Nothing is more humbling than reading your earliest works and realizing how cringe-worthy they are. On the upside, they provide you with proof your writing has come a long way since the beginning.
Take it where you can get it, I say.
Here are some examples of weak fiction writing. Don’t panic if you find these in your manuscript — edit them out.
1. Excessive physical description.
The excessive is important, trust me. It can be nice to know what a character looks like, but if your entire story pauses while you detail a person’s physical features and what they’re wearing, you’ve got too much description.
The question I like to ask is: “How is this relevant to the story?” If your character is wearing a skirt and that’s important because her skirt is going to get caught on something later on, good. Include it. If your character’s clothes tell us something about their personality, include it.
Don’t spend time describing every character as soon as they’re introduced — weave in the necessary details, preferably keeping #3 in mind.
2. Using “was” for most of your description.
Finding paragraphs with sentences that all contain “was” (or some for of the “be” verb) is a sure sign you’re focused too much on physical description.
“His hair was an auburn brown and his eyes were green. He was gorgeous, long and lean, with a muscled body. He was wearing a red shirt with blue pants.”
You get the idea, right? It becomes a list of physical descriptors that have nothing to do with the story at hand. Take for example,
He flipped a lock of hair off his forehead, and the movement made his brown hair catch the sunlight, revealing deep auburn highlights.
Now you know the color of his hair, that his hair is long enough to fall in his face, and perhaps a little something about his character. No “be” verb required.
3. Focusing on details your POV character wouldn’t know or care about.
Let me give you the example of my boyfriend and me. I grew up with a dad who could name just about any car make and model, so I have a good command of current cars. The boyfriend, on the other hand, knows I drive a small black car, and that’s the extent of his car knowledge. Don’t ask him to find my car in a parking lot.
Were I writing from my POV, it would make sense to describe a car using a make and model — that’s how I think of cars when I see them. The boyfriend’s POV wouldn’t include those details — a color and size, perhaps, but that’s it.
By making note of these differences, your character’s voices and personalities will shine through. Maybe your female character has a penchant for swear words and your male character speaks formally, without contractions. If you force YOUR (the author’s) word choice into your characters’ POVs, they’ll sound the same.
If all your characters sound the same, readers will struggle to remember who’s who and why they should care.
4. Recapping story events from the other character’s POV.
If we experience a situation through one character’s eyes — a situation that includes both your main characters (assuming you have at least two) — walking us through the same situation in the other’s POV is repetitive. It encourages skimming.
If you have no new information to add — a reaction to or a reason for the way a character acted you’re unable to convey through words or behavior — keep the story moving forward. Rehashing the same events grinds your story to a halt and reduces tension.
No tension = bored reader.
5. Having the character understand what others are thinking or feeling without communicating.
Yes. Having a Big Misunderstanding that could have easily been solved by talking can make your readers want to throw the book across the room. But characters who understand the motives and feelings of other characters? Tell me how believable THAT is.
I mean, misunderstandings are more believable than conversations that require maturity and a strong dose of self- and other-awareness.
“I know you’re scared because you had a nasty breakup, but this is a different situation.”
“You’re right. You’re not her. I’ll try harder.”
In fiction, readers expect tension. Characters have knee-jerk, instinctive reactions (don’t you in emotional times?) and calmly dealing with problems and acknowledging deep-seated fears don’t happen.
“I’m not her!” She threw a lamp at him. “Stop punishing me for her mistakes!”
He winced as her scream pierced his ear drums. “I know who you are. And I’m not punishing anyone.”
People lie to themselves all the time because they don’t want to face the truth. And people who are desperate to shield themselves from the truth aren’t good observers. They’re selfish, which makes them blind to others, which leads to — you guessed it — misunderstandings.
6. Adding speaker tags to each line of dialogue.
He said, she replied, I asked — if these follow every line of dialogue, it interrupts the story flow. It’s not necessary to tell us who’s speaking — but you can give us hints. These hints serve the story better because often they give us insights into the character.
“I don’t know.” He broke eye contact and tugged on an ear. “I haven’t heard anything.”
“I don’t know,” he lied. “I haven’t heard anything.”
(Pulling on an ear is a physical sign of being conflicted, by the way, according to The Emotion Thesaurus.) Readers don’t need to be told he’s lying to know he’s lying — and his actions in between dialogue tell us who’s speaking.