Editor’s note: Below is a collection of 16 common fiction writing mistakes by Writers.com instructor Rosemary Tantra Bensko. It forms a great companion to her short story writing checklist (much of which is applicable to fiction writing of any length). If you want to know common errors fiction writers make—and how to address them—then dive in!
What are some of the most frequent mistakes I see in student fiction?
Story-Level Mistakes in Fiction Writing
Let’s start with important matters of the story itself.
1. Not writing fiction!
Fiction is in narrative format. Very often, beginning students will write expository prose, instead, reporting from a distance rather than letting us see the details and interpret them ourselves. Expository is essay format, telling us about something rather than showing us one action following the next. Within a short story, maybe a paragraph or two of expository prose is fine, or a sentence here and there. The usual recommendation is to avoid it at the beginning, though, so you can immediately hook readers with action. When you write predominantly expository, the action isn’t anchored in one time and place with a character experiencing things with her senses. The readers feel ungrounded, waiting for the story to happen, and the plot isn’t following scene structure. In fact, there is no plot if it’s mostly expository. We must have one action follow another to be narrative, shown not told. If you see phrases like “we often went,” “we would go on Sundays,” “whenever we got too late,” etc. you know you’re writing expository, as it’s summing up what happens over a time period or periodically. Try picking one of those iterations of the event and slow down to show it second by second, including rather than paraphrasing the dialogue, with one sentence per action, employing the senses to immerse us in the moment.
2. Too much backstory.
We need to know at all times where the main character is and when the action is happening. Each story needs one current timeline. It’s fine to jump around here and there for flashbacks and expository backstory, as long as the readers are dying to be filled in with that information because the action created mystery they want solved. But beginning writers very often lose the thread and readers can’t keep track or even guess when anything is happening. Often the actual story ends up being a tiny bit of the whole, the rest being backstory or expository. And that is very weak. A story must be complete, and that’s not possible if there’s only a bit of it floating within the confusion.
3. Forgetting to include a plot.
That’s fine if it’s experimental Literary fiction, but with Genre fiction, especially, the formula must be fulfilled. There must be a protagonist with a goal thwarted by an antagonist. In a Literary tragedy, the protagonist may be given opportunities to change in order to achieve the goal and fail. Otherwise, there is victory at the end, which the protagonist gains through what he learned through the encounters with the antagonist. Usually the protagonist’s arc is indicated at the beginning through the flaw that needs to resolve, and we root for him as he learns the hard way what he needs to succeed. In a short story, the success can be implied after an epiphany, whereas in a longer piece, we should see that victorious battle scene play out as the most dramatic, rousing part of the narrative.
4. Lack of suspense.
Suspense arises from hope and fear. We hope the protagonist will achieve what she needs, even if it’s just bare survival. We fear she won’t—maybe she’ll even die if she can’t bring herself to change, or if she is resistant to figuring out the mystery of a Whodoneit. Lots of backstory and expository tends to kill suspense. Low stakes leave us nothing vital to worry about. Including too much material that is extraneous to the plot weakens suspense. Long paragraphs without pauses, repeated sentence structures, wandering away from the current time of the narrative, and head hopping prevent us from emotionally engaging.
Paragraph-Level Mistakes in Fiction Writing
There, that wasn’t too bad. Let’s zoom in slightly and look at paragraphing tactics for ease of reading and most impact.
5. Paragraphs that are about more than one subject.
If it goes on for too long, with multiple subjects, actions, thoughts, revelations of new information, etc., it can sound like the narrator is deranged, manic or unorganized. If you want your narrator to seem functional, break the paragraphs and let the topic breathe. Reading long paragraphs is very difficult for people, anyway, so keep it easy to process. We need the white space to let our brains take a beat to think about and feel the weight of what just happened. Then we can move on to accept new information and feel entertained. Otherwise, it becomes an unpleasant, tiring and overwhelming chore. When you break it, you let what just happened reverberate. You honor it.
6. “Head hopping” with multiple point-of-view (POV) characters in a scene.
Ideally there is only one POV character in a scene, as otherwise, it tends to be head hopping. But if you are writing Omniscient POV, though it’s not recommended as it’s out of favor, you may include multiple characters in a scene that we see inside: we listen to their thoughts. If that’s the case, it’s far preferable to stick to just one character per paragraph.
7. Writing all your paragraphs the same length.
This isn’t an error, but it doesn’t fully take advantage of creative options. When this happens, people often also write most of the sentences in the same structure. The effect can be monotony and tedium. Keep us awake by changing things up. Try a one sentence paragraph for a sassy ironic statement. Try short paragraphs for suspenseful action, followed by a longer paragraph when things calm down and characters are analyzing the situation.
Formatting Mistakes in Fiction Writing
Now let’s look at some formatting issues.
8. Forgetting to make the first sentence of a scene flush left.
All the other sentences should begin with the first sentence indented, but not the beginnings of scenes. A scene in fiction occurs after a break in time. Sometimes it’s similar to movies in that a new location will also begin a new scene. Sometimes the narrative can be continuous in time, but an author will switch to a new scene, and that’s because the scene has been completed. How can you tell if the scene is complete? A scene traditionally begins with its main character pursuing a goal that is made hard to achieve because of the antagonist, and then the protagonist fails at her mission. If she succeeded easily, there would be no story. Then, she has to rethink because of her new dilemma, and makes a decision about how to move forward in her next scene.
9. Using improper fonts, etc.
Most commonly writers use 12 Times New Roman, .05 indented first line, left justified, with no extra spaces between lines. When submitting to a class, beta reader, editor, magazine, agent or publisher, it’s double spaced. It’s standardized this way because it’s easier to read, and you don’t want to distract people by making them struggle to mentally process it. If you are formatting it yourself when preparing for publishing, it’s single spaced and there is some leeway with font. Don’t manually indent but set it up so it happens automatically.
10. Dialogue with more than one speaker in the same paragraph.
Always break for each new speaker. Keep all the descriptions of the speaker and his actions and thoughts all within the same paragraph as the spoken words. When someone else is nodding, smirking, etc., that’s pretty much the same as dialogue, so it is in a new paragraph.
Sentence-Level Fiction Writing Mistakes
Lastly, let’s look at niggling details at the sentence level.
11. Writing Further when you mean Farther.
These are two different, valid words. Further refers to conceptual distance, like: “I’ll look into it further.” Farther refers to spatial distance, like: “I can see farther than you can because I’m taller.”
12. Writing in American English but using a British spelling randomly, such as writing Grey instead of Gray.
That’s been done so much lately in informal writing, it’s not frowned up with the lips turned down as much as they used to be. But so far, in published fiction, we basically still only see Gray.
13. Inconsistency in numbers: sometimes spelling them out, and randomly using numerals.
There are different rules that are acceptable, but the most commonly used rule in fiction is to spell out all numbers under 100. Some people instead choose to spell out words under 10. Whatever scheme you pick is OK as long as you stick with it. Otherwise, it becomes distracting and it seems like you aren’t in control of your prose.
14. People “laying out on the beach,” or “laying down.”
Nope, that may be what you say to your friends out loud, but unless it’s in dialogue and meant to suggest someone speaking informally and colloquially, write it grammatically. People lie down and lie on the beach.
15. Comma splices (c/s) scattered throughout a story.
When two complete sentences that could stand alone are joined with a comma, that’s a comma splice. An example: When Mary went to the market, she ran into George, she’d guessed she’d see him that day, because her nose was twitching like crazy. You could fix this by using a colon, semicolon, conjunction or period. But don’t go wild and put semicolons and colons where they don’t belong, like “Joe thought she was great; because she beat him at thumb-wrestling.”
16. Putting extra spaces between sentences.
That rule went out in 1978. Time to get with the program.
Make These Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, then Grow Past Them
All right, there you have it! If you do any of those things, you aren’t alone! And taking classes in which you make these errors and have them pointed out can be a great way to discover you’re doing it. Mistakes need to be made: just reading about them often isn’t enough. So, get your hands dirty, make some naughty mistakes, and then wash your hands of them forever.
Our Upcoming Fiction Writing Classes
The Ongoing Fiction Workshop
with Shelley Singer
January 15th, 2020
Many students have attended this 10-week online fiction workshop with Shelley Singer multiple times, completed novels, and come back to finish more books.
Embodied Writing: Improve Your Writing with Full-Body Creativity
with Tantra Bensko
January 15th, 2020
Have a grand time with specific physical exercises that honor your health, generate imaginative ideas, explore deeply and make your creative writing entertaining.
Beyond Formula: Writing Love Scenes With Spirit, Passion, Grit And Character Truth
with Anya Achtenberg
January 16th, 2020
Write about love beyond trite sentiment and shallow fictions. Work down to the real thing: deep, powerful, destructive, exalted, fundamental.
Writing the Novella
with Jack Smith
January 22nd, 2020
Write the entire first draft of a novella, with plenty of feedback from stage to stage, and finish with a plan for revising toward a publishable manuscript.
The Next Fifty Pages of the Novel
with Sandra Novack
January 22nd, 2020
So now that you have your opening novel pages, what next? Get detailed, constructive feedback on your work-in-progress, wherever you're at in writing it.