I was thinking about this the other day when I saw some of these issues in a movie. There are several storytelling mistakes that make me cringe, but I was thinking they must come from somewhere if they are making it into the TV shows and movies we love. If we aren’t taught these lessons as students then we’ll go on to make cliché movies in which these things happen then other people will grow up seeing said movies and make the same mistakes as writers — and the cycle continues.
So here is a list of the 5 most heinous narrative blunders writing students — and professional writers — commonly make. These are, for the most part, my opinion, but I think most would agree that these issues turn most good critical readers off. Also, these mostly apply to any storytelling medium, but I should note that I had short fiction in mind so some (especially #4) may not apply to longer works. Well, here they are in no particular order:
- Too much telling, not enough showing. I figured we could start with the most obvious one first. We’ve all heard the adage “show, don’t tell,” but the problem with these age-old writing adages is that they lose agency over time. I heard this a lot as a young writing student, but it didn’t really sink in for quite a while. Now as I teach writing students I see the same thing happening. The problem is their favorite blockbuster movies or teenage vampire romance novels are full of clunky exposition. They see this overload in telling and think that’s how it is done. Well, it’s not. You don’t want to insult your readers’ intelligence by telling them: 1) what they should think, 2) how they should feel, 3) how they should interpret scenes, 4) what characters are really like, or 5) that they should be impressed by your writing ability.
- Extremely obvious symbolism. This one really gets me. I like when my students really try to go for it and elevate their writing to a more literary level, but I feel that it backfires when they try too hard. It backfires when anyone tries too hard. The two biggest offenders are: 1) characters looking in the mirror and 2) dream sequences. If it is immediately obvious you’re pulling on the strings, trying to manipulate the audience into thinking/feeling something you want them to think/feel then you’re doing too much. Stop. Let a watch be a watch first then it may eventually (subtly) be a reminder of the protagonist’s mortality.
- Bland characters. This kind of goes without saying. Your characters should always be interesting, but they should also grow or change in some way too. When I do character writing exercises in class I assign a rule to one of the prompts: “write 3 physical descriptions of the character that do not reference their hair, eyes, or smile.” Everybody’s go to when describing characters, especially female characters, is to describe their “flowing blonde locks” and “perfectly pearly white smile,” but it shouldn’t be. Also, female characters should be fully-rounded people and don’t always have to be simply pretty objects that serve the male protagonist’s story in some way. Give me a reason to care about the character, have them grow, and show me something that is unique to them and no other person in the story (or any other stories if you can).
- Using death to end a story. As a fiction writing instructor, 75% of the stories I read end in death. Sometimes that is used as a device to give a story finality. Short stories do not have to end with a suicide, murder, or death in any way. Stories can just end. In fact, most stories leave us wondering about the characters and the world they inhabit, and should keep us thinking about what we just read. Killing off your protagonist at the end can undercut that. Really, tacking a death on to a story where it doesn’t fit is just… well, cheap. It is often a trick to elicit emotion or just a way to try to wrap everything up. Good endings are hard; killing characters is easy.
- Not “earning” everything you write. This one takes a little explaining. What I mean by “earn” is that you need to establish certain things in the context of a plot or setting, you have to develop a character’s fears & desires — simply put, things have to make sense. This ties into #4 a bit too because the reason deaths at the end of a story can seem cheap is because they often aren’t earned. Here is a particularly frustrating that combines many of the above rules: a character is looking in the mirror distraught, contemplating suicide. He lost a child before the story even began and we’ve only seen him as a depressed, rage-filled alcoholic. We’ve seen him yell at a stranger in a bar, hurt the woman he loves, and hurt himself earlier in the story. So, at the end, he stares at himself in the mirror and then dramatically shoots himself. The problem is we were never given a reason to like the character or care what happens to him. He never grew or changed in any way. It is obvious the mirror is meant to represent his inner thoughts on himself and we could have guessed this story was going to end in suicide from page one. You can’t use a suicide to end his life — and effectively the story — because it is cheap and hasn’t been earned. You must do something to earn this ending earlier in the story. We aren’t going to feel for the character just because he kills himself; you need to earn that emotion from us by making us like him, or we don’t even have to like him but we must at least care what happens.
There you have it. That is my list of the biggest and most common mistakes I see in storytelling. I hope this list helps aspiring writers or is at least interesting to somebody in some way. Please, let me know what you think and comment below to add some rules to this list. And, lastly, remember: all rules, especially writing rules, are meant to be broken — but only by experienced and talented writers who know the basics first. None of this is set in stone, and if you can come up with a fresh take on these then go for it!