1) Leisurely Descriptive Passages
Ever read a book where the author spends multiple pages describing a house? Or maybe it’s a spaceship, or the way the light plays upon the windows of a city. Snooze fest!
Of course we need settings so the action doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but we no longer live in a time without photographs or television. Back in the day when we’d never seen an elephant before it was great to spend a whole page describing the lumbering and exotic animal. But you don’t have to describe everything in extensive detail anymore.
2) Leisurely Passages of Back Story and Flashback
One of the easiest ways to get your reader to tune out is with an extensive passage of back story. As authors we need to know all the back story, and we spend countless hours creating it. And because we’ve put in so much time creating the back story it’s tempting to want to share all of it with our readers. But that’s like forcing your reader to look through all 1000 photos from your vacation. They’re going to tune out pretty quickly. Back stories can help us relate to characters, and many details are necessary, but keep them in shorter passages.
3) Scenes Where the Plot is Not Moving Forward
Plot is a shark, if it doesn’t move, it dies.
It’s tempting to include scenes that explore character, relationships, or mood, but if they don’t move the plot forward, they’re going to bore your reader. Do double duty with your scenes and interweave character development, mood, and themes into your plot-driven scenes.
4) Overstatement or Over Description
Imagine a nervous character who does too many actions to display his nervousness: puffing away on cigarettes, jiggling his legs, spilling his coffee, and twitching. Suddenly the character has turned into a caricature and not a real person. The over abundance of detail can annoy the reader and pull them out of scene. Once the reader is disengaged, you have to work extra hard to gain their attention again.
Sharing history that doesn’t have an impact on what’s happening in scene is the perfect way to distract your reader from the story. Yes, that fight is happening in the story, but hold on a sec while I tell you all about steam technology. This is particularly tricky for a novel that you’re doing research for. Be careful about how much you explain. All information should be on a need-to-know basis.
6) Telling the Story in Retrospect
It can be hard to keep tension in a scene that’s told in retrospect. Because the event has already happened, the character isn’t in the moment anymore and is telling rather than showing. Consider re-writing the event in-scene to engage the reader.
7) Gratuitous Use of Disasters
One car wreck will grip a reader and put her on the edge of her seat. But gratuitous car wrecks, hurricanes, abuse, or explosive fights will desensitize your reader. Ever watch an action film with fight scene after fight scene, but it doesn’t really impact the story? It’s boring.
Disasters seem like prefect dramatic fodder, but are difficult to pull off. Disasters only create real tension if they’re truly interwoven into the story, characters, and situations. Otherwise they feel like a false tension used to deliberately manipulate the reader.
8) Resolving Problems Too Quickly
Did you spend a bunch of time setting up a problem only to remove the tension of that problem in the next scene? We’re told to torture our characters, but often we like to bail them out as fast as possible. Make your hero struggle and be uncomfortable. This is how he’ll grow. Show what he’s capable of and your reader will become more involved.
9) You’ve Created False Tension
Don’t deliberately crank up the plot at the end of your novel and create false tension. The plot’s tension needs to be there, in some form, all along. If you’re having trouble with the last act of your book it’s because you haven’t set up the conflict and tension correctly in the opening. Look back at the beginning, rather than forcing false tension at the end.
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Last week I spent a long weekend at a lake house in rural Illinois with ten of the closest friends I’ll ever have. They’re the Dystropians, fellow classmates and writers who graduated from VCFA with me. We live on all sides of the country, from California to New York to Florida, and once a year we get together to talk craft, laugh, and write.
Many of us don’t have writing communities back home, and this weekend is one of the few times we get to geek out, be ourselves, and embrace all things writing. This is my writing tribe. I can’t describe how important it is to have a writing tribe. It’s the one group of people who are going through the same highs and lows with me and understand what it is to sacrifice to write, and to love it with your whole heart.
This year I brought my camera, and I put together the following photo essay of our weekend. Enjoy!
Note: Scroll over the images with your mouse and you will see the full color contrast versions of the images.
It was a magical weekend!
Learn all about writing from this brilliant group of Dystropians. Check out these amazing blog posts they’ve shared:
Want to hear about last year’s lake house retreat?
“Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate and learn, discover and invent.” – James Geary
If you haven’t watched James Geary’s brilliant TED talk about metaphors, you should! Ten minutes might break open everything you think you know about this topic.