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 responses to “Five Common Problems I See In Your Stories”

  1. I appreciate your telling it like it is. It truly is the story we need to concentrate on. As a new follower of your blog, I’m learning SO much and I’ve only read a few posts. This is terrific stuff!!

  2. The plumber’s crack disappeared when he stood and turned to give her the bad news. “All hat, no cowboy,” he said. “Sheesh,” she said, “Get to the point.”

    He handed her the bill.

    Happily, no bill from you. Just great advice, with no hat. Thanks.

  3. Chuck,

    I spoke to you briefly at the conference when I bought your book. I was the last one read on that very first R&C 123. I WAS shaking in my seat, bc I knew my work wasn’t at the level it needed to be to be shared. I ate the advice up like dessert, though. I expected you could have been a bit harsher, I wouldn’t have kept reading, either. That is the beauty of this article – a reminder of what needs to be done that isn’t being done. Got it. Back to work.

    • Haha, I say that often, too. In the end I got too many stickers … no room for notes or writing because of all the motivational quotes.
      So I limited it down: “Be worthy”.

  4. I learn something every time I read your blog, even if it’s something uncomfortable. I like to think I start a story without a lot of throat clearing, but I need to know it and know it and know it. You had me at “fucktart” but I’m glad I stayed for “It’s threading like, seven different needles in one swift movement.” Nails. Heads.

  5. When I’ve done critiques I’ve found that the story usually starts around page 2. It’s frequently possible to just throw away the entire first page, which is often just wheel-spinning setup before the REAL first sentence appears.

    • Exactly! I try to tell this to my writing group as well but they keep adding on exposition. it’s too bad because they’re quite talented and their ideas are awesome. And I’m just like “get to the point!”

  6. Thanks for the reminder. I usually only realise this after 2 edits. I have one third of my next book done and it’s already more than 50k and I know why – too many words.

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

    You’re not James Joyce.

    That explains why I hate reading James Joyce. I’ve never been able to put it in words other than “tedious” before.

  8. Another post well worth reading. Your point about the first scene needing to grab the audience is so very true, and I find that every time I review mine I’m having to start the novel further in because I’m giving the reader too much back-story before I get to the real ‘happening.’ Will keep at it ’cause one of these times it’s gonna work!

    • Chuck this blog post os what I needed. With my manuscripts, I had so much fluff that I wasn’t getting down to it. I did in my last book that I wrote, but, they seem to be shorter around 35,000-40,000 words. Is that ok? People say thats not a novel, it’s a novella. Whatever it is the story is great. Im querying to agents about it. In your manuscripts, what is your word count?

  9. I could staple this to my wall. Especially “Get the F out of the way of your story.” I am probably in my story’s way more than I like to admit.

  10. I know an author who can take an entire paragraph to describe a lamp. She thinks she’s describing it in a beautiful way…

    • When I see something like that, I tend to give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that the lamp is somehow important — or else why would it be there? Chekov’s Lamp, lol. And then when the lamp (or whatever it was) has absolutely NO significance at all, I feel let down and confused. Like maybe they forgot some kind of important plot point with the lamp. And this is why I hate Tom Bombadil. :/ Geek heresy, I know. I don’t care.

  11. I regret not being to go the main event of the Pikes Peak Writing Conference. *sigh*

    But, good advice as usual. Often, I find I’m in the way of my story. Every day i get better though. Plugging away till the end.

  12. Who needs coffee when I can read this heart starter at the beginning of my day? (Although even better with coffee). Love your tips. Unfortunately the first pages – the pages that count the most and are under the most scrutiny by everyone, are where beginner writers begin. I was a better writer by the end of my book and was able to go back and rework them (and rework them, and rework them). So true that it is like threading seven different needles in one swift movement, an impossible feat only made possible by lots and lots of practice at writing, and plenty of reading, too. I always think of the Hunger Games first chapter, where a very experienced writer accomplished all of the above, as well as providing hook after hook. Thx for your insightful feedback.

    • Haha, I spend a quarter of an hour these days reading “500 ways to be a better writer” to get me going before I actually write. Lol.
      I, too, experience what you describe here. The beginning must always be rewritten. Rule no. 1 of writing! (uh, how many rule no. 1’s have we got now?)
      The beginning of my book has been redone so much I’m not sure I can even look at it unbiased anymore.

  13. Oh man, I struggle SO. FRICKING. MUCH with that last point. I am that story-teller! The all hat, no cowboy one! I can’t help it, it’s genetics or something, it’s how everyone in my family has always told stories (and everyone in my family is a story-teller). Trying to get that quality out of my writing is a bit like trying to extract oil from water with a turkey-baster. Very frustrating. :/

    Anyway, thanks for the kick-in-the-pants. Always a pleasure, sir. ^_^

    • I think Tolkien is a good example of a person who does both. Crazy language, awesome story 🙂 You can do both. (Though, truthfully, some people give up on lord of the rings due to the language.)

  14. Just..straight up solid, great advice. I read this and thought “fuck” and “yeah” and “anal polyps” a lot, but that says more about me than you.

  15. This is Gospel. Words I will live by.

    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

    I’m guilty of this – as uncomfortable as it makes me feel to admit it. I think we can all be a little (or largely) egotistical and put far too much importance on words rather than story.

    Thanks Chuck.

  16. I’ve been hearing so much about character these past few weeks and your number three point really clinched it that I have to double down on that aspect of my writing. (Especially since I’m writing a series of books with a common set of characters :P)

    I’d be interested in hearing more about number five though, since not a whole helluva lot of writers talk about getting out of the way of the story.

  17. I read the part about YOU ARE TOTALLY OVERWRITING – and have just spent the last two hours rewriting a couple of chapters of my w-i-p. You were right – I totally was, and I thank you muchly, Chuck.

    Is there any way you can clone yourself, so that all of us writers around the world can have one of you beside our desk to wave pompoms at us/kick our butts on a daily basis? That’s a merchandise idea, yeah? 😉

  18. Phew. I totally had all these long-form notes from the conference that I needed to get into my computer space but, yet again, YOU’RE ALREADY THERE CHUCK.

    Haha. Erm. Sorry for the shouty bit. But yeah. This. It’s the conference distilled down to its juicy sweet essence. Thanks. It’s fantastic.

    I’ve also told my husband that he failed 10 to 43 times since I’ve been home and I think it’s beginning to affect his self esteem. Ack.

  19. Love this post. But I do have a problem with something you said up front: “This blog is for writers who write. Full stop.”

    I’m not a writer. I’m not an aspiring writer. I don’t even dream of being a writer! I am a reader. But I still read this blog (and your books) religiously.

    For me, learning about the art of writing and storytelling significantly increases my appreciation and enjoyment of reading. As an added benefit, some of the best books and authors I have discovered over the last few years have originated in one way or another from this blog and its readers.

    I think this blog is for people interested in the art of writing. For whatever reason.

  20. Great stuff, Chuck; thanks. I’d argue there are brilliant books out there which are almost entirely style and not much story, but they are written by brilliant authors who really, really, really know what they’re doing. I am not that author. It’s good to be reminded.

  21. Sometimes when I read this kind of generalized advice, I take it as applicable, sometimes not, and it all comes down to my mood when I read it.

    “Fuck, he’s right,” versus, “Sand, pack he must.”

  22. Dude, thanks a ton. I’m not an “aspiring writer.” I’m an ass-kicking writer…one who aspires to greatness, but is no lesser than any other wordsmith out there. Hell yes.

  23. Great insight and advice, deftly delivered as always. Thanks, Chuck. I could read your words all day. Especially “fucktart,” “heartbucket,” and “penmonkey.” Mmmm. Good words.

  24. “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.”

    So…I’m sorry, I know, this is supposedly fairly simple advice — don’t just list physical features, tell us why we should care about them as people — but I have a question. What if your character is unlikeable, or they have a mean streak, or they are an otherwise unsavory person who who you wouldn’t want to “connect” to? I understand the difference between the story connecting to character immediately (instead of to boring description and other things like that) but…what if you open with an unlikeable or downright nasty character? What happens when the person reading doesn’t connect with the character right away? Is that too subjective from person to person, or should I actually worry about it? :/

    • Your character doesn’t have to be likable, it just has to be interesting.

      For example, Gillian Flynn’s “Dark Places” starts with the following lines:

      “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.”

      Now, this led me to believe we’d be dealing with a nasty person (more so than she actually turned out to be), but it also hook-line-and-sinkered me straight into the story.

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