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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.


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