This week, I went to the library to load up on new books.
I deliberately chose one light read, so I would easily be able to identify its story structure–something I’ve been researching lately.
Though I wasn’t expecting literary perfection, I was quite disappointed in my selection. I found a number of common writing pitfalls that could easily have been fixed.
I’d rather not identify this particular book because I think anyone who’s managed to write a novel and have it published has accomplished something amazing. Still, I think we can all learn from the things that irritate us as readers.
Here are 6 easily-fixed weaknesses I found in this particular novel:
1. Too Derivative
Think total rip-off of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Everything about this novel is something I’ve already read or seen somewhere else. There’s absolutely nothing that sets it apart from other chick-lit books.
2. Stereotypical Characters
The main character is (you guessed it) a thirty-something professional woman living in a big city, looking for Mr. Right. Throw in two cliched best pals (one outgoing, one reserved) and a boisterous gay friend, and you’ve got a full cast of stereotypical characters.
Come to think of it, didn’t Bridget Jones hang out with those very same people?
3. Improper Story Structure
As I mentioned earlier, my main reason for choosing a light read was to be able to quickly spot the story structure. Unfortunately, the structure of this novel was off.
If you don’t know much about story structure, you can find tons of great articles by Larry Brooks over at Storyfix. Basically, a story should consist of a set-up, a response, an attack, and a resolution (in that order).
In this book, the inciting incident happens within the first few pages, and the ‘response’ part of the story takes up nearly the entire rest of the book. Near the end, you think the main character is going to ‘attack,’ –that is, figure out what she wants and go for it. But that never eventuates and the resolution is rushed, and questionable.
4. Unrealistic Details
The main character in this book pays a visit to a psychiatrist to discuss some of her issues. During one of the scenes in the therapist’s office, I was immediately aware of a few details that didn’t add up in my mind.
This particular psychiatrist–the best one in town–stocks wedding magazines in his waiting room and has a cuckoo clock on his office wall, which chimes every 5 minutes. While these details are meant to be funny, they struck me as too unrealistic.
People with relationship difficulties probably don’t want to read wedding magazines while they wait for therapy, and I might have believed the cuckoo clock if the doctor was described as eccentric instead of well-respected.
They’re only small details, but they can make all the difference if they make your reader say, “No way.”
5. Predictable Ending
I guessed the ending of this book on the first page. At one point later in the story, I almost thought the author was going to go in a different direction, and for the first time since starting, I was looking forward to seeing something unique.
While not every story needs a huge plot twist or shocking ending, sometimes it pays to try something just a little out-of-the-box.
6. Lack of Character Arc
Our protagonists should grow through the course of our stories. They grow because–by the ending–they have overcome conflict.
I didn’t see a whole lot of growth in this novel’s main character. She spent the entire book making the same mistakes and exercising the same poor judgment. And, at just the point when I was convinced she had finally learned her lesson and would move into ‘attack’ mode, she went back to doing the same old thing again. It became difficult to sympathize with her plight.
It’s only in the very last pages that this character really starts to see what she needs to do, but I felt her final choices weren’t terribly convincing.
The Quick Fixes
Am I being too harsh?
To be fair, this book isn’t meant to be taken too seriously, but it could have been more fun and a better novel overall if the author had addressed some of these issues during the revision stage.
How can we fix these mistakes in our own work before we send it off to the world?
- Stand out. If you’re using a common premise, find some way to make the story your own. Try changing the setting, the character’s occupation, their motivations. Better yet, give the overdone premises a pass and opt for something fresh in your genre.
- Avoid stereotypes. Give your characters true human characteristics–at least your leading characters. No one is a stereotype in real life. We all have goals, needs, fears.
- Stick to the structure. Story structure exists for a reason; without it, you don’t have a full and satisfying story. Make sure you have a set-up, a response, an attack and a resolution.
- Choose details carefully. It’s so easy to write a scene and not think twice about the small details. When revising, pay close attention to ensure there are no details that contradict or seem out of place.
- Make your reader guess. Yes, most endings are predictable to some extent, but try to keep your readers guessing as long as possible. If you’re giving away your ending on the first page, you might want to rework your manuscript.
- Make your characters learn their lessons. Your main character needs to change throughout the story. By the end, he should have made some kind mental adjustment or realization that allows him to function better in the world. This should be a gradual adjustment, not something thrown in at the last minute.
What weaknesses have you found in books you’ve read?
What are your biggest fiction pet peeves?
Would you like to know more about Story Structure? Catch my review of Story Structure – Demystified that I posted back in October 2009. Any fiction writer will benefit from Larry’s proven knowledge in this area, so please do your novel a favour and buy his eBook on the subject – an eBook for which I am an unashamed affiliate!