You, of course, will have already read my earlier post about the Venial (sentence-level) Sins of writing. I now present to you the Mortal (story-level) Sins.
1. Writing only what you know and everything that you know
Poorer writers often explain away their incoherent plot/ending/character with this justification: “It’s a true story!” That may be, but it’s also a true story that I did a crossword on the toilet today and then cleaned hair out of the sink, but that doesn’t make it a story worth telling.
Alfred Hitchcock said: "Drama is real life with the dull parts removed." It really doesn’t matter if something’s true: is it interesting? Does it make sense? Does it evoke an emotion or a feeling or a memory? Are the elements arranged in a chronologically interesting way? Is it at least funny? (Humorous pieces can sometimes get away without really making a big point.) If you are writing nonfiction, think of yourself as a curator, culling the most interesting specimens from your own or someone else’s life. You still have a viewpoint to promote, even if it is a factual account like a presidential biography (wake me when it’s done).
I think of all writing as being part of a fictive continuum. On one end, you have pure nonfiction: a transcript of a conversation, perhaps, or a timeline of Tudor genealogy. Writing is arranging those facts into a narrative. As you move further down the fiction end, you get into realistic fiction: fiction that still references real events, or, if you’re “edgy,” brand names. Then you get into science fiction and fantasy, and so on, until you’re writing in an invented language and no one wants to read it.
Fiction is manipulation, tomfoolery, and regular foolery. Please, wow me with your Machiavellian antics, not the true story of the seat fabric on your 24-hour flight to Sydney.
2. Writing above your intelligence level.
Don’t try to sound smarter than you actually are. Because people smarter than you will see that you are faking. This is sort of the corollary to #1: Don’t write everything you know, but definitely don’t write what you don’t know at all. Write about the amount you know or can research. Tough balance, I know.
Say you got a D in trig, but you want to write an experimental novel where every character is a trigonometric function. Well, you should first question the worth of your own existence. Then you should give up writing. Okay, let’s try another example. If you speak only English, it is best not to attempt a saga entirely in Medieval Faroese. Start with Pig Latin, and work your way up.
3. Withholding pointless information.
Somebody’s name is pointless information. Waiting until the end to reveal it does no one any good. Same for someone’s race, physical abilities, age, even species (yeah, I’ve seen this last one, unfortunately). Unless the withholding of information is integral to the plot in some way (names are incidental to plot), give it to us up front. Inception was an interesting movie because we knew right away that the characters were dreaming. This was part of the plot, not a cop-out.
Now, obviously, if you’re a mystery writer, you may want to withhold, say, the identity of the killer. And matters of why are a little easier to withhold, because they lead the reader to question, which leads them to want to keep reading: Why is the dentist so bitter? Why has the orphanage gymnasium been locked since 1938? Why does the Chicago tap water supply suddenly taste like buckwheat blini? Why is post-structuralist theory still considered worthy of serious inquiry in some universities?
The same can be said for how questions, since the bulk of your story is likely to be dedicated to matters of how. Questions of who, what, when, and where, however, should probably be addressed pretty quickly. It won’t benefit anyone if you’ve been writing in a contemporary style and then tell us in the last paragraph: “Hey, the characters are actually living in 1812! Doesn’t that change everything?” No. It doesn’t. It’s still a dumb story.
Withholding simple matters of fact doesn’t lead the reader to ask interesting questions; it simply leads to confusion.
4. Characters that don’t strive for anything.
Don’t take it from me, take it from Mr. Vonnegut; “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” [I might disagree with the good gentleman just a bit: I don’t think one man’s search for a glass of water would make a compelling novel. A poem, perhaps, in the vein of William Carlos Williams.] In order to identify with a character, we have to identify with their wants. Unless you are a cyborg or a Judd Apatow character, we all strive every moment of our lives. Striving is the basis for conflict, and conflict is the basis for fiction. Without striving, you have postmodernism. Postmodernism is boring. [Note: Striving may include the desire to not strive.]
5. Flawless characters
Flawlessness is dull at best, jealous rage-inducing at worst. I want someone I can relate to, and I am so deep in flaws I may drown in them. Even if you are writing about your beloved great-aunt who was perfect in every way, and who raised you after your parents perished in a tragic cockfighting accident, I don’t really want to know about her. A character must be lacking in some way so that s/he can either improve or fail or, at the very least, have something happen. Fiction, after all, is conflict. Perfection is the absence of conflict.
6. Lack of a consistent voice.
This can take on many forms, from inconsistent usage of slang or dialect,* to mixed metaphors, to a limited POV first-person narrator who suddenly reports on another character’s thoughts. These are not always easy to spot.
Here’s a real-life example:
As the soles of my shoes hit the soft ground, I pushed past the cottonwood trees in a euphoric cadence and meandered through the willow branches that the moose munched on.
This delightfully awful sentence was written by Lynn Vincent, author of Sarah Palin’s autobiography. There are so many conflicting images and weird states of observation that it puts Rod McKuen to shame. Which came first, the meander or the cadence? Pushed past the cottonwood trees? Who pushes past trees? How close together were they? Instead of that weird thing involving shoes and soles, can't you just say, "As I walked..."? We all know what walking entails.
Voice is the hardest to get right. It's very intuitive. The best advice I can give is to shut up, listen to voices around you (preferably the ones uttered by non-imaginary people), pay close attention to what you read.
Which leads me to:
The above 6 Things can all be avoided if you follow two cardinal rules of good writing:
1. Pay attention
2. Pay deeper attention
I could've said that at the outset and avoided all this trouble.
*Nonstandard dialects can be appropriate if the author is very familiar with the dialect. The dialect should probably be your first language or damn close. For dialog, it’s usually safe, but again, make sure you are using the nonstandard dialect correctly. Please, don’t make a Jamaican character say, “Me a go niam because I’m a trifle famished.”