Common Pitfalls

Common Pitfalls in Writing

Whether you are just about to start writing for the first time, or you have written your manuscript and are ready to have us turn it into a book, have a read over this list of common pitfalls for fiction books to avoid.

The story begins too late in the manuscript
The manuscript spins its wheels; the narrative finally gains some traction after the halfway point. Often, it’s not even clear what kind of story it is until the middle of the second act.

The scenes are void of meaningful conflict
Scenes come and go but the narrative and characters are unchanged. If they don’t affect anything and don’t add anything, why were these scenes included?

The manuscript has a by-the-numbers execution
A success of formula, not storytelling.

The story is too thin
50 pages of story spread over 250 pages of manuscript, stuffed with tone but light on plot.

The villains are cartoonish, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil
Hitmen, serial killers, and gangsters; smarmy, smirking villains with sinister, affected dialogue and pretentious monologues. The best villains are those who think they’re the hero of their own story, but too often these villains are clearly trying to be the villain.

The character logic is muddy
Often a lack of character consistency of a logically unsound villain plot. Every character action needs a reason: Why does he/she do this? The characters should write the story, not the other way around.

The female part is underwritten
The Helpless Pawn, The Eye Candy, The Sounding Board, The Placeholder Wife/Girlfriend, The Badass Stoic Action Chick. Frequently killed at the End of the Second Act Low Point. The hero barely mourns her death before racing to the resolution.

The narrative falls into a repetitive pattern
Establishes a plodding tempo, but not a crescendo.

The conflict is inconsequential, flash-in-the-pan
Conflict arrives, is instantly solved, and the narrative continues unaffected.

The protagonist is a standard issue hero
In an action story, it’s the tough-talking badass; in a comedy, it’s the meek schlub; in a thriller, it’s the world-weary detective. If the protagonist doesn’t fit the necessary type immediately, he/she is shoehorned into it before the script is over.

The manuscript favours style over substance
The Rule of Cool for action stories; the Rule of Funny for comedies; The Rule of Scary for horror. No depth, just breadth and flash.

The ending is completely anti-climactic
Feels as if the last ten pages were cut off. An ambiguous ending is fine — but it still has to end.

The characters are all stereotypes
No characters, just tropes.

The manuscript suffers from arbitrary complexity
Cluttered and complex aren’t synonyms.

The manuscript goes off the rails in the third act
Either switches gears into a completely different story, or loses track of all its narrative threads.

The manuscript’s questions are left unanswered
Too many ‘why’s and ‘how come’s; narrative threads are left dangling.

The story is a string of unrelated vignettes
Not a flowing story, but a rhapsody that jumps from one self-contained interlude to another.

The plot unravels through convenience/contrivance
Narrative is driven through luck and coincidence; everything just so happens to be in the right place at the right time. Coincidences that cause problems are great; coincidences that solve problems are cheating.

The manuscript is tonally confused
In other words, moments of tension disrupted by moments of comedy. Manuscript isn’t sure what kind of story it wants to tell, so it tells a handful.

The manuscript is stoic to a fault
Nothing rattles the characters of the manuscript. Characters don’t react to moments of drama, or the manuscript can’t deliver emotional/dramatic beats successfully. Dramatic beats fall flat, even when characters are dying.

The protagonist is not as strong as need to be
Hero just isn’t up to task.

The premise is a transparent excuse for action
The manuscript has places it wants to go and a flimsy reason to go there.

The character backstories are irrelevant/useless
A lot of information about the past, but little of it matters to the narrative or the character’s arc.

The supernatural element is too undefined
The rules of the supernatural need to be very clear. Too often, the supernatural elements follow one rule: anything goes.

The plot is dragged down by disruptive lulls
Breaks in the story where nothing happens and the momentum is lost.

The ending is a case of deus ex machina
Often means the characters don’t solve their own problems. The story ends simply because it needs to end. Lord of the Flies used it well, but it’s tempting to use deus ex machina as a cheat, not a narrative technique.

The characters are indistinguishable from each other
They talk the same, walk the same, perform the same actions with the same attitudes. Character names could be swapped and not a single line of dialogue would seem out-of-character.

The story is one big shrug
The story comes and goes and it doesn’t feel as if anything important has even happened. A vital question has been ignored: What are we supposed to be entertained/engaged by?

The dialogue is cheesy, pulpy, action movie clichés
A manuscript full of Sly Stallone quips or gangster movie zingers.

The manuscript is a potboiler
Nothing bad, but nothing special. The airport novel of manuscripts.

The drama/conflict is told but not shown
Two characters talking about something a third character did is boring. This also inspires a lame shortcut to make a character seem bad-ass: have other characters call him a bad-ass.

The great setting isn’t utilised
If you’re setting your story during the nanotechnology apocalypse, or in the ruins of earthquake-ravaged London, why not use that setting to its fullest potential? If the setting were altered, would the action remain unchanged?

The emotional element is exaggerated
Pure plot mechanics; no respect for the characters, only the action.

The dialogue is stilted and unnecessarily verbose
Hurts the flow. Plot points are buried under verbiage.

The emotional element is neglected
Manuscript succumbs to melodrama.

The manuscript makes a reference, but not a joke
A pop culture reference still needs a punchline.

The message overshadows the story
There’s nothing wrong with a message story, unless the author pays more attention to the message than the narrative. The narrative is the vehicle, and the vehicle needs wheels.

List adapted from and reproduced with permission from Alex Eylar, professional script reader.