Despite my crazy college schedule, I always make sure I find time to read as much as I can, whether it’s popular novels, excerpts from the works of some of my readers, or whether it’s just articles about the art of writing and story-telling. From months of research and years of reading experience, I have a fair idea of what makes a book, and more importantly, what breaks it.
So, let me share some common mistakes that I have noticed in multiple works that have been submitted to me so far that have turned me off as a reader.
Just a disclaimer before anyone comes at me with a pitchfork: if anything on this list makes you feel like I am personally attacking you, let me assure you that I am not. My observances are generalised, and if by chance they do apply to you, now would be a good time to take a step back and review yourself as a writer and maybe work on your style and structure.
- Exposition Dumps
This is the first thing any writing mentor is going to warn you about. Exposition dumping is not a good way to begin your story. It’s not a good way to end your story. Exposition dumps are, in fact, to be avoided at all times, no matter what point you are at in your story.
What you need to understand is that “exposition” is very different from an exposition dump. Readers need exposition. We need to be handed information vital to the plot. But there are better ways to do it than “Once upon a time there was a land far away with two kings who had five sons each and every son was a stunning bachelor looking for a bride and every bride necessarily needed to have blonde hair…”
Don’t fling information at your reader one after the other. Give it some time. Set up a scene. Use dialogue. Let character interactions gently deliver the information to your reader, rather than having it catapulted at them.
- Ignoring Pacing
It’s so frustrating to read a book where some scenes seem to go on forever, literally. Pages and pages of JUST one event. The worst part is when that event is absolutely irrelevant. Or repetitive.
Have your characters kissed before? Great. That means that I expect them to not kiss in detail, one page per kiss, for the next ten times that they kiss, making it a total waste of ten entire pages.
Keep unnecessary details as short as possible. We don’t need a paragraph on the weather. If it’s hot, make your character wipe a bead of sweat off their brow as they toil in the heat. If it’s cold, make their teeth chatter. Keep in mind that you’re writing a novel, not a weather report.
Similarly, try to cut off excessive dialogue from your manuscript. Your characters can exchange pleasantries.
They don’t have to exchange hellos and good-mornings and a ton of other unnecessary lines that don’t really need to be there.
Don’t do it. Just don’t.
Similarly, make sure that you spend a good amount of time on scenes and dialogue that actually matter. It’s boring and confusing to read a book where the commentary jumps from one thing to another in the matter of a few lines.
Don’t make several important (and emotional) developments happen within the span of half a paragraph. That kills the emotional impact of the event and makes the story really hard to follow. No one wants to re-read a paragraph twice just to process the shabbily written plot twist or development. Give the reader time, and learn to take things easy where you should.
- Focusing too much on the romance
If your story is supposed to be about your brave hero finding his way through the darkness to kill the scariest monster to ever walk this planet, why does it suddenly have to revolve around his love interest completely?
I get it. Romantic sub-plots are exciting to write. They also add a lot to your characters and to the plot. But unless, from the very beginning, the romantic sub-plot serves a very crucial role in your story, I don’t seem to understand why you need to focus on it so much. The hero should be training for the battle, given the danger at hand. Not braiding flowers into the hair of his lady love.
Spending too much time unnecessarily on the romantic sub-plot just for kicks tends to shift the focus from your actual plot. And unless you’re writing a romance, this practice ends up doing a great disservice to the genre that you are actually writing and the target audience you are trying to sell the book to.
- Not Caring About Side Characters
I’m sure I’m not the only one when I say that sometimes, side characters are the ones that steal the show, not the protagonist. So, when the writer only focuses on the main character, and, say, one other character (*cough* love interest *cough*), the story becomes pretty bland. A good writer is one that acknowledges the fact that a good story has several multi-dimensional characters for the readers to root for, not just one. Great characters can lead to great interactions and conflicts, which makes a good story.
You need to establish strong relationships between the M.C. and other characters by actually showing them bonding. You can’t just state that they’re super tight and barely give them a scene or two together. Every relationship needs to be built with care and patience, or they end up unenjoyable and uninteresting.
- Repeating Words
Nothing is a bigger turn-off than reading the same words over and over on the same paragraph, page, or in every description of a particular character or object.
In the age of the internet, finding synonyms and expanding your vocabulary is just a click away. Use that facility. It’s more important than you think.
If a wand is beautiful, you don’t have to say it’s beautiful every time you’re describing it or introducing it in a scene.
Stunning, Exquisite, Magnificent, Bewitching, Graceful, Elegant….
There’s a tonne of words at your disposal that you can replace “beautiful” with. Just go ahead, search the internet and use the adjectives that fits your description best. Just make sure you don’t use extremely uncommon ones off the SAT word list that’ll force readers to sit with a dictionary every time they read your book. Keep it unrepetitive but as simple, yet effective as possible.
- Making your M.C. predictable
The M.C. in most fantasy novels follows a strict set of rules:
Tick all of the above, and congratulations! You have a best-selling main character!
Only, the problem is that this “unpredictable” main character is getting so predictable that it’s honestly quite boring. I get that your fantasy hero or heroine needs to look and feel the part, but behind every trope, there is a reason and a bunch of knobs that you can adjust in order to make your writing unique.
Maybe giving your character a rough life is important to your story. But why is it important? Where does the rough past come from? Does your character really need to have that dark a life or can you throw in bits of happiness for them to look more relatable? What do they like doing apart from living their dark miserable lives? Are they really a born leader, or do they learn to be one? What are their hobbies? What do they look for in friends? Why do they feel misunderstood? Have they tried reaching out to people in the past, or are they “misunderstood” just because the plot requires them to be?
These questions are really important and need to be answered every time you decide to write a trope-y character. You really need to have a quirk that sets your character apart from other fantasy characters in order to have a lasting impact on the reader. If you want to be remembered, you need to be as distinctive as possible.
- Not Enough Backstory
Done wrong, this is the worst part of the book. Done right, this becomes the most vital one.
As a reader, if I read about things happening at point B in the story, I want to know what happened at point A and what led to point B. Backstory doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of an expo dump. We need backstory to understand a character’s motivation or your world in general. Sometimes, authors keep the backstory from us to create suspense. While that works brilliantly most of the time, it’s important to know when and where to use this tool. If something needs explaining, do it. Don’t keep information from the audience to create cheap reveals at the end of the book which doesn’t really serve any purpose and was only clearly there because you didn’t have any other plot point to create suspense. Let the information flow naturally and in a way that adds meaning to the plot.
- Not Explaining Your World
This kind of goes hand-in-hand with my previous point. If you introduce a new concept/term/ race/place without actually explaining it, your readers will be lost, especially if the above have a made-up fantasy name. If you throw in a random fantasy term in the middle of a sentence without explaining it at least in the next few lines, the whole thing makes no sense. You don’t have to launch into an immediate thesis explaining it. A short explanation, even a couple of guiding words, is enough.
My favourite way of dropping important information is through dialogue. This not only gives your reader the exposition that they need, but it is a great tool for developing character relationships.
- Too Many Introductions Together
When you are introducing a lot of made-up names and terms together in your fantasy world, make sure that you actually give your reader time to process and remember them. If you throw in a bunch of such words together, they end up being indistinctive, which means that the readers won’t really care about them much. As a reader, it’s frustrating for me to keep going back to see who is who or what is what because they’ve all been introduced in a single go and that jumbled the terms up in my head.
I’m guessing that’s not what you were aiming for.
Similarly, try not introducing too many similar sounding names together. That confuses the reader and makes your introduction messy, especially if you’re trying to establish these as important characters.
On the same note, it’s great that your setting is so original that you have such unique names for all your characters. Really, it’s commendable. But it’s honestly quite annoying (for me, at least) when literally every character in the book has some exotic, hard-to-pronounce name that doesn’t even exist.
In your world of Daeneryses, throw in a Jon. Or a Sam. Really, your readers will appreciate it.
- Not Making Your Writing Emotional Enough
A story without emotion is like a hollow doughnut. You can make it look as attractive as you want on the outside, but it will always leave us wanting something more.
You can have all the action, world-building and plot devices in place, but without emotion, your story won’t give the reader anything to remember and latch on to. Your reader won’t invest themselves emotionally in your story, and that means they won’t enjoy it.
Make sure that every scene and dialogue strikes the right chord with your audience.
Writing a long dialogue?
Use emotions to convey the tone.
Is your character’s expression changing? Is their volume changing? Did they pause? Do they frown? Smile? Hesitate?
Write that stuff down. There’s nothing more ANNOYING than reading three paragraphs of a monologue in one go with no breaks or emotion in the middle.
Emotions can be used in action as well. Action isn’t just about throwing punches. It’s about the raw emotion that comes with the adrenaline rush.
Is your character afraid? Are they confident? Are they lusting for blood? Angry? Is their heart pounding? Are their legs shaking? Head throbbing from receiving a hit?
Writing an action scene and showing it to the reader is easy. The real trick is conveying the right emotions of your character to the reader. Without that, your scene becomes quite bland, and your audience will soon lose interest.
So, there you have it.
I can add a lot more to my personal list but maybe I’ll do a part two for this later, instead of writing a novel based on the don’ts for writing a novel.
Steering clear of the above points is definitely a good idea. Any exceptions that do well, if any, only happen in the rarest of rare cases where the writer has such a strong command over writing that general rules don’t apply. But if, like me, you are just a seedling in the writing industry, these are definitely things that you would want to avoid in your novel.