Learning to write well is not easy. It can be a long and difficult process, and mistakes are often made along the way. But making mistakes is no reason to feel discouraged. In fact, makes mistakes is part of the process of improvement. Today, I’ll be taking a closer look at that process and some of the mistakes that you might make along the way. I’ll be paying particularly close attention to what those mistakes mean in the broader context of improvement.
In my opinion, there are four main elements to a good story:
- Technical proficiency
Each of these different elements has a tendency to produce different mistakes. However, the most common mistakes are seldom random. Indeed, the most common mistakes occur so frequently because they are signs of growth.
Creating engaging and believable character is crucial to writing a good story. The more that people care about the characters you create, the more likely they are to care about the story as a whole. Readers cannot fully appreciate a tragedy if they don’t care about the characters involved, and a romance will likely live or die based on how much the readers care about the characters.
So what tools do we have for portraying engaging and believable characters? Well, some of the most obvious tools are dialogue, gestures, inner thoughts, and behaviour. But putting all of these things together isn’t easy. Here are some common mistakes associated with characters:
- Attempting to convey some sense of a character’s motivations or personality through overly elaborate or detailed dialogue
- Trying to create unique characters but ending up with caricatures (note: unlike parody, this is not deliberate)
- Overly elaborate or lengthy descriptions of characters and their backstories
- Overuse of inner monologues
All of these are mistakes – but they are mistakes that people often make because they are trying to create better characters. Indeed, all four of these mistakes are usually committed in response to criticism.
For instance, a writer might be told that their characters don’t have unique voices in the dialogue. In other words, the writer is being told that all of their characters sound the same. A perfectly rational way to try to correct this is to write dialogue that conveys the characters’ motivations and personalities. But it is very easy to go overboard when doing this, which is why a lot of writers have dialogue that is overly elaborate and detailed. They are trying to fix one problem and end up creating another. With time and practice, however, they will learn to find a balance.
A similar approach can be used to understand why many writers attempting to improve come up with characters that are more like caricatures. We are told by a great many authorities on writing that every character should be unique. But how can we make each character unique? Well, the easiest way is to give everybody a few quirks to set them apart (e.g., differences in speech, mannerism, etc.). But the problem is that if these quirks are too subtle, the reader won’t notice them. So why not make them more obvious? Well, if the quirks are too obvious and too exaggerated, then the characters are no longer believable. They become caricatures. But making this mistake doesn’t have to be a bad thing – only by going too far can a writer learn how far is too far.
Having overly elaborate or lengthy descriptions of characters and their backstories is the most common mistakes related to character creation and development. It stems from another criticism that is typically levelled at novice writers: there isn’t enough detail about the characters. The problem with this criticism is that it is rarely put into context. A novice writer doesn’t know where to add extra detail. Should it be added to describing the appearance of the characters? Perhaps it should go into explaining the long and horrible histories of each character? Or perhaps every interaction between characters should be described down to the very minutiae of how many hairs are on each person’s head?
Writing is usually an intensely personal endeavour. Few writers feel comfortable sharing their work with others, and even fewer feel comfortable asking critics to provide a more detailed explanation of their criticism. As a result, an improving writer who has received criticism regarding a lack of detail will often respond by adding far too much detail across all aspects of their characters. Doing so ensures that they fixed the problem – but it also creates another problem. However, with continued feedback and practice, a writer should learn how to better strike a balance between brevity and detail. Indeed, as a writer grows, they will typically develop a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to better identify the areas where more detail is required.
The overuse of inner monologues occurs for much the same reason that the mistakes previously outlined occurs – readers may not feel that they know the characters very well. The writer will thus try to give them a better glimpse into the characters’ minds using the most straightforward and practical method available: inner monologues. But inner monologues are a fairly blunt way of telling readers what a character is thinking or feeling. This doesn’t mean that they are bad, but it is easy to use them too often or to make them too heavy-handed. Once again, however, it is a mistake that often leads to growth because it forces the writer to confront a weakness and to work on a solution. The solution may be imperfect at first, but over time, the writer is likely to become better at incorporating inner monologues into their stories. Furthermore, as a writer becomes more practiced at working with inner monologues, they should start to realise the limitations of inner monologues, leading them to seek out alternate methods of conveying their characters’ thoughts and feelings (e.g., through character interactions and mannerisms).
In summary, the most common mistakes that improving writers make with regards to characters have their roots in the most common criticisms received by writers about characters. These mistakes may be examples of poor writing, but they also lay the foundations for much better writing. In much the same way that someone learning to drive will make a lot of mistakes and over-correct for those mistakes, someone who is learning to write will over-correct in response to criticism. But like someone who has finally learned to drive properly, a writer will eventually learn to strike the correct balance if they continue to work hard and practice.
The plot is another integral part of a story. Although some types of stories are more reliant on a good plot than others (e.g., a detective story versus a slice-of-life story), a good plot is never a bad thing to have. Most of the plot-related mistakes I see (and have committed myself) can be tied to the conventions of storytelling.
As with any other long-lasting discipline, writing has developed certain “rules”. Many of these rules are genre specific and have come to be known as tropes or clichés. It goes without saying that not all of these rules are good. Some of them are actually quite bad. But some of them are good, and these good rules exist for a reason. Consider the concept of the “hero’s journey” – this is a story structure that has existed in one form or another for thousands of years. Clearly, it’s doing something right. So, here are some of the common mistakes associated with the plot of a story:
- Plot lines that involve everyone being horrible and treacherous – not to improve the story, but to try and buck convention
- Having too many plot twists or surprises in an effort to move past “conventional” plot structure
- Trying to work with too many plot lines or to use a non-linear plotline in an bid to be unique or different
All three of these mistakes are very common. But once again, we should look not only at whether these mistakes are made but also at why these mistakes are made. I believe that all three stem from a common cause: rebellion against convention. It is goes almost without saying that a story that slavishly adheres to every single convention will end up boring. But a story that defies every single convention without a good reason can be even worse.
One of the oldest conventions in storytelling is that there are heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. This convention exists because it makes the story easier to tell and because it gives the readers a clear idea of whom they should cheer for. But a lot can be gained from creating a plot that goes beyond black and white to include shades of grey.
Perhaps the best contemporary example of a writer who takes advantage of moral ambiguity is G. R. R. Martin. Regardless of what one thinks of Game of Thrones (and I think rather highly of it), it is undeniable that the story derives a lot of its power from the twists and turns the plot takes – twists and turns that are only possible because the line between good and evil is blurred. However, as Martin’s writing has become more popular, I’ve noticed an increasing number of writers trying to copy his approach by creating plots marked by unrelenting treachery and betrayal. The problem is that almost none of these writers have Martin’s skill. If a plot is filled with nothing but betrayal and treachery, then it becomes every bit as predictable as a plot where there are clear heroes and villains.
Martin chose to include treachery and betrayal because they allowed him to write a better story. But simply including treachery and betrayal does not automatically make a story better. Hidden amongst all the treachery and betrayal of Game of Thrones is the fact that not everyone is treacherous and eager to betray others, and that is what makes the story work. In trying to avoid a world of good versus evil, too many improving writers simply create a world full of evil. This is not particularly interesting. What improving writers will develop with more experience (and this is what Martin does very well) is the ability to create a plot that includes good, evil, and everything in between.
The archetypical structure of a story is a topic that has been studied for decades. Indeed, no matter what genre you want to write, you should be able to find an in-depth analysis of what basic plot structure is required. One of the most tempting things for a novice writer is to try and come up with something new, to move beyond the established boundaries of the discipline. This desire can be very powerful, but conventional plot structures exist for a reason – they are highly effective, and it can be extremely difficult to create a plot that goes beyond this archetypical style.
The surprise twist is an excellent example of something that can either go brilliantly or horribly depending on the skill of the writer. A poorly written plot twist can leave the reader feeling cheated, as though the writer has simply pulled a rabbit out of a hat. A good plot twist will leave the reader nodding in fascination as they realise that all the pieces were there, but they just never noticed them. The most common mistake for novice writers is to try and include too many plot twists – but constantly contorting the plot runs the very real risk of damaging the coherence of the plot and becoming predictable. A writer who is trying to improve will often go overboard with the plot twists because they are trying to understand what makes a plot twist effective. As they learn how to make more effective plot twists, they should not feel the need to shoehorn one into every single chapter.
A conventional plot follows a linear structure and focuses primarily on one set of characters. By adding more plot lines and adopting a less conventional structure (e.g., multiple timelines, flashbacks, etc.), a writer has the chance to create a truly unique and engaging story. But the mistake that a lot of improving writers make is to fail to realise the answer to a simple question: what plot structure should a story have? The correct answer is: whatever plot structure most effectively serves that story.
When an improving or novice writer first comes across the idea of unconventional plot structures, they are likely to be tempted to try them. That is perfectly understandable. Multiple plot lines and non-linear plotlines sound amazing. But they are only amazing in the right story – and that is the critical point. It isn’t at all unusual to see improving writers make the mistake of trying to apply these techniques to stories that would have been better served with a normal plot structure. But that’s okay – making these mistakes is vital for improvement. The only way that a writer will learn what stories are best served by unconventional plot structures is to make the mistake of trying to shove unconventional plot structures into a story that doesn’t need them. Believe me, I’ve learned this the hard way.
Overall, the mistakes commonly made with regards to plot are mostly related to the understandable desire to buck convention and try new things. But convention usually exists for a reason, and although not all conventions are good, there are some that should be followed unless there is a good reason to do otherwise. An improving writer needs to make a few of these mistakes so they can learn to recognise when stories should follow conventions and when they should move past them.
The setting of a story is the world in which it takes places. Creating that world is, in many ways, the hardest part of writing a story. All of the characters exist inside that world, and they and the plot are all bound by the rules and laws that govern how that world works. Likewise, the ideas and themes that run through a story will also influence how the setting takes shape. In order to explore certain themes or ideas, it may be necessary to create a world with a particular set of characteristics. For example, the controlling society of Brave New World was necessary so that the book could explore the themes it wanted to. Likewise, the dystopian society of The Hunger Games is also necessary for the discussion of certain themes and ideas.
Here are some of the most common idea/setting-related mistakes made by writers trying to improve:
- Creating a world that is highly similar to an existing one
- Creating an inconsistent world
- Being heavy-handed with themes and ideas
Creating an entirely new world is extremely difficult. It’s no coincidence that most fantasy novels have at least a passing resemblance to medieval Europe or that most science fiction stories seem to be projections or forecasts of how the modern world will advance. It is also no coincidence that many novels appear to borrow, at least slightly, from other novels (e.g., Tolkien’s influence on high fantasy).
The reason that this kind of borrowing occurs, and the reason that so many novice and improving writers tend to participate in it more heavily than experienced writers, is that it is a lot easier to make small changes than to make big ones. For instance, if a writer has never written about a world with magic in it before, it is much easier for them to tweak an existing magical system rather than to create an entirely new one. Doing this allows them to focus on other aspects of the story (e.g., their descriptions of magic, the characters, the plot, etc.).
In short, one of the main reasons that many novice and improving writers create worlds that are highly similar to existing worlds, only with small changes, is that doing so allows them to work on the problem of world creation piece by piece. In one story, they might tweak how magic works. In the next story, they might tweak how magic works and throw in a few changes to how society works. In this way, they can gradually build up to creating their own unique world. Seen from this point of view, this isn’t a mistake so much as it is the middle of a long process of development.
Another common mistake amongst novices and improving writers is creating an inconsistent world. By inconsistent, I mean a world in which the rules and laws that govern how things work are not logically consistent (i.e., they conflict with the logic of the world in which the story operates). On the flipside of the writer who only makes small modifications to an existing world is the writer that tries to create an entirely brand new world. An entirely new world demands its own set of rules and laws, and these can often be quite complex. Without practice, it is very easy for a writer to create rules or laws that conflict with each other or combine to produce nonsensical situations and results. But this mistake is not a bad one to make – it is a sign that a writer is trying to create their own world. With more practice and a more systematic approach (e.g., by writing down notes and discussing it with others), the number of mistakes should gradually decrease until a writer can create their own world.
Being heavy-handed with themes and ideas is another mistake that is often symptomatic of a lack of experience and practice – both of which can be remedied in a relatively straightforward manner (more practice). Including themes and ideas in a story is easy – the hard part is doing it in a way that makes it feel natural as opposed to forced. This can be done in a number of ways (e.g., by having characters embody certain points of view), but all of these methods require a subtle touch. A character that spouts about communism every second paragraph will allow you to discuss communism – but it isn’t going to be a very productive discussion. In contrast, characters embedded in a communist society who grow up and gradually come to a fuller awareness of the political system through working their way up the ranks of the political class would provide a much better discussion – but it would also require a much softer touch and a better grasp of character, setting, and plot.
The key is to look at how a writer responds to making this mistake. The best response is to try and find a way to work the themes and ideas into the story in a natural or organic way. The worst response – the one that shows a writer is only interested in shoving ideas down the throats of the readers – is a writer that is more concerned with the ideological message than with portraying engaging and believable characters, a solid plot, and an interesting setting. Such a response tells the reader that the writer is more interested in talking about an idea than telling a story. Now, this can work if they are writing a manifesto of some kind, but if the reader is looking for something entertaining to read, they are likely to be put off.
The most common mistakes related to the setting/ideas are often signs of growth. Creating worlds is hard, and mistakes are to be expected. What is important is how a writer responds to make these mistakes. An improving writer will try and learn from a mistake, even if it produces a different mistake. Nobody is perfect, but with more practice, world building should become easier as an improving writer identifies the areas that give them difficulty and the areas they find easiest.
Technical proficiency refers to the purely technical side of a writer’s writing – their punctuation, grammar, sentence composition, vocabulary, and so forth. What makes technical proficiency so tricky to evaluate is that some parts of it are highly amenable to brute force improvement (i.e., improvement through stringent practice) whilst others are highly resistant to it. Here are some of the most common mistakes
- Poor punctuation and/or grammar
- Limited vocabulary
- Awkward writing style
- Inconsistent tone/style
The easiest way to improve punctuation and grammar is to practice. This means doing things the hard way: proofreading your work repeatedly and consulting grammar resources whenever you’re not sure about something. This can be very time consuming and mentally draining, which is why a lot of writers I see trying to improve their punctuation and grammar suffer in other ways. The most common of these is that their writing becomes more robotic and sterile because they are focusing almost entirely on punctuation and grammar. Another possibility is that they go overboard with punctuation (e.g., commas absolutely everywhere). But both of these mistakes will decline as the punctuation and grammar becomes automatic. Think of how you learned to type for the first time. You probably had to look at the keys a lot. But once you got the hang of it, you didn’t have to watch your hands anymore. Punctuation and grammar are like that – once you get the hang of them, you don’t have to think about them anymore, and you can focus entirely on the content of your writing.
Vocabulary can also be brute forced in much the same way as punctuation and grammar. I know what a lot of people say about relying on dictionaries and thesauruses, but if that’s what helps a writer learn more words, then I’m all for it. The most common mistake here is for writers to fall in love with their growing vocabulary, resulting in prose that is florid, verbose, and a rather hideous shade of purple. Trust me, I’ve gone through this phase myself (and still go back there occasionally, and an improving writer will grow out of it. It’s the same way that a child who has just learned to tie their shoelaces will want to tie them as often as possible to show off their newly acquired skill.
Both awkward writing style and inconsistent tone/style stem from an improving writer’s attempts to identify the style that fits them best. I believe that almost every writer is naturally inclined toward one particular style, a style that matches their strengths as a writer. The problem is that it can be very hard to identify what that style is. As a result, improving writers will often try many different styles (often starting with the styles of authors they admire). Most of the time, using a style that doesn’t suit them will produce awkward writing – the kind that just reads really badly. Thus making this mistake isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the writer may simply be searching for the style that suits them. And even once they find that style, it may take them some time to master it (e.g., read the early work of an author versus their later work – there is often a substantial difference in quality).
Inconsistencies in tone and style often stem from much the same cause – an attempt to explore different tones and styles to find out which ones a writer is skilled in. This is perfectly normal behaviour, akin to the way that a tennis player might try hitting different shots from different parts of the court to see where they are most comfortable. What is most important is that the writer takes careful note of which styles they need work in and which they are already proficient in.
Technical proficiency is something that can – and should – be worked on. Many of the mistakes that improving writers make that are related to technical proficiency can be tied to their attempts to improve and explore their own abilities, both of which are things a novice or improving writer should do.
As you can see, novice and improving writers can make a lot of different mistakes. But what is important to realise is that they do not make these mistakes simply because they lack skill or practice. Instead, most of these mistakes are made during practice in an attempt to improve their skills. For this reason, there is no need to feel discouraged about making mistakes. Indeed, making these mistakes – and then learning from them – can lead to rapid improvement.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – the only time you fail is when you stop trying.
I hope you found this useful. If you want to know more about my thoughts on writing, you can find thosehere.
I also write original fiction (mostly fantasy). You can find that here. If you’re interested in some humorous fantasy, give Two Necromancers, a Bureaucrat, and an Elf a try. Trust me, it’ll put a smile on your face. If you want something more serious, try The Last Huntress.