Nine Common Fiction Writing Mistakes

by Susan Breen

For more than a decade, I’ve taught fiction writing classes in New York City. A surprising variety of people have walked through my classroom doors, ranging from Broadway actors to retired English teachers to a few people unclassifiable. But oddly enough, although the students vary widely, as does the writing, the problems people run into stay remarkably the same. Nine writing mistakes crop up again and again.

1. Beginning the story too early.

Many writers start their stories before the interesting part. Way before. So instead of beginning with something intriguing, the author wallows for a few paragraphs or chapters, which causes the story to slow down. This is a particularly damaging mistake when you’re planning to send out material for publication. Anything that causes an editor’s attention to wilt is a bad thing.

Say you are writing a story about Cinderella. Here you have a vulnerable young woman whose step-family mistreats her. She longs for love, escape or a good time, depending on how you want to write the story. What should your opening paragraph say? Where are you going to begin?

You might decide to start with a bang and have the fairy godmother arrive in the opening paragraph.

“Who is that beautiful creature!” Cinderella cried out. She stared in awe at the vision in front of her.

This sort of opening paragraph is the literary equivalent of shouting to the reader that she’s about to read an interesting story. Later in the story you’ll explain who Cinderella is and why we should care. For now, in this type of opening paragraph, you’re just grabbing attention.

You might prefer to start the story a little earlier in Cinderella’s day, before the fairy godmother gets there. Perhaps when Cinderella is going about her chores.

Cinderella winced as she scrubbed the floor for the fiftieth time.

This sort of opening paragraph intrigues the reader with Cinderella’s character. Why does she have so much work? What sort of person is she that she’s not complaining? The reader suspects, from reading an opening like this, that something is going to happen that will disrupt Cinderella’s day.

Where writers go wrong is in starting the story much, much earlier in Cinderella’s day, around the time Cinderella wakes up.

Cinderella opened her eyes. She listened to the birds. She got out of bed and brushed her teeth. She hoped it would be a good day. She flossed.

This isn’t terrible, but it isn’t intriguing either. I don’t have a hint of what the plot’s going to be. Since waking up is something I do every day, so far, I’m not that excited that Cinderella’s doing it. Worst of all is that because so many writers start with someone waking up, it becomes just another waking up story to me. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. Proust comes to mind. But if your story starts with someone waking up in bed, try cutting out the first three paragraphs. See how the story reads then. It almost always improves the story to chop out the beginning.

2. Leaving out the plot.

Have you ever run up to a friend and said, “I have the most amazing story to tell you. Nothing just happened!”

Probably not.

And yet I see stories all the time in which nothing happens. A mother sits at home with her kids and thinks about how difficult her life is. A man goes to work and thinks his job is boring. A kid thinks about how much homework he has. I’ve read variations of these stories countless times. These are all potentially great stories, but they need to be jump-started. They need to have a plot. Something has to happen.

Let’s go back to that harassed mother home with her kids. Her name is Carrie. What could happen that would set a story in motion for her? What if Carrie gets an email from a friend inviting her to meet for tea? Carrie would love to meet her. In fact, she’s desperate to get out of the house and have a normal conversation. But her toddlers are going through a difficult stage and the babysitter just quit and her mother has an important business meeting and can’t cancel it to help out Carrie. Now we’ve got Carrie in motion. We’ve made her want something. To get out of the house. We’ve given her an obstacle. Motherhood. She’s going to have to figure out a way to get a babysitter, or bundle those toddlers out of the house, or keep them quiet. The story could be funny, tragic, or somewhere in between. But something’s going to happen.

Notice, Carrie’s story is about a small thing: meeting for tea. There’s no tornado coming, or asteroid about to hit (though there could be). There’s plenty of drama in everyday life. Just make sure you ask your character what she wants, then make sure she has to work to get it.

3. Letting the characters off too easily.

People show the stuff they’re made of when they’re put under stress. Sometimes they rise to the occasion and become heroic. Other times they run. Part of why war stories are so compelling is because soldiers face the ultimate stressful situations. They’re putting their lives on the line. Your character doesn’t need to face death, but he should have to deal with pressure.

For example, consider Bailey. He likes to play golf, but he’s not that good at it. Then he meets a woman who’s a very good golfer. He begins to care a little more about his game. Then the woman’s father invites them on a golfing vacation. Now our friend begins to care even more because he doesn’t want to look like a fool. Then it turns out that the father has been advising his daughter to break up with Bailey because he doesn’t consider him manly enough. Now Bailey cares even more. He’s going to beat this man if it’s the last thing he does. Then, on vacation, they run into the daughter’s old boyfriend, who just won a golfing tournament.

I could go on and on, but the point is that each twist of the wheel puts this poor man under more pressure. His actions are going to have more significant consequences if someone he loves is involved. His choices will be harder to make. The reader’s going to care about him more because we know how hard he’s struggling. As a writer, I’m going to have an easier time writing a story when the stakes are higher. Is he going to crack? Or is he going to reach inside himself and find some strength of character he didn’t know he had?

In order to put your characters under pressure, you have to know them well. This is why fleshing out character is so important. For this story, I would want to know how Bailey learned to golf, how he met this woman, what sort of romantic history he has, where he works, what he looks like, how much confidence he has, how he dresses and why on earth his parents decided to name him Bailey. The more I know about him, the more fully I can make him come alive. What if, in thinking about Bailey’s character, I realize that he was captain of his high school football team? Does that change things? I think so. Explore your characters. Get to know them. Make them suffer.

4. Being unwilling to make things up.

Almost all of us draw on autobiographical material when writing. This leads to a lot of powerful prose, and probably saves a ton of money in psychiatric bills. But it can also cause major problems with fiction writing because it can make it hard for the writer to make stuff up. And if you’re not making something up, you’re writing a journal entry, which can be beautiful, but is probably not a story.

Say you are inspired by your Uncle Louis, a real one-of-a-kind sort of guy who was one of the most colorful figures you ever knew. You always thought you wanted to write about him. He applied for a patent on a copying machine, and he got it. You write up the story, give it to me, and I say, “That’s great that Uncle Louis got the patent, but the story would have more tension if he didn’t get it.”

“But he did get it,” you say.

“Yes,” I say, “but the story would be better if he didn’t.”

“But he did get it. Patent number 3333.”

“Well,” I say, “what if a woman steals his patent then?”

“But he was married to Aunt Irene for 50 years.”

You see where I’m going with this? Keeping the story too tied to Uncle Louis makes it difficult for the writer to use his imagination. It’s locking him into someone else’s story. It’s taking away the author’s power.

What to do? First, think of why Uncle Louis appeals to you. Why do you want to write his story? Is it because you admire his fighting spirit? Can you create a character who has that same fighting spirit but is different than Uncle Louis? Maybe, instead of making your character a little old man, you could make him a young man with red hair. Or, make him into a woman. The key thing is to take ownership of him. He’s no longer your uncle. He’s your character. You can do with him what you want.

5. Muddying point of view

If there’s one issue writing students worry about more than any other, it’s point of view. What is it? they ask. Am I doing right? Am I in omniscient or third? Should I be in omniscient or third? Many times the confusion over point of view overwhelms the story, and it certainly overwhelms the writer. The key thing to keep in mind is that choosing the right point of view will help you tell your story. That’s all. No one will come out and arrest you if you get it wrong. You’re just likely to confuse the reader.

Consider the differences between these two paragraphs.

In the first:

Cinderella longed to go to the ball. She dreamed of finding true love because no one ever loved her. She looked at the rose bush in front of her, inhaled its delicate bouquet and hoped that someday she would hold a bouquet like this when she married.

In the second:

Cinderella wanted to go to the ball. Prince Charming hoped he met her there. She put on a dress. He wanted to find some slippers. There was a pumpkin in the window.

In the first example, (which I hope you think is better), we’re seeing the world through Cinderella’s eyes. We’re feeling what she feels. We’re identifying with her. In the second example we don’t know who we’re rooting for: Cinderella, Prince Charming or the pumpkin. Finding the right point of view helps the reader understand what the story is about.

6. Rushing

We all want to be done. We all want to see our book in stores, our story in the magazine, our screenplay made into a movie. Oh, and we’d like the money too. Ten thousand dollars would be nice. Right now.

One of the very first things I did as a writer, when I had written no more than about three paragraphs of my first story, was look through a reference book for places that might publish it. My list had more words in it than my story. And I’m embarrassed to say that the minute I finished the first draft, I sent the story out. To twenty places. Each of them rejected me with a form letter. I actually called up Redbook to ask why there was a problem and I believe I got someone in the circulation department.

Unfortunately, some things can’t be rushed. You have to take time with your story; writing a first draft isn’t enough. You need to go through a couple of drafts. You need to deepen the character, intensify plot, tighten the dialogue and flesh out description. You need to think about theme. You need to proof read. You need to take enough time to do it right.

Many, many writers think that if they get a good enough idea on the page and send it out, some insightful editor or agent will read it, recognize its inner value, take the writer under her wing and fix it for her. This worked for Thomas Wolfe, but I don’t think you can count on it as a career path. Although there are lovely agents and editors out there, they are not really looking for extra work. They want you to finish the job yourself.

However, there are things you can do to give your ego a boost before you’re ready to send that story out. Try joining a writing community. A positive critique can make you feel great. You can also try writing some shorter work, which may be easier to get out quickly. Seeing your name in print on a flash fiction piece may give you the boost you need to finish that novel. Read literary journals and consider volunteering. Some of the smaller ones need people to help read submissions. Signing up can be a fun way to become part of the literary world.

7. Using incorrect format.

This is going to sound like a small and easily correctible thing, which it is, but you have to format your pages properly. Indent paragraphs. Don’t put an extra space between your paragraphs. Don’t justify your right margins, meaning the right side of your manuscript shouldn’t line up evenly. Use 12-point font. Double space your lines. (True, this article is not following these rules, but formatting works differently online than it does on manuscripts.)

There aren’t a lot of formatting rules, but they’re important. When I pick up a manuscript that doesn’t follow the rules, I automatically think, if she doesn’t know the rules to formatting, does she know the rules to writing? Is that fair? No. But if I’m thinking that I suspect editors are too.

8. Playing it safe.

Sometimes someone will hand in a story that’s a little flat. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing exciting either. It begins, it goes on, there’s an inciting incident and dialogue. Often the writer is a very diligent person who’s taken lots of notes during my lectures and tried very hard. In fact, she’s trying so hard not to do anything wrong that she’s not taking any risks. She’s afraid. She’s trying to protect herself, but you can’t write fiction without putting your heart out there.

This is what we do. We search our hearts and put our innermost thoughts on the page. This is why our friends and family look away from us during Thanksgiving dinner. You were thinking what during grandma’s funeral? You had sex where? You first fell in love with whom?But this is the strange thing. The more honest you are on the page, the more people will relate to your story. Even if your writing’s not perfect, even if you’ve made some or all of the mistakes I’ve written about, if you write something true, you’ve done something beautiful.

One of my favorite students was someone who had very strange views about masculinity. I won’t go into details, except to say he wrote stories that made me blush. People tended not to sit next to him. Then, one day he submitted a story about something that happened when he was a boy. (It was fiction, but you knew it wasn’t.) I can’t say it was the best-written story I’ve ever read, but it was raw, honest, true. I worried when I read it about how the class would respond, but I needn’t have worried. They were a generous group. It took a lot of courage for him to write what he did, but I suspect he would say it was worth it. Go forth and hurl yourself onto the page.

9. Leaving out the joy.

Writing is not always fun. There are times when it’s downright taxing. Various authors have compared the process to cutting veins and bleeding onto the page. Certainly everyone has had the feeling of being discouraged, of thinking that the words are flabby, the sentiments trite, the whole thing a complete waste of time. Many writers get so stuck in this morass that they can’t get out, and so they write word after every begrudging word without any joy at all.

Often this happens when a writer gets stuck on one particular story. I have often seen it happen that a writer will carry around a story for a decade. He will work on nothing else. He is going to finish it if it kills him. He submits the same story over and over and over again to be critiqued. Although I suggest politely that he move on and write something else, he can’t. He has to tell this story. But now he hates it, and quite honestly, I hate it. I have nothing more to say about it. I’ve critiqued the character, the plot, the dialogue.

I suspect this is even more likely to happen to novelists than to short story writers because we’re more likely to put big chunks of time into a novel. Certainly it’s harder to walk away from something you’ve spent four years working on. That was how long I worked on my novel, Courting Disaster. It was the story of a woman who gets engaged 17 times, and then falls in love, with a man named Chuck Jones. My novel was a finalist for a number of prestigious literary awards, got a lot of agent and editorial attention, but after four years of writing, rewriting, submitting, no one wanted it. I was depressed, to put it mildly. I was also discouraged at the prospect of having to write a whole new book.

But I did. I wrote a book about a woman who teaches a fiction class and I began to feel something I hadn’t felt in a while: excitement. At one point, as I was trying to figure out who the students were in the writing class, I realized that my old friend Chuck Jones, from Courting Disaster, would be perfect. I had been obsessed by this character, and I was delighted to move him over to my new novel. The Fiction Classwas, in fact, published by Plume, a division of Penguin. Often when I’m at book clubs, people will come up to me and tell me how much they like Chuck Jones, and I always feel like that’s a tribute to the beleaguered part of me that struggled so hard to get a foothold in this business.

Don’t be afraid to start something new, if that’s what you need to do to keep going. Start a new story. Take what you’ve learned and apply it somewhere else. But don’t give up the joy that brought you into this insane profession in the first place.

This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.