a page and even though the manuscripts were blind and I did not know to whom they belonged, I could still gaze out into the audience and find the author there, eyes wet and trembling as I bit into their writing with my dread incisors. And then I bellowed “DOOM” and ate the ashen pages as they wept.

Okay, not really. I do not relish the chance to destroy dreams, and I always tried to temper my criticisms with HEY I ALSO LIKED THIS because, quite truthfully, each page always had something I liked. In fact, almost all of them had at least one sentence that I wish I had written.

What was interesting to me, however, was that while each story was very different, my criticisms of those stories often kept to a few common themes. And I thought, as I always do, HEY, HOLY CRAP, BLOG POST. I can pass along my dubious critique and maybe you writers young and old can do something with them. Or maybe you’ll think, “That bearded fucktart can go pound sand,” and that’s fine, too. And bonus points for calling me “bearded fucktart.” SEE, I LIKE YOU.

(As a sidenote, I had originally thought to label this as advice for “aspiring writers,” but I will remind you that aspiring is often the same as dreaming of, but never doing, and really, fuck that noise. This blog is for writers who write. Full stop.)

The First Page Is Vital

You don’t realize how much that first page matters until you have to judge a story based on that first page. And then you’re forced to ask the question: “Would I keep reading?”

That first page is the start of the fulfillment of promise of your premise.

It’s saying, “Here is what this story is.” It’s the first taste of a meal — and if someone doesn’t like that first taste, they aren’t always so inclined to continue unless they’re starving for content. And in this day and age? Nobody is starving for content.

You’re Totally Overwriting

You are using too many words to say too few things. And the words you’re using are too big, or poorly chosen, or feel awkward. You’re using exposition where you don’t need any. You’re invoking description that is redundant or unnecessary. You’re giving your characters a wealth of mechanical details and actions that go well-beyond a few gestures and into the territory of telegraphing every eyebrow arch, every lip twitch, every action beat of picking up a coffee mug, blowing on it, sipping from it, setting it back down, picking it back up, drinking from it, on and on.

You’re overwriting.

You’re placing all this language on the page that serves no purpose except its own existence.

You’re not James Joyce.

Cut. Tighten. Aim for rhythm-and-beat, not droning cacophony. Seek clarity over confusion. Early on, seek action over explanation. Mystery over answer. Leave things out rather than putting everything in. That’s not to say you cannot engage in a few flourishes of language. That’s not to say there won’t be a kind of poetry to your description, or a certain creative stuntery in terms of metaphor. But those are not the point of what you’re doing. Those are enhancements. They serve mood. They are a kind of narrative punctuation. They are single bites, not whole meals.

If your whole meal is just a wall of language, it’s both too much and not enough. It’s too much language, and not enough of why the fuck would I keep reading? Words are what we read, not why we read. They do not exist to serve themselves but rather, the purpose of conveying information. And the information you’re trying to convey is: story.

Kill exposition. Trim description to the leanest of cuts.

The fat will come later. The conversation will deepen as the story grows.

Do not build a wall of words.

Stop overwriting.

More on this later.

Character Above All Else

Everything is character.

Because character is story.

This is not exaggeration. We read stories for characters. Characters are the prime movers of story. They say shit and they do shit and they want things and they are afraid of things and that’s it. That’s plot, story, that’s all of it. We may stay with a story for a whole lot of reasons, but our driving reason is character. Character compels us because we are people reading stories about people. Even when they’re robots or dragons or robot-dragons or orangutan secret agents, they’re still people for purposes of our narrative consumption. We see ourselves as characters in our own stories and so we seek characters within stories. It’s like an empathy bridge.

Your story must connect us to character immediately.

Because otherwise, I just don’t care. No threat or suspense or mystery is particularly engaging if it doesn’t have a character to reflect and represent it. Without strong character shot through the first page, everything you’re giving me is a data point.

I don’t read stories to consume data points.

If your story begins and I have no sense of character or why I should give a single slippery fuck about them, what’s the point? I’m looking for connection. I want to tether myself to a character. I want to care enough to continue reading. Make me care. It’s not enough to make me think. You can worry about my intellectual connection to the story later. Right now? Hit me in the emotions. Make me feel something. PUNCH ME IN MY HEARTBUCKET.

Make Something Happen

I’m bored. Your first page has bored me. Because nothing is happening. I don’t mean that the first moment should be cataclysm and clamor — but something needs to happen. Or be in the midst of happening. Repeat after me: action, dialogue, action, dialogue. Quick description as connective tissue. Short, sharp shock. Activity over passivity.

And hey, I get it. This is easier said than done. What I just told you above about character makes this part doubly tricky, and only goes to show just what an amazing trick it is to write a jaw-dropping face-kicking sphincter-clencher of a first page. It’s threading like, seven different needles in one swift movement. You’re trying to convey action and conversation but not without also giving us enough character to care but not so much character that you’re overwriting and you’re trying to say what you need to say at the bare minimum while still trying to maintain style and energy and you wanna offer mystery but not confusion and you want to inject genre without being ham-fisted and you wanna worldbuild a little bit but not write an encyclopedia…

It’s hard.

I get it.

But damnit, penmonkey, you gotta try.

And you’re best starting off with:

Something Is Happening.

Right fucking now. And that’s why the story must be told and heard right fucking now.

Urgency! Impetus! Incitement! Excitement!

Get The Fuck Out Of The Way Of Your Story

And here, the biggest lesson of them all, and a summation of all the problems.

You are in the way of your story.

Hard truth: writing is actually not that important.

Writing is a mechanism.

It’s an inelegant middleman to what we do. It’s a shame, in some ways, that we even call ourselves writers, because it describes only the mechanical act of what we do. It’s a vital mechanism, sure, but by describing it as the prominent thing, it tends to suggest, well, prominence.

But our writing must serve story.

Story does not serve writing.

This is cart-before-horse stuff, but important to realize.

Listen, in what we do there exist three essential participants.

We have:

The tale, the teller of the tale, and the listener of the tale.

Story. Author. And audience.

That’s it.

You are two-thirds of that equation. You are the story (or, by proxy, its architect) and the teller of the story. The telling of the story is most often done through writing — through that mechanical act, and because it’s the act you can sit and watch, it’s the one that is used to describe our role. I AM WRITER, you say, and so you focus so much on the actual writing you forget that there’s this other invisible — but altogether more critical — part, which is what you’re writing.

So, what happens is, early on, you put so much on the page. You write and write and write and use too many words and too much exposition and big meaty paragraphs and at the end all it serves to do is create distance between the tale and the listener of the tale.

It keeps the audience at arm’s length.

Quit that shit.

Bring the audience into the story. This is at the heart of show, don’t tell — which is a rule that can and should be broken at times, but at its core remains a reasonable notion: don’t talk at, don’t preach, don’t lecture, don’t fill their time with unnecessary wordsmithy.

Get. To. The. Point.

And the point is the story. Not the words used to tell that story.

Here, look at it this way: you ever have a conversation with someone and they tell you a story — something that happened to them, some thing at work, some wacky sexual escapade featuring an escaped circus shark and a kale farmer named “Dave” — and you just want to smack them around and tell them to get to the actual story? Like, they just dick around in the telling of the tale, orbiting the juicy bits and taking too goddamn long to just spit it out? Maybe they think they’re creating suspense, but they’re only creating frustration. Or maybe they know — as we all do, sometimes — that the story they’re telling is actually ALL HAT, NO COWBOY, and they’re trying to fill the time with hot air in much the same way you might pad a college paper with several shovels of additional horseshit to lend it weight (and, incidentally, stench)?

Stop doing that.

Stop wasting time.

Get the fuck out of the way of your story.

You are a facilitator. Writing is a mechanism. It can be an artful and beautiful mechanism, but without substance behind it — without you actually saying something and sharing a story — it is a hollow, gutless art. The story is what your audience wants, needs, and cares about.

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72 comments

  • A “fucktart” sounds like it might be cute. I’m gonna have to stick with “fucktard.”

    But otherwise, Amen!

    I’m starting to get really greedy when it comes to reading. There’s an unlimited supply of books and I’m resolving to not wasting much more time on not just badly written books, but books that are written with mediocre skill. If the story and characters are strong enough, then I’ll keep reading, but I’m gonna skip paragraphs.

    Your example of the coffee drinking is a perfect example. Or, “He took the cap off of the milk jug and poured into his glass until it was nearly full, then he replaced the cap and put the jug back in the refrigerator.” At best, He got a glass of fucking milk. We know the mechanics of it, and just saying he got some milk is enough to let the reader fill in the details, if they want to expend any mental energy on that mundane act.

    That which you leave out, but infer, you allow the reader to provide from their side, making them a co-creator in the story. I don’t even physically describe characters. I’ll tell you what they say, how they act, the kind of things they think. The reader will know someone like that, or have impressions of people they’ve known like that and they’ll create how that character looks in their mind. If I provide every detail of the hero’s appearance and it doesn’t mesh with who my hero reminds them of, that creates some kind of discordance for them.

    So do what Chuck says and tell the story. Practice minimalism. As you revise your later drafts, you’ll spot if something is too sparse and needs some padding. If you don’t spot it, it’s okay. No one ever read a book and said, “I wish it had been a little more wordy.”

    Just knock the readers socks off and make them say, “Wow.” Or WTF, or OMG. Just something other than, YAWN.

  • I loved this article, but I do wanna point out–there are other ways to begin a novel than dropping the reader right into the current action. Perhaps that isn’t exactly what you were referring to in the “Make Something Happen” section, but that’s what I read…and it brought back uncomfortable memories of my undergraduate writing critiques, where the first two pages of EVERONE’S stories consisted basically of clumsy jump-cut “24” and “CSI” reject scenes.

    Not everybody should write action novels, because certainly not everybody is interested in reading them. And ACTION RIGHT AWAY is actually a pathetic way to begin a novel that ought to go on to be relatively contemplative, or dense, or 1,000 pages long, or whatever. If it won’t fit the remainder of the book, it looks desperate and gimmicky.

    Of course, decent editors (like yourself) can probably spot the difference between first pages that are meant to ease into an epic story, and first pages that meander bewilderedly. I’m mainly offering a counterpoint to any other writers that, like me, got it pounded up our nethers that we had to open all our stories like this, even if it made the story feel uncomfortable or formulaic, because everything else was “pretentious”.

  • Yes, indeed, Everything is character. And characters are not confined to the script. The characters necessary for finding the STORY ate both “inside” and “outside” the script and it is through their ACTIVE participation and INTERACTION with one another that a story is conceived and made present. So think and work as if the storyteller is a character, and the audience is a character, and also remember that just as the audience is the character to whom you – the storyteller – are addressing the story, so too are there characters that are addressing the storyteller, namely the storyteller’s tribe or tribes.

    The process of finding the story-that-wants-to-get-itself-told is the outcome of a series of intensely intuitive, intricate and intimate mental and emotional adjustments and re-adjustments occurring between and among ALL of the story agents (read: “characters”), and every effective (emotionally compelling) screenplay, as well as the profoundly dramatic experiences it offers, owes its development and final realisation to the symbiotic relationships that are forged and sustained as a result of the shareable or dialogical nature of the story-finding enterprise as enacted by these agents.

    Dramatic stories always involve “findings”. The characters in the script find what they need in order to restore justice or love or trust, while the screenwriter struggles through draft after draft to discover why he/she is writing the script to begin with. Actors in turn must find the source of the role they are playing within their own personal histories, accessing and using – as do the writer and other crew members – their relevant tribal affiliations and origins. The best stories impact their audiences by virtue of a series of inter-related acts of discovery made by the characters (including the storytellers) AND the audience. Each act of discovery tends to build interest and empathy by keeping the cumulative, relevant emotional energy coherent and continuously moving throughout the story finding/story experiencing process. For more like this, please visit my website at WHERE’S THE DRAMA? at http://wheresthedrama.com/plot.htm

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