5 Common Writing Blunders that Can Annoy or Bore Our Readers

Author Kristen Lamb, The Spawn, Kristen Lamb, WANA, We Are Not Alone

Mommy, let me help you with this. DELETE! DELETE! DELETE!

I generally like blogging about the larger issues, namely structure, because that is the killer. If the story’s plot is fatally flawed there’s little hope of connecting with a reader. If we need a Dungeon Master Guide, a GPS and a team of sherpas to navigate our story’s plot, then finding an agent is the least of our worries. So plot matters, but, to be blunt, there other rookie mistakes that can land us in a slush pile before an agent (or reader) even gets far enough to notice a problem with plot.

So today I am putting on my editor’s hat and going to give you a peek into what agents and editors (and even readers) see in those first 5-25 pages that can make us lose interest.

If Your Novel has More Characters than the Cast of Ben Hur, You Might Need Revision…

Whenever the author takes the time to name a character, that is a subtle clue to the reader that this is a major character and we need to pay attention. Think Hollywood and movies. If the credits roll and there is a named character in the credits, then we can rest assured this character had a speaking part. Many characters in our novels will be what NYTSBA Bob Mayer calls “spear carriers.” Spear carriers do not need names.

I did not know this, years ago, and I felt the need to name the pizza guy, the florist, the baker and the candlestick maker. Do NOT do this. When we name characters, it is telling our readers to care. Sort of like animals. Only name them if you plan on getting attached.

We do not have to know intimate life details about the waitress, the taxi driver or even the funeral director. Unless the character serves a role—protagonist, antagonist, allies, mentor, love interest, minions, etc.—you really don’t need to give them a name. They are props, not people.

And maybe your book has a large cast; that is okay. Don’t feel the need to introduce them all at once. If I have to keep up with 10 names on the first page, it’s confusing, ergo annoying. Readers (and agents) will feel the same way.

If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision…

Oh, there is no newbie blunder I didn’t make.

Anastasia leaned out over the yawning chasm below, and yelled to Drake. She needed her glue-sticks and Bedazzler if she ever was going to diffuse the bomb in time. Blood ran down her face as she reached out for Dakota’s hand. They only had minutes before Xing Xio would be back and then it would all be over for Fifi, Gerturde and Muffin.

Okay, I just smashed two into one. Your first question might be, Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?

Thing is, you don’t care. You aren’t the writer who knows these characters and is vested. We have discussed before how Normal World plays a vital role in narrative structure. As an editor, if I see the main character sobbing at a funeral or a hospital or hanging over a shark tank by page three, that is a big red flag the writer doesn’t understand narrative structure.

Thing is, maybe you do. But, if we are new and unknown and querying agents, these guys get a lot of submissions. And, if our first five pages shout that we don’t understand narrative structure, our pages are likely to end up in the slush pile.  Also, here is the thing about narrative structure. It is hardwired into our brains. Even three-year-olds “get” narrative structure. Don’t believe me? Try to skip part of Where the Wild Things Are and see what happens.

If three act structure is wired into the human brain, why mess with what works? Besides, when we are new, we get less leeway about trying to reinvent narrative structure, and the thing is—and I can’t emphasize this enough—three-act structure has worked since Aristotle came up with it. There are better uses of time than us trying to totally remake dramatic structure.

It’s like the wheel. Round. It rolls. The wheel works. Don’t mess with the wheel. Don’t mess with narrative structure.

Some other picky no-nos… .

Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts…

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

Too much Physiology…

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Again, I will recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus. This is an inexpensive tool that will keep you from beating up the same words/descriptions. You can thank me later ;).

Info-Dump…

The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization or some alien history all to “set up” the story.

In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters and even plotting. How can I tell? He begins with his strength—lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout.

This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story. The narrative then becomes like riding in a car with someone who relies on hitting the brakes to modulate speed. The story likely will just get flowing…and then the writer will stop to give an information dump.

Also, readers read fiction for stories. We read Wikipedia for information. Information does not a plot make. Facts and details are to support the story that will be driven by characters with human wants and needs. 

Sci-fi/fantasy writers are some of the worst offenders. It is easy to fall in love with our world-building and forget we need a plot with players. Keep the priorities straight. In twenty years people won’t remember gizmos, they will remember people.

I will do more of these in the future, but the points I mentioned today are very common errors. Many editors and agents will look for these oopses to narrow down the stack of who to read. These are also habits that can frustrate readers should the book make it to publication. I know some of you are thinking of self-publishing and that is certainly a viable path these days. But, if we have 42 characters by page five? We are likely going to frustrate a reader.

Avoiding these pitfalls will make for far smoother, cleaner writing.

What are some troubles you guys have? Maybe some questions you want me to address? Throw them up here. Takes a load off my brain so I don’t have to think this stuff up all by myself. Any tips, suggestions, books you recommend we read? Did this blog help you? Confuse you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

***Changing the contest.

It is a lot of work to pick the winners each week. Not that you guys aren’t totally worth it, but with the launch of WANA International and WANATribe I need to streamline. So I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners will now have one business week  (5 days) to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

I will announce the June winner on Friday. Need time to tally the names. THANK YOU.

At the end of July I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

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  1. #1 by MonaKarel on July 2, 2012 - 11:54 am

    As far as naming: names spelled with way too many consonants so readers keep trying to decide how to pronounce them. Naming a super competent female something like “Candy” then spending most of the book explaining why her parents disliked her so much, or how she’s just NOT that kind of a bubble head.

  2. #2 by Gail Terp (@GailTerp) on July 2, 2012 - 11:54 am

    Thanks, Kristen. It’s good to read these tips over and over – perhaps they’ll stick!

  3. #3 by Staci Troilo on July 2, 2012 - 12:01 pm

    I agree with the info dump, but I needed to hear the part about not starting smack in the middle of the action. You always hear that you’re supposed to do that so your readers get hooked. You always forget to introduce them to the characters first so they care about them before they are in peril. It’s a fine line to walk – don’t bore them, but still let them bond first. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. #4 by Fiona Marsden on July 2, 2012 - 12:07 pm

    When you mention about the heart hammering and suchlike it reminded me of some discussions on the writer boards over at Harlequin. There is a lot of hammering about ‘show not tell’ and one of the ways is through physiology. It seems like balancing all these techniques could give a writer a heart attack or at least raise the blood pressure.

  5. #5 by annerallen on July 2, 2012 - 12:10 pm

    These are the mistakes pretty much newbie makes. 90% of my editing clients broke all these rules. So go out there and make these mistakes, people, then fix them. You don’t need to hire an editor to tell you this stuff, just listen to Kristen!

  6. #6 by Elaine on July 2, 2012 - 12:17 pm

    This was a great post, full of golden nuggets. I wish I’d read this before I typed the first words of my novel – I gave my MC a group of friends and introduced all five in the first chapter. *oops

  7. #7 by Heather on July 2, 2012 - 12:20 pm

    This is so helpful. It always annoys me when books begin in the middle of the action. Like you said, we don’t truly care about the character yet.

  8. #8 by Patricia Yager Delagrange on July 2, 2012 - 12:26 pm

    Loved this, Kristen, and it’s so true. I learned a lot of this along the way after submitting in contests. Judges were quick to pick up on my errors and hopefully I’ve learned to correct them.
    Thank you.

  9. #9 by Clare Davidson on July 2, 2012 - 12:31 pm

    Thanks for sharing these mistakes and for the link to the Emotion Thesaurus. I think I’ll have to grab a copy of it! Writing really is a balancing act.

  10. #10 by prudencemacleod on July 2, 2012 - 12:39 pm

    Ever you are the master, ever I the pupil. Hmmm, so much to learn, so little time. I’m saving all these how-to posts Kristen. Can’t thank you enough for all you do.

  11. #11 by jillksayre on July 2, 2012 - 12:41 pm

    Yes, yes, yes! When I edit my writing groups’ work, sometimes the info-overload is tough to cut through. Could you address the “he said/she said” and the use of adverbs to describe HOW “he said/she said” in dialogue? Often, “he said sadly” or “she said loudly” is monotonous to read. Please help us vary these dialogue descriptions and weave the description into the action. Thanks!!

  12. #12 by Charley Pearson on July 2, 2012 - 12:45 pm

    Always appreciate your advice. Even in the rare case where I don’t agree, like this time, since I’ve seen so many good stories start with action — then reduce the pace and get back into more standard structure. If character traits are revealed during the action, this can hook the reader’s interest quite effectively. But your point about agents seeing too much of the same thing and getting burned out on one thing or another — that’s valid, I guess. Or human, if not valid, if it means an agent misses out on a good story.

  13. #13 by Rachel Funk Heller on July 2, 2012 - 12:55 pm

    Bwa-ha-ha-ha…. you used the word “Bedazzler’ in a sentence ;-) Great advice as always Kristen.

  14. #14 by richardmonro731 on July 2, 2012 - 12:57 pm

    Great tips, especially about weaving information into the narrative rather than doing an info dump. Novels that dump on me end up in my slush pile pretty quickly. Also, liked the part about building the action to invest the reader in the story line. Thanks for another great blog.

  15. #15 by Carrie Cunningham on July 2, 2012 - 1:23 pm

    Love all the info! I’m finally picking my writing back up, and am always wondering if what I’m doing is right or wrong, if the readers will like it and be pulled into the story as much as I want them to be. Makes me feel so much better that I’m not alone in making these mistakes!

  16. #16 by Maryann Miller on July 2, 2012 - 1:32 pm

    I love the part about the moving body parts. Early in my writing I had an instructor who was reading aloud a part of a scene I’d written. When he got to the part where I had a character roll her eyes, he mimed taking his eyes out of their sockets and rolling them like dice across the floor. I don’t think anyone in that class ever made the mistake of rolling eyes again. LOL

    A bit puzzled about your suggestion about not dropping readers into the middle of the action, though. I thought that was a good thing to open with a bang and create questions in the reader’s mind so he or she would continue reading. I do understand that you don’t want to keep them in the dark too long, but do we really want to set up a lot in the beginning? Maybe I’m just not understanding the point you made.

  17. #17 by KM Huber on July 2, 2012 - 2:00 pm

    I remember your previous post that you link; of course,it is among my Kristen collection, although I am improving, I still have a hard time with avoiding the info dump at the beginning. I’m not a science fiction or fantasy writer– I have an interest in geology; takes your breath away doesn’t it–most of the books I read are literary or mainstream novels.

    I do my best to emulate/use my favorites as a guide and it has helped but I fall short every time whether it’s in character introduction, providing information, or bring in plot. I simply can’t find the balance.

    Perhaps you would consider a future post on the balance that is required in those opening pages. Always, your suggestions are concrete and clear.

    Another fine post, Kristen.
    Karen

    P.S. I will tell you that your suggestion (in an earlier post) of writing out the back story of my characters before I start writing my story eliminates a lot of opening info dump.

  18. #18 by Staci Troilo on July 2, 2012 - 2:05 pm

    I found that, after writing the first draft of my novel, when I went back to edit it, the entire first chapter could be cut. So much of it was back story that could be woven in later. I wanted people to get to know my characters, but not at the expense of the info dump. Of course, then I had to redo chapter 2 (then renamed chapter 1) because we were now smack in the middle of action and no one knew these people. Revisions, revisions!

  19. #19 by kimterry on July 2, 2012 - 2:11 pm

    I laughed out loud when I read this post, particularly the “alien” body parts and the heart-hammering. Now, I have to check my own WIP for those goof-ups.

  20. #20 by LeAnne Bristow on July 2, 2012 - 2:57 pm

    Thank you Kristen! Your posts always inspire me to go back and edit …which often leads to writing inspiration. Now, if you will excuse me, I must go searching for alien body parts and do some info dumping!

  21. #21 by colonialist on July 2, 2012 - 3:05 pm

    Good tips, but in a way it is a pity that they are. It stresses again how set in formulae editors, agents and publishers have increasingly become. Most of the time these are fatal errors, true. Unfortunately, by regarding them as invariably so, one is going to miss the occasions where they are actually acts of artistic genius. Every rule is there to be broken, but at the right time and in the right way.

  22. #22 by Dawn on July 2, 2012 - 3:37 pm

    Great advice – love it! I am currently struggling with determining how much historical background is necessary to provide readers with information about my characters’ motivation in my memoir. After some writing and re-writing, I have decided to address this history from my personal background and research (i.e., the “current events” that I grew up with and my own personal take on how they shaped my characters’ lives.) Don’t know if this is effective yet, but still plugging along…
    Thanks!

  23. #23 by shankarkashyap on July 2, 2012 - 3:47 pm

    Great advice Kristen. I look forward to your Blogs to improve my writing. Since I joined WANA my writing style has changed and I feel has improved significantly.
    I am in the process of writing a series of books – historical fiction based on archaeological and literary evidence. My question to you is, should one use historical names – both people and places – in the story. Bearing in mind two things – one is that it is fiction and second, old names are often complicated to pronounce!
    Thanks again for a brilliant post again.
    Shankar

  24. #24 by tomburkhalter on July 2, 2012 - 3:50 pm

    Hm…one of the least obtrusive information dumps, integrated with a considerable character development, may be found in the second chapter of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Few if any readers know anything about the arcane world of the Circus, slang for “British Intelligence,” and a certain introduction to the context will be helpful. I recommend it as an example.

    I like a certain bit of rising action at the beginning…as you say, get to know the characters a little before you throw them out of the airplane, and will they get that parachute on in time? But the technique of in medias res has been around at least as long (well, longer…Homer used it in the Odyssey); I don’t see a contradiction, just a dynamic between how much the reader needs to know and when to start the action.

  25. #25 by Kathryn Leigh on July 2, 2012 - 3:55 pm

    Thank you for this post. I really liked the example you included for dumping readers into the middle of action. At first, I was like, “Why does this contradict everything I’ve ever read about beginnings?” I’ve read SO much about en media res and whatnot that I needed your example to understand the difference. :)

  26. #26 by Marvin Mayer on July 2, 2012 - 4:01 pm

    Nothing to add at this time … except thanks for another helpful blog.

  27. #27 by Jessi Gage on July 2, 2012 - 4:13 pm

    Reblogged this on Jessi Gage and commented:
    Another wonderful writing post by Kristen Lamb! I have been guilty of all of these no-no’s at some point. Hopefully, I’m improving, althought I admit I’m terrible about the heart pounding think. What can I say, I’m a physiology geek!

  28. #28 by Jessi Gage on July 2, 2012 - 4:18 pm

    Great post. I have been guilty of all of these, all in the past, of course, because I’m perfect now…yeah, right. If I had to pick one of these I still struggle with, it’s the physiology bit. Pouding heart seems to be my default. That and chest tightening in a stressful situation. Sheesh, now that you point it out, I’m going to have to go through my wip looking for those and seeing how I can make things more fresh.

    A question on point 2, dumping the reader in the middle of the action: What is the difference between “middle of the action” and inciting incident? I’ve heard your novel needs to start at the inciting incident, or the point that kicks the story into motion. Sometimes it’s hard for me to pin point exactly what moment that is. Any advice?

    • #29 by stephscottil on July 2, 2012 - 4:34 pm

      I’m no expert, but my take on the difference in starting in the middle vs the inciting incident is the inciting incedent does not happen in the first paragraph. We need to know who the character is and at least a line or two of why we should care about them. If Amy’s life is threatened and time will stop forever unless she can stop the Warlocks of Destiny, if that is the first line, I don’t even know who Amy is, why the Warlocks are destined to stop time, and if time stops, why it’s a bad thing (maybe it’s evolutions natural course?).

      The other side of this coin is the elaborate set up with the inciting incident occuring somewhere in chapter four about 50 pages in (that would be my own newbie blunder). If you’re Stephen King, maybe you can get away with that, but by the end of chapter one you should be able to tell (from above) what Amy’s goals are, what is potentially blocking her goals and why her quest is important. Even with a quieter book where the conflict is more internal, no one wants pages of a character moping around cleaning her kitchen to set the tone with no hint of a larger conflict for 25 pages. Inciting incident can be hinted at from the very first page, but readers have to care about the character or the general set up first.

  29. #30 by Yvette Carol on July 2, 2012 - 4:28 pm

    *hand up* Yes Kristen I’ve committed all those blunders, and then some! My WIP has a cast of thousands and I’m going to take your advice and un-name a few of them :-)
    Yvette Carol

  30. #31 by stephscottil on July 2, 2012 - 4:28 pm

    I’ve made a lot of those newbie mistakes; the key is recognition. Most writing craft books I’ve read have had very simple advice that if more people took the time to follow I think the whole slush pile deal wouldn’t be so feared! I’d rather work on story mechanics and plot than having someone cringe at my character’s heart palpitations and eyesballs flying out her sockets.

    Also, please people, for the love of humanity, do NOT start a book with someone waking up from a nightmare!* Especially a nightnmare in the woods!**

    *very cliche, however, I’m sure your nightmare opener is different and not cliche
    **I realize the woods probably have deep significance to your character’s attachment issues. By all means, write the story that compells you. :)

  31. #32 by Katie on July 2, 2012 - 5:32 pm

    Great stuff to think about as I nail down those first five pages. Thank you as always for your wisdom!

  32. #33 by Sara M on July 2, 2012 - 6:12 pm

    This is very helpful, thanks! My earlier writing is peppered with these blunders, and I’m sure a few are hiding in my WIP, too. I’m adding these to my growing list of no-no’s.

  33. #34 by jodenton445 on July 2, 2012 - 7:01 pm

    Another great post full of goodies. Guilty of these blunders and I do agree that reading about them over and over again drives the point home (sorry about the cliche). Thanks!

    • #35 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 2, 2012 - 8:26 pm

      We all do this. I don’t know if we ever make it to a point that we don’t need these guidelines.

  34. #36 by Tessa Sheppard on July 2, 2012 - 7:02 pm

    I loved this post! You have a lot of great advice. I’ve nominated you for the Sunshine Award. See my post here:
    http://tessasheppard.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/i-received-the-sunshine-award/

  35. #37 by Rob Mahan on July 2, 2012 - 8:02 pm

    Thanks for highlighting this top five. I have to crank my internal editor up to be more vigilant for “too much physiology” and depend on my readers to infer all the “heart palpitations” through better execution of scene and dialog.

    After your first two “You might need revision …”, I thought you might be going for a play on Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck …” (My favorite was “… if you ever had to move a transmission to take a bath!”)

  36. #38 by jodierennerediting on July 2, 2012 - 9:10 pm

    Excellent blog post, Kristen! I agree totally with these five major no-nos, whether authors are looking for an agent & publisher or intend to go the indie publishing route — no need to annoy your readers and get bad reviews! I’ll be sending a bunch of my writer clients here. I posted the first paragraph on my blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.ca/, with a link here so readers can read the rest. Also mentioned your books. :-)

  37. #39 by Cathy Brockman on July 2, 2012 - 9:13 pm

    I found this information extremely useful..Sighs makes note doing rewrites to had a paramedic for cpr from all the heartpounding and bloodrushing..LOL I Love the emotion Thesaurus

    by the way.

  38. #40 by billgncs on July 2, 2012 - 9:15 pm

    thanks — fun things to learn…

  39. #41 by natxopsicosis on July 2, 2012 - 10:16 pm

    Reblogged this on Natxopsicosis's Blog.

  40. #42 by Ronald Sowell on July 2, 2012 - 10:32 pm

    This is the first of your pieces I have read but it won’t be the last! Great advice and a tip of the hat to Jodie Renner for sending this to me.

  41. #43 by pewterbreath on July 2, 2012 - 10:54 pm

    Wonderful article. I especially get annoyed when there’s a ton of characters that come and go several chapters apart so I have to stumble to play the “who was that?” (Flipflipflipflip) “Oh.”

  42. #44 by donnajeanmcdunn on July 2, 2012 - 11:20 pm

    Hi Kristen, I really loved this post. It reminded me of just how bad I used to be. I had all of those mistakes when I first got serious about writing. It didn’t take long for my instructors to set me straight. It hurt, but not as bad as all the rejections would have been had I stubbornly ignored their advice. Thanks for the reminder. I always need those too.

  43. #45 by Jess Witkins on July 2, 2012 - 11:24 pm

    Hey for once I’m not guilty of all the writer crimes you’ve named! LOL. I must be learning something. I can haz cheezburger now right?!

  44. #46 by Renee Osborne on July 2, 2012 - 11:29 pm

    I know these are probably considered newbie mistakes, but this list is also a great reminder for those of us who’ve been writing for a while. Thanks for posting it.

  45. #47 by Daphne Shadows on July 3, 2012 - 12:43 am

    As for what can you address?
    What do you do to help yourself when character building? What you do to cement the personality of your character into your mind? I would LOVE some ideas for that one. Obviously, if you don’t put it into one of your posts, I will not stalk you carrying a large ax. Promise. ;)
    Thank you though, for throwing things in like this! I’m getting close to the end of “phase rough draft”, and I’m trying to pick up everything I need to throw at my revisions list as I go. And hearing it from your end is an added bonus! I like being prepared before I get there.

  46. #48 by claireful on July 3, 2012 - 2:51 am

    These are great tips. I’m also querying the starting with the action tip though. My story starts with one character and builds slowly – dropping in hints as I go. It’s been suggested that I should start with something more action-based. I’m resisting it at the moment, but I do need to make sure the reader doesn’t fall asleep…

  47. #49 by Anon on July 3, 2012 - 3:01 am

    “If Your Novel Dumps the Reader Right into Major Action, You Might Need Revision…”

    Kristin, this seems to be like a personal preference of yours. I don’t see how you can turn into a general law. I have read and enjoyed many books that started in the middle of action (& pls don’t say you can break the rules if you understand them. That looks like a cop out.).

    “Who the hell are these people? And likely your second question is Why do I care?”

    And this is your 2nd problem. You assume the general reader cares about character development, growth etc. Most people read for enjoyment. I dont care if the characters are wooden or 1D, as long as the book entertains me. I read books / watch movies for entertainment, not to please my English professor.

    But the critics and the writing ‘elite’ seem to prefer character based books (the so called literary books), and they assume that everyone wants the same. I prefer fast pace, plot based stories. And so does the general public. Look at Dan Brown. The critics hate him, yet he keeps selling.

    And this is my problem with all these writing ‘rules’. They seem to be made up to serve a small minority of vocal elites.
    You keep bringing up Romancing the stone. It was an average movie (box office vise), with an average story and action. Compare it to Indiana Jones. Starts bang with action, and action throughout.
    As a writer, I’d choose Indy over Romacing… any day. Now this is my preference, I won’t claim this as a “Rule” or anything.

    • #50 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 3, 2012 - 7:27 am

      We have to be careful about movies. And yes I use them for reference because they are more universal. Romancing the Stone wasn’t that sub par of a movie or people wouldn’t remember it almost 30 years later. Yet, even though movies are useful for teaching purposes, we have to remember that seeing on the screen is different than the page.

      Also, Dan Brown writes thrillers and the story begins with a prologue (common in thrillers), which is a hint at the coming enemy. It is all action and we aren’t supposed to “care” about the character beyond the clue he leaves behind. Since it is labeled “prologue” we know this.

      What I am referring to here in the “rules” is when we introduce the main character/protagonist. In Dan Brown’s book “The DaVinci Code”, he does not begin with his protagonist hanging off a cliff. Symbologist Robert Langdon is at a book signing (or something similarly intellectual and dull, have slept since I read this). The protagonist is in normal world which is then interrupted by the inciting incident. We as a reader get a chance to be introduced to an intellectual, and this is the hook.

      How is a book worm professor going to take out bad guys who just turned some old man into chop meat in an art gallery? So your example actually does follow the rules explicated in the post.

      The problem I see with too many new writers is this harrowing action is not a short prologue with throw-away “clue” characters; it is introducing the main character. In certain genres it might be okay to begin in harrowing action (suspense, thrillers, etc.) but I would still be careful, because how do you top it? This isn’t Hollywood where we have special effects (Indiana Jones). If our protagonist is defusing a bomb on page one, that is tough to top and will make pacing a bear. Also, it is hard to make us care because we haven’t even had two pages to care who this person (protagonist) is.

      When I say don’t begin in the middle of harrowing action, I am not then requiring that we wax rhapsodic for 50 pages. We need to get into action quickly, but the idea is we care who we are making the trip with.

      We need a page or two with the young mother who drops her kids off at daycare and runs late to her job, but her job is at the bank and she just stepped into a robbery. If we begin with her stepping into the robbery, why do we care? We might, but we would care A LOT more if we’d had a glimpse of what was at stake, of who she was fighting to see again.

      But I do agree with you. This crap of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and I have to give it a 150 pages to care is for the birds. I gave it 30 and that was more than I would give most.

      • #51 by Fiona Marsden on July 4, 2012 - 3:04 am

        Besides, Romancing the Stone was a Romance. None of the Indiana Jone’s were, in spite of the token female.

    • #52 by shankarkashyap on July 3, 2012 - 1:39 pm

      There is something in what you say. Someone somewhere said that the language evolves with both “good” and “bad” diction! Often books fail because the author has drowned the story in “Good English.”. The narrative can get derailed easily. However, one cannot forget some of the basic tenets of the language as otherwise one will be guilty of “ruining the language.” Hats off to Kristen for making the topic so controversial. It has generated such an immense interest that can only be good for everyone!

      • #53 by Anon on July 4, 2012 - 2:25 am

        How is this a controversial topic? :)

        Every 2nd website about writers is giving the exact same advice. It seems everyone is copy pasting each other

        • #54 by shankarkashyap on July 4, 2012 - 3:45 pm

          I did not mean the topic to be “controversial”. But it has raised several controversial issues and produced contrasting views. The response to the post has been tryly amazing.

  48. #55 by Nicole Zoltack on July 3, 2012 - 8:42 am

    Great tips! I’m working on a story about an antiheroine (a female assassin) and I’m having a hard time finding a way to make the reader care about her right away because of her profession. But that’s what rewriting is for. I honestly think writing is more about rewriting than writing!

    • #56 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 3, 2012 - 10:20 am

      A lot of times, you have to explore her motive. Also frequently she will not be your main protagonist the reader needs to relate to. We can’t. If you think of Terminator 2, Sarah Connor is no longer the protagonist. Her son is. Sarah is a killing machine (actually she is a flesh and blood representation of the Terminator), yet she is sympathetic because she is fighting to protect the world (and her son) from destruction. But the son, John Connor, is who we connect to and sympathize for. We see his mother through him and that softens her.

      Being a pure assassin is going to be hard to write. Unlike a Death Dealer (Underworld) an assassin doesn’t have a cause. An assassin is basically a killer for pay. I might suggest making her more of a Death Dealer for a cause, then she is a soldier and that is far easier to connect to the reader. Otherwise, if she is an assassin, it is a meantime survival. You need something that makes her sympathetic, even if it is an ally who is the one we connect to emotionally and see her through this character’s eyes.

  49. #57 by caitlinjacobs on July 3, 2012 - 11:49 am

    Oooh, I think I’m guilty of some of these. Not all, but some. Don’t worry – I’ll remedy that. :)

  50. #58 by Greg Camp on July 3, 2012 - 12:06 pm

    I see that you don’t like “in medias res,” but that’s a technique that gets readers immediately into the action. Consider “Casablanca” or “Foucault’s Pendulum.” I agree that an info dump often brings the story to a crashing halt. Tom Clancy did that in “The Hunt for Red October.” After reading it, I felt qualified to run a nuclear submarine to two separate navies. I hear that the book was something of a success, though.

    • #59 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 3, 2012 - 12:23 pm

      I don’t have a problem with “in medias res.” I think a lot of writers don’t know how to employ it. Also, people keep citing thrillers and suspense and those books generally begin with an action prologue, but we still generally have a page or two to see the protagonist in Normal World. As I mentioned in the comments earlier, the beginning of The DaVinci Code is Robert Langdon at a book signing or conference or something boring and academic. He isn’t hanging off a cliff diffusing a bomb. This is part of what creates the “hook.” How is a symbolist going to take out the killer who gutted the old dude?

      In medias res is often misunderstood. We begin as far into the action as possible, mean start the story in DEEP. When we meet Luke Skywalker, we didn’t need to know the history of Anakin. We could start on a moisture farm on Tatooine and be just dandy. All the rest was needless backstory and that is part of why it failed miserably as an example of good storytelling. We could have had the three original movies and been just fine. We didn’t need to go baaaaack in time to understand what was going on.

      Even Luke Skywalker is seen in a brief Normal World with his aunt and uncle and life is “normal.” We need that moment or when they die, their death means nothing. If the movie started with Luke weeping uncontrollably over his slaughtered family, it would be melodrama because we wouldn’t CARE.But we don’t hang out long in Normal World before it caves in. Just long enough to be vested emotionally.

      A lot of new writers feel like they need to explain everything. You don’t. Readers suspend disbelief the second they open a page. We don’t need to know WHY. That is what is meant by “in medias res,” but is often misinterpreted to mean we need to begin our book with a car chase and ninjas :D.

      • #60 by Greg Camp on July 3, 2012 - 1:11 pm

        I’d have been happier if “The Da Vinci Code” had started out by calling Robert Langdon a semiologist, rather than a symbologist, since there’s no such animal as a symbologist. Clearly, paying attention to good language isn’t a requirement for making a best seller.

        • #61 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 3, 2012 - 1:26 pm

          LOL. Yeah, well sometimes we have to make it clearer for the masses. I know Lee Child set a book in Texas and he knew that the DPS (Department of Public Safety) would have had jurisdiction over a homicide in a remote area, but since his book is international he knew that would confuse the living daylights out of Europeans, so he changed it. Not correct, but less hassle explaining *shrugs*.

  51. #62 by LR Rodgers on July 3, 2012 - 2:43 pm

    Loved this post, the examples and “adjustments” were so helpful. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and expertise with us. I’m looking forward to the next round.

  52. #63 by J M Gallagher on July 3, 2012 - 9:32 pm

    So glad to see this post. I know many writers who routinely violate these rules (up until a year ago, that included me lol).

  53. #64 by Nancy DiMauro on July 4, 2012 - 6:07 am

    Thanks fo the great post. I laughed out loud at the caption under the picture, and am still mopping tea off the keyboard. My kids are old enough to know not to touch the computer – the cat on the othe hand, is old enough to know better to but he just doesn’t care.

  54. #65 by Don Bueltmann on July 4, 2012 - 1:12 pm

    Last night my wife asked me what I was chuckling about, I read the alien body parts. We both enjoyed a good laugh.
    I agree with having too many characters. I’m 4 books into George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series. He has introduced so many characters and provided background on each. I have no idea who he is talking about sometimes. If you are reading this on a Kindle it’s almost impossible to remember where you are and who he’s talking about.

    My biggest complaint concerns spelling, everyone has a spellchecker but many people don’t use them.
    I’ve seen spelling errors in the works of established authors. How can we be criticized for errors in editing when stumbling over their problems. Is it their problem? Is it the editor’s problem?
    Should we advise the author about these mistakes or will that merely P— them off?

    Let me know how the rest of you feel about these comments.

    Don Bueltmann

    • #66 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 4, 2012 - 1:44 pm

      I used to be really critical until I became published. I am a nazi about grammar and spelling, etc. WANA was proofread at least a dozen times with multiple sets of eyes and there were STILL typos we didn’t see until it was too late. It’s hard to make a work that is 60-100,000 words perfect. I think unless it is just to the point that it is clear the writer was being totally lazy or careless, we should just ignore it. Sure, they had ten typos, but the DID get 99,990 correct.

  55. #67 by Walter on July 4, 2012 - 11:24 pm

    In my writer’s group one member is guilty of the data dump; her recent submission had 8-9 proper names (with relationships) on the first page, two of those were planets!
    I was guilty of throwing the reader into the deep end of the action from the first sentence. My sister read 3 pages and said, “This is boring”, and handed it back to me. Thanks sis! That was helpful.
    But I learned from this. I wittled my next short story to the bone and named less than half of the actors, not even the narrator! I was stunned how much more readable it made it. Sometimes less really is more.

  56. #68 by Wit on July 5, 2012 - 4:30 am

    Great post! I have made these mistakes myself, and as I have grown away from some of these tropes I have felt more comfortable with my writing.

  57. #69 by Lady Ardour on July 5, 2012 - 5:20 am

    Hi, I found this article really helpful, thanks so much! :)

  58. #70 by Candy Caradoc on July 5, 2012 - 8:28 am

    Info dump and getting dropped straight into action have always been pet hates of mine. Similarly to the latter: getting dropped into the middle of an incomprehensible conversation, particularly with world-specific jargon or being about concepts/places/other characters you’ve never heard of (presumably for the purpose of tickling the reader’s interest with hints of things they’re yet to learn about) makes me want to puke.

  59. #71 by Teresa Wouters on July 5, 2012 - 10:58 am

    I enjoyed both your humur and wisdom. I’m looking forward to reading your books.

  60. #72 by tracey on July 5, 2012 - 12:44 pm

    Thank you Kristen for this post. I am keeping all of this in mind as I am writing and especially your link to the post about the normal world. That was so what I needed to hear right now. I often talk myself into thinking it’s all boring details when I’m writing but then I do think back to all the books I have really enjoyed and it was those details about the normal world that helped me “know” the character. Even if the character is just getting a latte at the local cafe. It makes the character more real to me and then I do care more also.

  61. #73 by Monica T. Rodriguez on July 6, 2012 - 2:45 pm

    I knew that an info dump was trouble as an opening (and lots of other times), but I hadn’t thought of the dangers of opening with action immediately. What a great tip! And I was worried about the opening action in my WIP, which starts in the second half of my first scene. Maybe that’s right where it ought to be…

    And I’ve got to get my hands on that Emotion Thesaurus! I’ve seen plenty of recs for it, but have dragged my feet. Enough!

    Thanks for the post!

  62. #74 by Char on July 6, 2012 - 9:52 pm

    My WIP has a lot of characters – it’s a family saga. I threatened to get rid of one & my crit group told me to keep them all! I’m hoping they know what they’re talking about. :)

    • #75 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 7, 2012 - 8:42 am

      I don’t have a problem with a large cast, just don’t introduce them all on page ONE. Fold them into the story.

  63. #76 by Lauren Claire on July 7, 2012 - 4:59 pm

    When I was fifteen, I won a Silver Medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. The next year somebody critiqued it as having no heart. The reason? Because I opened with action. I wish I could have read this blog post before writing that story.

    Thank you for sharing this article. You have some good solid advice here for beginners. I shall be sure to share it with my Facebook and Twitter followers.

  64. #77 by Sharyl A. Heber on July 8, 2012 - 9:05 am

    This was very helpful! I’m new to your site and glad to be following. I just ordered a copy of Emotion Thesaurus. Thanks for the recommendation, and I put a link to your site on my blog in my list of favorites. saheber.blogspot.com

  65. #78 by markneu on July 12, 2012 - 5:52 am

    Nice post. I saw some commenters defending the info dump and/or citing authors who have used it to good effect. It seems to me the key word is “dump.” SF/F authors are writing about new worlds and places you have no experience with so of course it needs to be explained, but the talented ones don’t just dump the information while putting everything else on hold. Instead they weave the info into the flow of the story.

    I didn’t interpret your advice as being against presenting background info – just not letting it interfere with the flow of your narrative.

  66. #79 by Suz on July 15, 2012 - 8:01 am

    I can, and will, use all of these tips except the one about not jumping right into the action. Maybe it’s a distinction between action and ‘major’ action as you state it? I’ve been studying the craft of writing for the last 3 years and every article that an agent and editor has written about this subject, they all say start right in the middle of it, don’t give the reader a bunch of backstory and character descriptive, but rather start them in the middle of something that is your inciting incident for your MC. so reading your statement to specifically not do that was very confusing to me. maybe I need to find a middle ground there or some clarification on your position if there’s a difference between action and major action to give a reader in those first few pages? thanks for sharing tips and your experiences.

  67. #80 by Brenda Hasse on July 17, 2012 - 7:07 am

    Great advise!!! I have reposted for others to see. Yes, weaving information into your story instead of dumping it all at once is a must. Dumping information gives the reader too many details at one time and bogs down the flow of the story. As a writer, I try and choose character names that are easy to read. I find, as a reader, I skip over character names that are difficult to read and force me to slow the tempo of my reading. The Emotion Thesaurus sounds like a handy resource for those times my mind becomes redundant. Thanks for posting this information!

  68. #81 by Danielle Bannister on July 20, 2012 - 6:40 am

    What are you thoughts on naming characters with the same first letter. Like two MC that start with J for instance. That drives me nuts! My brain can’t handle the similarity, just change the names to they aren’t so similar, yet I see it all the time!

  69. #82 by Matthew Trull on July 25, 2012 - 9:29 pm

    Good information Kristen. Info dump is not where I am faltering, rather I have 7 main characters in my story. And as you say, I’ve got to think more about the reader remembering who they are. Thanks for the insight.

  70. #83 by J. Lenni Dorner on August 4, 2012 - 1:06 am

    This was a very informative post. I feel that I have not read these tips before. Thank you for sharing!

  71. #84 by S. E. Myers on August 4, 2012 - 10:41 am

    Thank you for this! I

  72. #85 by Sheryl Taylor on January 19, 2014 - 8:39 pm

    Love your post! Please add me to email list.

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