My Critters List of the 5 Most Common Weaknesses in Fiction
Ever since I became serious as a freelance editor/proofreader and a participant on Critters.org, the oldest online writer’s critique group, I have encountered the same weakness in fiction over and over again. Partly, I think this is because people send early drafts to critiques and forego revision until they receive their first round of feedback.
In my opinion, writers could benefit from self-revision before submitting to critique groups because many weaknesses that make a story unreadable can be fixed by the writers themselves. Beta readers and critique groups are useful resources, but writers can improve their craft more reliably through deep practice.
As a tool to help writers improve their own work, I have provided the following list of common weaknesses in fiction.
1. Too little exposition, especially at the beginning.
Young or inexperienced writers are often advised to avoid exposition at all costs. Info dumping is boring, uninteresting to read, and distracts from the story. But given the volume of fiction I have read where I did not feel grounded in the story, I am no longer convinced that this advice is unimpeachable.
Exposition can sometimes be the way the writer opens the door into their story’s world.
Writers are told by creative writing teachers to begin in media res, but often, they begin their stories before they establish the res. In other words, they begin in ‘the middle of things‘ without establishing what those ‘things’ are, or where they are, or when they are. The characters are already running around doing things, but the meaning of these actions is unknown, because the author presumes the reader has a certain level of knowledge they do not possess.
This information must be on the page. This problem is especially frequent in speculative fiction openings, where a common reality between the reader and the fictional world is not necessarily assumed.
“Once upon a time, there was a young princess who loved to play with her toy ball.” This passage, from a fairy tale, establishes a time, a character, and a setting. It is a perfect window into the “before” state prior to the main action. Every word is exposition: “telling” instead of “showing.” Yet, the words have a solidity and sense of narrative confidence that grounds the reader. It is a fine example of an opening.
Writers often forget to use the narrator’s voice to convey important details of the story. This likely has to do with how most writers are raised on the visual formats of TV and movies instead of the nineteenth-century novels of yore. Since writers think they can see their characters in the movie playing in their mind’s eye, they think the reader will have no problem seeing that movie. But no such movie exists. There is only the page.
Simply showing events does not ground the reader automatically. A certain amount of telling is often necessary. Keep exposition minimal in the middle of your story and at the end, but do not forget that exposition at the beginning may be necessary. There may, of course, be more elegant ways of revealing information, such as description and dialogue. But remember that telling is may be an occasionally necessary tool.
In modern literature, stream-of-consciousness and multiple viewpoints give a greater sense of the fragmentation of experience. But even if the narrator’s perspective no longer carries the authority it enjoyed in the nineteenth century, it must still anchor itself. From a base, its creative center, the story expands outwards, growing steadily more complex, like coral.
N.B.: I would highly recommend writers, especially speculative fiction writers, to consult How to Improve Your Speculative Fiction Openings by Robert Qualkinbrush, which I have read. It goes into more detail about this issue.
2. Opening at the wrong time.
On occasion, a story might begin too early or late in the action. Introducing your story in media res can sometimes feel like filling a reader in about what happened when they were asleep during the first half of a movie. If you find that this is true for you, you might have begun the story too late.
On the other hand, when you write a character traveling or walking towards a destination, chances are you have begun the story too early. This is called “walking to the story” and is a crutch writers fall back on. This is fine to do in rough drafts as a way to connect with your characters. But in subsequent drafts, it is usually a good idea to cut these moments out.
Sometimes the story begins with the right scene, but the wrong thing is being described. For example, there might be a few sentences of purposeless description done in the interest of painting a picture. Perhaps the colour of the sky is described or the shade of the protagonist’s hair. Often, this information is uninteresting to the reader who does not yet have a reason to care what the world looks like. They want to know what’s happening or at least have some privileged insight into understanding who the characters are.
Sometimes a story begins at the wrong moment simply because the reader tries to express an emotional reaction that has been given no context. In About Writing, Samuel Delaney provides a model for the three units of narrative that build on one another like blocks. Setting/location must be established firstly, followed by situation and conflict. As a result of this conflict, the reader lastly experiences affect, or emotional reaction (payoff). This model can be applied on any fractal level of narrative structure: paragraphs, beats, scenes, acts.
In cases where an emotional reaction begins a story but falls flat, the writer may have begun with affect without grounding it in setting or situation. Unless the emotion is primal and/or the context swiftly provided, the reader may feel disconnected from events.
Sometimes the story begins at the wrong chronological moment. Other times, it begins with the wrong details being described. Sometimes the fix is as simple as rearranging the order of a few sentences in a paragraph; other times, the story’s initial event must itself be rethought. Ideally, a story begins at a moment of dramatic interest where the relevant details can be shown and/or told in exposition that appears relevant to the action.
3. Unclear, unfelt stakes.
The next biggest weakness is a lack of clear, emotional stakes. By stakes I mean the question, “Why is this character performing this action?” Stakes have to do with risk and what the character has to lose or gain. The clearer the stakes, the more reasons to read on.
Unclear stakes often occur because readers have forgotten to make them explicit. Too much subtlety can sometimes result in a vagueness with regard to a character’s goal. But there is nothing wrong with a line that puts all the cards on the table for everyone to see: “Velma couldn’t let Clarice beat her at Bingo, or she’d never be able to look her knitting circle in the eye again.” The circumstances may appear trivial to a reader, but no one can deny that Velma needs to win the Bingo tournament at Shady Maple Retirement Home to earn the regard of her peers.
Exposition can go a long way to making stakes clear, especially at the beginning of a story. Later in the story, stakes can be shown instead of told. For example, there might be a scene where Velma loses the Bingo game and the knitting group has a meeting without her. Now the stakes are bigger: will she confront her knitting group and stand up for herself or wallow in self-pity? This is an escalation.
These stakes must not only be clear, but carry an emotional impact. The stakes of a story might be world-ending–nuclear war, for instance–but if the protagonist remains unaffected, the reader does too. Thus, the urgency of a stake has nothing to do with the volume of people affected but by the specificity of emotions associated with it.
Velma’s need to earn the respect in her knitting circle might engage readers, while scavengers surviving in a post-nuclear Toronto might elicit no sympathy whatsoever. If the scavengers’ stakes have no emotional context, they will simply not matter to the reader.
Think of all the things George Bailey loses in It’s A Wonderful Life when he sees what Bedford Falls looks like in a world where he has never been born. He loses the Building & Loan, his family, and the optimism of the town itself, which has nowhere to turn to escape Mr. Potter’s exploitation. George stands to lose everything he cares about and the audience feels it.
The more particularized the stakes, the better. A bland emotional reaction on your protagonist’s part, even if noble (“We have to save the world!”), will not give an especially compelling reason to be interested in the character per se. If, however, the scavenger’s grandmother is alone at Shady Maple Retirement Home and unaware of the danger of the incoming nuclear apocalypse, the stakes for the scavenger are more particularized. We might also feel sorry that grandma was never able to resolve her knitting circle drama.
Think of the reader’s attention as a tent on a windy mountaintop. You need many specific and poignant stakes to pin that tent down, keep your reader’s attention tethered to your story, and hold it there.
4. A lack of frontwork to prepare readers for revelations.
A revelation in your story that does not “land” often confuses the reader instead of delivering the emotional or intellectual impact you desire. Fixing revelations involves hard work. In order to reveal information in your story in an impactful way, you have to do frontwork, or loading Chekov’s gun.
For instance, in one story I read, a character was working on a mystery surrounding a crime, but before they could establish a baseline of assumptions about the case, the writer threw a curve ball: a surprise revelation revealed that the crime the character was investigating was itself a deception. The suspects, who were only vaguely described, were actually a cover-up for other criminals, equally vaguely described.
This was ineffective because I did not have a baseline of assumptions about the first criminals. This came from a lack of exposition. But the main issue was that the clues to the deception were not planted in advance. I was not engaging with this revelation on an intellectual level. I was just seeing it happen.
At the Odyssey Writing Workshop, I learned the distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘answer’ revelations. The distinction between these types of revelations lies in how they each generate a different kind of reaction in the reader. An answer revelation comes as the answer to a specific, limited question posed by the story. An example would be the classic whodunit. A surprise revelation comes out of the blue, but still promises the reader that the information revealed will cast new light on the situation. For example, the characters realize might realize a second set of criminals were behind the crime all along, resulting in the reinterpretation of specific clues that foreshadowed this revelation.
To these two types of revelation, I would like to add the type of ironic revelation. In an ironic revelation, the reader or audience is aware of the content of the revelation, but specific characters in the story may not be. This is particularly common in comedy (Ex: “I can’t believe you’ve been suspicious of me this whole time! Nina and I are siblings; we’re not seeing each other!”).
Surprise revelations work because clues interpreted one way can become reinterpreted in another. But if these clues are unclearly indicated, or even absent, the revelation can fall flat or confuse the reader.
The surprise revelation casts the specific clues placed earlier in the story in a new light. But it is fundamentally important to ensure those clues are doing the right work. Choose a specific, convincing way for the viewpoint character to misinterpret the clues. This misdirects the reader. Then, after the surprise revelation, those same clues are reinterpreted.
5. Stock or manipulated gestures.
This is probably one of the hardest issues to fix — and it’s one I personally struggle with a lot — but it is certainly one of the most common to find in fiction, especially in scenes with a lot of dialogue. “She smiled,” “he raised his eyebrow,” “he nodded,” “she raised her eyebrow”: if any of these short phrases sound familiar, you probably know that these expressions are overused. These body language beats are clichés that reduce writing to a boring sameness and repetition.
It’s not that these gestures are an absolute evil. Plenty of published works throw in the odd eyebrow raise. It’s just that these expressions are rarely ideal. They often misrepresent the particularity of your characters’ personality and stifle their fullest expression. Having a startlingly unique character raise an eyebrow, nod, and walk around is almost like placing such a character in a straitjacket. Instead, they should express themselves using telling gestures authentic to themselves, their own setting, and their own situation.
Write stock gestures to get past the first draft. But after you have gained a better vision of your character and their personality, specify. Particularize. Instead of saying they smiled at someone, you can say they smiled at someone while looking the other way across the room. This implies inner conflict, that their attention lies elsewhere. It particularizes their character.
Gestures can also seem like they are manipulated by the author. For example, a character who is usually depressed and/or self-critical would likely not smile to express happiness. Depending on their personality, they might not even smile to express sarcasm. Every character comes with an emotional range. You must ask yourself how this character would express happiness, or how that character might react to jealousy, and so on.
To recap, my advice comes down to two major themes: making sure the reader has all the information they need to enjoy the story and ensuring that characters are depicted in all their particularity and not as generic clichés.
Your first draft will always be rough, but once you train yourself to spot these weaknesses in your own writing, you will be that much closer to developing better second drafts and becoming a self-reliant writer.
Stay up to date with the latest from me at Archaeologies of the Weird.
Originally published at matthewrettino.com on February 14, 2018.