Fiction Myths

Not everything you read on writing blogs is true. It kills me to admit it, but sometimes I’m just dead wrong. Blogs, even by seasoned professionals are laced with personal opinion. And sometimes writing teachers repeat in an unquestioning manner delivered “truths” that don’t hold up.

Here are five pieces of bad writing advice, and why they lead you astray.  You’ll see some of these items expounded upon in upcoming posts. But for now, the slightly annotated list:

1. Start the plot as close to the beginning as possible.

In other words, “the moment the world changed” for that character should be close to the beginning. No, really not. Because you spend the first part of the novel with set up and showing the mundane world so that when the world changes we have reason to care. Novel openings are so tricky. That’s why your favorite author may use an action-filled prologue–useful, but often abused. The true action of the plot starts at what screenwriters call plot point one. So how to open? Watch for my blog on bridging conflict.

2. “Keep throwing rocks at your protagonist.”

This advice, meant to remind writers to keep the protagonist under pressure is responsible for tons and tons of episodic writing, wherein the major character trudging through your plot is confronted, one after the other, by different obstacles at the same level of intensity. But conflict must escalate (in emotional intensity if nothing else.) You don’t keep playing the same tonal plot chords over and over. The tension escalates because the forces of opposition grow more determined and the major character moves from willing to passionately involved.

3. End chapters with a cliffhanger.

Personally, I hate chapters that end this way. If I’m loving the story, I’m coming back to your book the next time I sit down to read. You don’t need to gimmick me into reading on. Do, however, sometimes end on a note of curiosity, great or small. This is a delicious tease and will carry me through the book watching for answers. But don’t risk annoying your readers with amateurish and clumsy cliffhangers.

4. Flashbacks will deepen your major character.

No, they’ll just throw your story into becalmed waters. The whole forward momentum of your plot screeches to a halt while you bring on stage something that happened twelve years ago! A flashback is a scene that dramatizes an event that happened before the opening pages of your plot. Sometimes these highly emotional scenes can be effective, but rarely do they overcome the downsides. If you have such great material revealing character motivation, why not just have the character tell “what happened” at a key point?

5. Write what you know.

This is great advice if you’re an expert on the Second World War and you’re writing a novel set during the London blitz. For many of the rest of us, not so much. We can do research, we can keep away from highly technical subjects that we know will trip us up. When it comes to characterization, I believe as a writer I can empathize with a thousand things that have never happened to me, and can believably serve these things up on the page. The ability to empathize with your characters, whether they are hired killers or saints, is one of the great distinguishing characteristics of a good fiction writer.

And of course, if you’re writing fantasy–um, the “write what you know” advice is just nuts.

Obviously this whole rant is just my opinion. I’ve already warned you not to believe everything I say. Of course I will sort of resent it if you don’t.


7 Responses

  1. Mike Rivera says:

    I’ve always disliked the “write what you know” bit. Granted, for some that is the road to take but in most cases that is better suited for Journalism. I fell in love with writing because of the possibility of exploring things I don’t know. Becoming characters I am not. All the joys one gets out of reading should be shared by the writer, I say.

  2. Tiyana says:

    I agree about the whole “write what you know” advice. It would be pretty awesome to have first-hand experience with some of the things I’m writing about now, but in most cases that’s just not possible. (Intelligence agencies, for one, don’t recruit just anybody, and I have no business getting involved in the world of politics and diplomacy.)

    Regarding cliffhangers, though, I don’t actually mind those. I just can’t read a novel where they are used all the time. Using them here and there is fine by me.

  3. Tom Hopp says:

    One filter I put on all five of the points you bring up, is, “Is it entertaining?” One can savage the rules of writing pretty badly if the end result gives the reader what he or she came for: entertainment.

  4. Kay says:

    In a way we have to write from what we know, in that we are always mining ourselves for experiences, hidden wisdom, and perspective. It’s really grand to find that we can explore ourselves–and find our fellow human beings there.

  5. Kay says:

    I suppose the cliffhanger phobia I have comes from really bad ones, especially ones that don’t continue directly into the next chapter, but instead are placed ahead of a different point of view. But I’m willing to admit they don’t annoy everyone!

  6. Kay says:

    You can always depart from “best practices” for the sake of a story that demands it. That’s the thing about writing advice, it just has to be tempered by judgment. I’ve found that certain stories demand things that normally I would hesitate to write. And the “entertainment” filter is a good one, especially for the most highly commercial pieces.

  7. J. Noel says:

    As always, this is very useful stuff. I really love the throwing the rocks at the protagonist one.

    In Entire, I think you broke the “protagonist mold” by giving us a hero that we really didn’t like very much in the beginning. He’s a broken man for sure. Looney Tunes, actually. But it’s through having rocks smack him in the head (literally) he becomes a hero we slowly begin to really pull for.

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