by Steven James
2020 Keynote Speaker, Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference
In fiction, story matters more than anything else.
Yet too often authors forget this and, in their zeal to impress readers or wow editors, pepper their writing with distracting devices that end up undermining the story itself.
Never let anything get between your story and your readers. Following are five of the most common ways even the best writers veer off course—and simple strategies for avoiding them.
- Overdoing Symbolism/Themes
A few years ago, I picked up a literary novel that everyone was talking about. In the first chapter there was a storm; in the second, someone was washing his hands; then a character was crying; then there was a baptism. I remember thinking, Okay, I get it. Your image is water and your theme is cleansing—now get on with the story.
Problem was, from that point on, guess what I was doing?
Yup … looking for the next way the writer was going to weave a water image into her story. And she delivered, scene after predictable scene.
As a reader I was no longer emotionally present in the story. I’d become a critic, an observer. And that’s definitely not what a storyteller wants her readers to do.
The more your readers are on the lookout for your images, your themes, your symbolism, and so on, the less they’ll be impacted by the real essence of your story.
Does that mean that themes and images don’t have a place in your work? Not at all. But it does mean that rather than building your story around a theme (love, forgiveness, freedom, etc.) or advice (“Follow your dreams,” “Be true to your heart,” etc.) or a cliché (“Every cloud has a silver lining,” “Time heals all wounds,” etc.), it’s better to drive your narrative forward through tension and moral dilemmas.
So instead of using the theme “justice,” let the events of the story pose a more engaging question: “What’s more important, telling the truth or protecting the innocent?”
Rather than giving the advice “You should forgive others,” let your story explore a dilemma: “How do you forgive someone who has done the unthinkable to someone you love?”
Let your story do more than reiterate the cliché “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Instead, challenge the axiom by presenting your characters with situations that raise the question “When do the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many?”
Respect your readers. Assume they’re as smart as you are. If you can easily identify your own imagery, symbolism, themes, and so on, expect they will, too. And as soon as they do, they’ll be distracted from the story itself.
- Trying Too Hard
There’s nothing less impressive than someone trying to be impressive. There’s nothing less funny than someone trying to be funny. Eloquence doesn’t impress anyone except for the person trying so hard to be eloquent.
So look for places in your story where you are trying to be funny, clever, or impressive and change those sections or remove them.
Some writers shoot for humor by using tags like “she joked,” “he quipped,” “he mentioned in his usual fun-loving way,” and so on. Don’t fall into this trap. If your dialogue is really funny, you don’t need to point it out to your readers. (And if it’s not as funny as you intended, you don’t need to draw attention to the fact.)
Some authors resort to using a profusion of speaker attributions. Their characters chortle, grunt, exclaim, reiterate, gasp, howl, hiss, and bark. Whenever I read a book like this, I find myself skimming through the dialogue just to see what the next synonym for said will be. Readers get it. They know you own a thesaurus. Just tell the story.
In the same way, drop antiquated or obscure words unless they’re necessary for character development or maintaining voice. This isn’t to say that you can’t write intelligent, incisive, challenging prose, but any time the meaning of an unfamiliar word isn’t immediately obvious within the context of the story, choose another word that won’t trip up readers. This is especially true as you build toward the climax, since the pace of the story needs to steadily increase.
Similarly, avoid the temptation to impress your readers with your research, your plot structure, or your knowledge of the flora and fauna of western North Carolina. When readers pick up your book, they’re not preparing for a spelling bee or a doctoral dissertation or a medical exam; they’re hoping for an entertaining, believable story that will transport them to another world and move them on a deep emotional level.
Textbook literary devices fall under this same umbrella—they’re too contrived. Writing something like “She cautiously closed the closet door and crept across the carpet,” might have impressed your English professors, but it does nothing to serve readers in today’s marketable fiction. As soon as readers notice the alliteration, they’ll be distracted—and whether they’re counting the number of times you used the letter C or rolling their eyes at your attempt to be clever, they’ve momentarily disengaged from your story. And that’s the last thing you want them to do.
Believe it or not, you don’t want readers to admire your writing: You want them to be so engaged in the story itself that they don’t notice the way you use words to shape it. Anything that jars readers loose from the grip of the story needs to go, even if it seems “literary.” Weed out figures of speech that don’t serve the mood of the scene. For example, if you’re curled up with a book and are deep in the midst of a chapter depicting an airplane hijacking, you wouldn’t want to read “The clouds outside the window were castles in the sky.” Not only does the superfluous description undermine the suspense but castles carry a positive connotation that further disrupts the tension. If you can’t resist the urge to use a figure of speech when writing a scene like this, choose one that accentuates the mood: “The jet plummeted through the dungeon of clouds.”
Over the years I’ve heard of authors who’ve written books without punctuation or without the word said or without quotation marks or by using an exact predetermined number of words. To each his own. But when these artificial constraints become more important to the author than the reader’s experience with the story, they handcuff it.
Whenever you break the rules or keep them, it must be for the benefit of your readers. If your writing style or techniques get in the way of the story by causing readers to question what’s happening, analyze the writing, or page back to earlier sections in order to understand the context, you’ve failed.
You want your writing to be an invisible curtain between your readers and your story. Anytime you draw attention to the narrative tools at your disposal, you insert yourself into the story and cause readers to notice the curtain. Although it may seem counterintuitive, most authors looking to improve their craft need to cut back on the devices they use (whether that’s assonance, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, similes, or whatever) rather than add more.
Copyright 2012. Used by permission. Originally published in Writer’s Digist, June 2012, https://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/5-story-mistakes-even-good-writers-make
Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of seventeen novels.
He has served as a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest magazine and is the author of the groundbreaking book Story Trumps Structure as well as the guidebook used by thousands of novelists, Troubleshooting Your Novel, both from Writer’s Digest Books.
When he’s not working on his next novel, Steven teaches at writers conferences and retreats around the globe. Steven’s latest book, a near-future sci-fi thriller called Synapse, released on October 8.
For more information, visit his website at https://www.stevenjames.net.