6 Bits of Common Writing Advice You're Misusing

6 Bits of Common Writing Advice You’re Misusing

6 Bits of Common Writing Advice You're MisusingRecently, I found myself reminiscing about some of the early books on writing advice that transformed and molded my understanding of storytelling and writing. They opened my eyes, honed my craft, and changed my life. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without the solid writing advice I’ve received from the writers who have gone before me—and neither would you. But here’s the thing. When taken out of context or used without wise moderation, even the best writing advice can sometimes accidentally point you in completely the wrong direction.

Ready or Not Chautona Havig Aggie's Inheritance

(Note: This is my friend Chautona’s book, not the not-so-good book we were referencing in our email conversation.)

A few months ago, I had an email conversation with fellow author Chautona Havig about how sometimes even an excellent story can be derailed by an inexperienced author’s well-meaning but misguided attempts to adhere to common writing advice. Chautona commented about one book in particular:

It’s like the author took every ‘rule’ about writing and applied them in all the wrong ways. It HURTS. And it really is a good story.

The entire art of writing a story is all about balance. When we take these so-called “rules” and try to apply them across the board, with no understanding of how to massage them to fit specific circumstances in the story, we often end up with a clunky presentation that alienates readers.

And yet, writers often feel bound to the rules and guilty when we break them. So we double down and obsessively apply the rules everywhere they seem possibly applicable. That’s safer than trying to judge for ourselves when certain rules are applicable and when they’re not, right?

Sure. But “safe writing” is nowhere near the same thing as “good writing.”

Today, let’s take a look at 6 common bits of writing advice I see abused far too often by good-intentioned authors.

6 Snippets of Writing Advice You Must Use–But Never Abuse

Before we get started, I want you to take a gander down the 10 bits of writing advice in this section. If you’re looking just at the headers, then what you’re seeing is good advice. You want to accomplish all of these things in your stories.

But.

You must be able to approach even the best writing advice with common sense, an understanding of the essence of the advice more than its explicit definition, and, most importantly, an awareness of your story’s big picture and its requirements. Once you can do that, you can proclaim yourself a black-belt master of every single one of these “rules.”

1. Write a Likable Character

You hear it all the time. If you don’t create characters readers like—and especially a protagonist readers like—why would they ever want to read your story? Stories are made or broken on the strength of their characters, which means you must get readers invested in your main character right from go.

Cheerful man with open arms - focus on the face.

Common writing advice says your protagonist must be likable. But don’t confuse likability with perfection. Readers love flawed characters.

What Writers Sometimes Think This Means:

The problem is that writers sometimes think this means they must write a character who is an utter saint. If he makes a mistake, if he speaks in anger, if he’s selfish, if he sins—readers will instantly judge him, hate him, and drop him. Instead of creating a realistically flawed (and interesting) human being, these writers end up with either a

a) a self-righteous goody-goody

b) a self-flagellating goody-goody

The irony here is that “perfect” characters are hardly ever likable characters.

What This Bit of Writing Advice Really Means:

Because we often equate other people’s ability to like us with our ability to avoid of messing up, we think the same must apply to our characters. But (aside from the fact this is an utterly false paradigm) consider some of your favorite characters. I’m willing to bet most of them are egregiously flawed. And don’t you love them the more for those flaws?

When you’re told to “write a likable character,” what you’re really be told is to “write a realistic, compelling, relatable, interesting character.” So give him a relatable motivation and pile on the sins, because readers have a high capacity for forgiveness.

2. Write Unpredictable Endings

This is a question I’m often asked: If I foreshadow my ending, won’t readers see it coming and be bored?

Suspense in a story is largely fueled by readers’ curiosity. They don’t know what’s going to happen, so they keep reading to find out. If they can see a clichéd ending coming, they’ll have no reason to turn another page. Been there, done that, right? Which means authors must exercise their innovation and ingenuity all the way through the book and nowhere more so than in the ending.

How To Know It's Time To Write The End

Common writing advice says your story’s ending should be unpredictable, but what this really means is that your foreshadowed ending must be original.

What Writers Sometimes Think This Means:

Too often, writers hear this well-meaning writing advice, telling them to surprise readers with their endings—and they take it to mean the ending should be completely unforeseen. So they pull an unforeshadowed plot twist out of left field, smack the readers upside the head with it, and then expect readers to be delighted because they didn’t see that coming!

That’s certainly true as far as it goes. But here’s the thing: pulling a completely unforeshadowed plot twist out of left field is cheating. Yup, cheating. And readers are more likely to write you passionate hate letters than applaud your imagination.

What This Bit of Writing Advice Really Means:

Forget the idea that readers want a completely unexpected ending. That’s an utter falsehood. What they want is ending that fulfills their expectations (via foreshadowing) without being clichéd. The mark of a good story is one that engages readers time after time, long after any surprise has worn off. What’s most important is that you’re being true to the story and you’re saying interesting things in new ways.

3. Avoid Detailed Descriptions

No less than the late great Elmore Leonard backs this one up in his “10 Rules for Good Writing“:

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

One sign of a great writer is the ability to spark the readers’ visual imagination with a modicum of information. Experienced readers need only one or two right details to get the picture; anything more is overkill.

4 Ways to Make Readers Instantly Loathe Your Character Descriptions

Common writing advice says you should avoid descriptions, but this doesn’t mean you should avoid descriptions altogether. Rather, learn to describe the right details.

What Writers Sometimes Think This Means:

Now raise your hand if you’ve ever read a (probably unpublished) book in which the characters walked around having conversations in a complete blur. You had zero idea what the characters looked like, what the setting looked like, or where the characters were situated within it. I call this “White-Wall Syndrome.”

As far as readers know, the characters exist in a vacuum, since the author has refused to provide any physical context to flesh out the scene.

The result is not only confusing to readers, it’s also boring. A good setting has the ability to be almost a character unto itself—but not if readers can’t see it, smell it, touch it, and experience it, via well-chosen description.

What This Bit of Writing Advice Really Means:

Do not—repeat: do not—throw all your descriptions out the window right alongside the baby and the bathwater. Description is a vital part of storytelling. Without it, what you get is, at best, a highly avant-garde experiment. Indeed, description is one of the four pieces that make up written fiction (along with action, dialogue, and internal narrative).

In short: you need description.

What you don’t need are long, flowery, overly detailed descriptions that tell readers a bunch of stuff they don’t need to know in a way that is anything but interesting. Instead, learn to give readers the details they need when they need them, in a way they will enjoy rather than skip.

4. Flesh Out Your Minor Characters

Your protagonist may make or break the show, but the supporting cast is just as important to the success of his story. If your minor characters are boring, flat, and clichéd, your entire story will suffer. This means you must lavish just as much attention on the little people as you do your shakers and movers. Even your smallest of walk-on characters need to strike readers with just as much realism and charisma as your larger-than-life protagonist.

Common writing advice says you must flesh out even your minor characters—and you should! But you must do it artfully, using only story-pertinent details.

What Writers Sometimes Think This Means:

Every character is the hero of his own story, right? And that’s exactly what some writers seem bent on doing: writing an entire story for every minor character, however insignificant they actually are within the plot. When you end up telling a minor character’s entire life story just to “flesh him out,” you know you’ve gone too far. In fact, even just sharing a single detail about this character if it is not pertinent to the story is a bridge too far.

If you introduce your walk-on taxi driver with a lengthy conversation about his large family, you’re telling readers this man and his family are important—to the plot, to the protagonist’s development, or to the thematic premise. In short, every minor-character detail you include had better be doing double or triple duty, rather than simply serving to tell readers, “See, look, this guy is a real human being! No, really!”

What This Bit of Writing Advice Really Means:

By all means, bring your minor characters to life. But do it deftly. Do it in a way that creates irony and subtext—and most importantly moves the plot forward.

A great example is from William Wyler’s classic film Roman Holiday. Early on when Gregory Peck’s reporter unknowingly stumbles upon Audrey Hepburn’s passed-out princess, he tries to fob her off on an Italian cab driver. When this man (whom we never see again) protests by trying to communicate that he needs to get home to his large family of “bambino” who “mwhaaa!”, he is instantly characterized as a very real person—with a modicum of details, zero exposition, and in a way that is directly pertinent to the plot.

5. Add Conflict to Every Scene

Here’s one you hear a lot these days: conflict, conflict, conflict. Without it, you have no plot and no story. If characters aren’t fighting, struggling, overcoming in every single scene, the forward momentum of the plot will founder, and readers will grow bored and give up on the book. More than that, conflict is directly related to the pertinence of any scene within your story. If something isn’t happening to push the conflict forward, then chances are high that scene can and should be trimmed from the story.

are you creating your own personal cliches

Common writing advice says you must include conflict in every scene—and you should! But you must make sure it is story-driving conflict, rather than random arguments.

What Writers Sometimes Think This Means:

In their determination to include the magic story elixir of conflict, writers sometimes end up manufacturing it. The result is random conflict—arguments, obstacles, and even physical altercations that actually do nothing to move the plot.

Turns out, conflict all by itself is not a surefire indicator of a scene’s plot-progressing necessity. Too often, writers feel their story is lagging (particularly in the Second Act), so they throw in a random argument between allies—or the neighborhood bully attacks—or there’s a car wreck—or who knows what else. The result is, at best, melodrama. At worst, readers will be just as bored as if the characters really were doing nothing.

What This Bit of Writing Advice Really Means:

It’s not enough to throw in a random argument to spice things up. Every bit of conflict in every scene must function as part of the overall plot, creating a seamless line of scene dominoes—one knocking into the next—that progresses your story from beginning to end.

Just as importantly, every bit of this conflict must pertinently impact your character’s arc and your story’s theme. If it misfires on any of these three levels—plot, character, or theme—it risks irrelevance and must be reexamined to strengthen it into something with the ability to truly power your story.

6. Use Action Beats Instead of Dialogue Tags

This one goes in hand in hand with another of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” In the same spirit, why not just ditch dialogue tags (“said,” “exclaimed,” “questioned”) altogether in favor of action beats (“he looked up”)?

Action beats carry twice the weight as a dialogue tag. They tell readers who’s speaking while also providing context for the setting, the character’s body language, and the emotional subtext. Nine times out of ten, you can ditch the dialogue tags altogether and let your action beats carry the weight of your characters’ conversation.

Active Voice vs. Passive Voice: How to Use Both to Get the Most Out of Your Writing

Common writing advice says you should punctuate your dialogue with more action beats than speaker tags. But the only good action tag is one that does double or triple duty in defining your characters and their story.

What Writers Sometimes Think This Means:

Instead of using their action beats to actually add something to the scene, writers sometimes just scatter them in randomly for no other reason than to indicate the speakers. Here’s an example based on the book Chautona and I were discussing in the email exchange that prompted this post:

Jane smiled.  “Do you think that is the right answer?”

“Why, no, I don’t.” John touched the ash tray before him.

Jane’s shoulders sagged. “I thought it had to be.”

“Well, it’s not.” He flicked the ash tray [which appeared out of nowhere and is never seen again] across the table.

As Chautona said to me:

Dick and Jane styled action beats. ARGH.

Action beats such as these add zero to the story. Half the time, they’re not even going to be necessary to indicate the speakers after the start of the conversation. The only thing they do is clunk up your prose.

What This Bit of Writing Advice Really Means:

As with so many of these rules of writing advice, what’s really meant is “do this, but do it well.” Do use action tags, but don’t just casually throw them into your dialogue hither and yon. Instead, craft them just as carefully as you do the dialogue itself to provide pertinent context that uses contrast and irony to avoid being on-the-nose.

If that ash tray isn’t going to either advance the action in this scene (e.g., Jane grabs it and throws it at John’s head) or symbolize the characters’ inner states (e.g., John is distracted from Jane’s problem because he’s desperately trying to stop smoking), then you need to dig deeper for an action beat that offers more than just visual clues to the characters’ surroundings.

***

Sometimes learning the “writing rules” can seem like an exercise in learning how to use them but not use them too much. Honestly, that’s not too far off the mark. But it’s a balancing act worth pursuing. All writers must serve a term of apprenticeship, in which they are governed by the rules. But there then comes a point when you understand both the context and subtext of common writing advice and can rise above to master them: you control them, not the other way around.

The mistakes I’ve outlined in this post may seem ridiculously intuitive. After all, you’re just trying to do what the rules say, right? But if you can learn to move past what the rules say to what they mean you’ve taken a huge step down that road to mastery.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is the most confusing bit of common writing advice you’ve ever heard? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Hi,

    I really liked the advice about using action tags rather than the word ‘said’. This is something that I’ve been trying to experiment a lot recently to make my character conversations edgier and move at a faster pace while reading. However, having said that, it is sometimes tougher to do than anticipated because you’re essentially trying to create an action for each piece of dialogue.

    So, sometimes I go back to writing “said”. Or even mentioning some other adjective, especially while writing the first draft. In the second draft, I try to clean up most of such stuff and replace with a meaningful action tag or a better context. Not sure whether it’s the right way but it seems to have made it easier for me to imagine scenes better.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One other point on action beats (or dialogue tags, for that matter) is that you don’t need to add one to each piece of dialogue. The only time you need a speaker attribution is when the speaker would otherwise be unclear and/or when the clarification of an action adds something necessary to the scene.

      • Andrea Rhyner says:

        Thank you! I needed that piece of advice. I often feel the need to add a tag or “said” to every dialogue paragraph, even if it’s already clear who is speaking.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Sometimes I find it helpful to avoid all tags when initially writing the dialogue, then going back and evaluating where I *really* need them.

  2. Ms. Albina says:

    I liked the article. I liked doing detail descriptions of the character.

    K.M. How many details do you want for the character?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Only as many as are necessary to help readers appropriately visualize the character and the scene–which usually is less rather than more.

      • Last year I read “Men, Women and Children” after seeing the movie. The book was even worse. To this topic, there were multiple times that the entire page was filled with nothing but He said…She said…He said…She said…

        That it was released by a major publisher and made into a motion picture featuring lots of people you know gave me hope.

        PS KM: For a week or so now I’m no longer seeing the check box to subscribe to replies to a post.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Hmm, I’m not sure what’s going on there. WordPress updated recently, so maybe they removed the option. I’m not seeing anything in my settings that would allow me to restore it.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        K.M. Thank you. On dialogue sentences big or small is good yes?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Generally, smaller is better to mimic the patterns of real-life speech. But you want a variety. Sometimes it will be appropriate for a character speak for a paragraph or more.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Thank you. I will do that. What about putting description with the dialogue?

            Example:
            Lotus brushed her raven streaked hair out of bronze face. “Mom,” She called.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            No need to include both an action beat and a dialogue tag. In almost all instances, you’ll only need one or the other.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Okay, thank you. Do you put the year in your books as in the story began in the year-1,000?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yes, I’ll generally indicate the year if it’s historical at the beginning of the first chapter, just to orient readers.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Thank you. Time is different on where my characters live.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            How do you spruce up the scene for the reader so it is not boring?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Make sure you’re following proper scene structure with the main character pursing a goal and being met by an obstacle that creates conflict.

          • Ms. Albina says:

            Well, I am writing about a fire that happens in a village and about 1/3 parish so the village needs to relocate some where else.

  3. I think the most easily misunderstood piece of advice is “write what you know,” which so many people interpret as “write only stories closely based on your own life.” I think, rather, that we should write what we love. I love music, so I might one day write a story with a musician as the main character- but it won’t be my own experiences recycled as theirs. I love seeing outcasts find homes, and I’m familiar with the feeling of not belonging, so my WIP has several characters searching for a place to belong- but again, it’s not based on my own life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I totally agree. Of course my real life influences everything I write–often in ways I’m not even consciously aware of. But I have zero interest in purposefully writing about my life. I’ve lived that already. I want to live something else in my writing!

      However, I think that’s somewhat personality-based too. There are many people who find great fulfillment in writing about their own experiences–either literally or very figuratively (as J.K. Rowling is said to have done).

      Either way, it still comes down to what you just said about writing what we love, what motivates us, what fulfills and interests us.

    • I agree. My current novel is set in an alternative 16th century Spain. I’m doing tons of research to make it realistic. Obviously, I’ve never lived in the 16th century (or even in Spain) and I’m not an expert on the Renaissance. But the plot revolves around something I write about all the time in non-fiction, a subject I can’t get enough of. So much can be gained through research. It’s really easy with the Internet to learn most everything I need to know without leaving my office.

    • What fun is writing what you know? My book takes place in first century AD, and though my grandchildren may think I was there, it’s all new to me.

    • I always answer that one with, “Why do you think I do so much research… I have to learn so much stuff so I can know what I need to know to write it!

  4. “Dick and Jane styled action beats.” That’s a perfect description. I edited a client’s novel recently that employed this technique. It’s a wonder I’m not bald from pulling my hair out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, it sounds like a term you’d come up with! 🙂 You’re always great at catching these kinds of things.

  5. I find the duel combo of “Why is this necessary?” and “How did they get to this point?” Usually they are at ends with each other. Especially when the second one asks for information which doesn’t do anything to progress the plot and is asking for unnecessary back story. As in “Why are they in an art gallery?” I feel like answering , because all action has to have a setting and this is the one I chose.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. :p I hear you. I have one critique partner in particular who believes EVERYTHING must mean something. It’s great when everything can mean something, but sometimes, nope, it just can’t.

  6. Is it true that you should write for yourself, or false? If false, does it mean I have to do dystopia?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Utterly true. Write for yourself before you write for anyone else. Then no matter what happens next, you’ve fulfilled yourself. However, if you’re wanting others to enjoy what you’re writing, you also want to be aware of good writing principles and marketing trends.

    • Andrewiswriting says:

      I hate dystopia. I can’t imagine anything worse than having to write it. May as well just work a job if that was the case.

      (Yes, I know a lot of people enjoy it, and that’s great. For them.)

      • And this, Carly, is why we write for ourselves—though only part! What we love will be more fun to write, and why write much of anything else? Also what we love will gather more attention, be more likely to be something we either know, or come to know, and be worth championing.

        But most of all, if we write for ourselves then we can edit for everybody else!

        • My problem with that is how painful it is to chop and change my novel from my original ideas (which may not be very good, but at least they’re mine!) to some decent ones that suit other people…

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Nobody says you have to. 🙂 Always be aware of your goals and priorities, so you understand when making a change is worth it and when it isn’t.

  7. Andrewiswriting says:

    Action beats, yeah.

    I try to break it up – when there are only two characters speaking, as in the tea and scones scene in Grimm’s office in The Cup of Jamshid, then I do my best to carry the dialogue with only a few tags or action beats, once the back-and-forth pattern is established. And at times like those, quiet, reflective scenes, something like, “Grimm poured tea into both cups,” or, “He handed Abe a long-handled teaspoon and indicated the scone tray with a glance,” or “Grimm took a sip of his tea,” in-between clusters of dialogue help to slow the pace of the scene, in addition to breaking up the said/replied pattern.

    And when there’s a meaty conversation between a group of four or five characters, it’s on the nose to have:
    Jack said
    said Abe
    Jerry replied
    Caitlin answered

    This is when I try to insert some action beats just to get away from what can read as a sing-song pattern on the page.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, “on the nose” is exactly the right way to describe that. The best speaker tags are always invisible, but when you start rapid-firing them at readers, they become anything but.

  8. I suppose the only real rule that can never be overused is this: be interesting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Truth. As they say, there is only one rule in writing: follow all the rules–unless you can break them brilliantly, then break them. (Kinda like, always be yourself–unless you can be Batman, then be Batman. :p)

  9. I have read (and written) plenty of stories with flat side characters. They generally joke around with the protagonist for no apparent reason. On the flip side, I just finished reading the first middle grade novel by a best-selling author of nonfiction. My son loved it, and there was so much about the story that I really liked. But every character, no matter how minor, was described down to the clothes he or she was wearing. I was so overloaded with these details, I was unable to keep some of the important characters straight. To me, this was a sure sign of a first-time novelist. I’m aiming for that perfect middle ground.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good observation. It’s interesting how whenever an author compromises the story’s balance in one direction or another, he usually ends up creating exactly the effect he was trying to avoid!

      • I also prefer spreading out descriptions. The info doesn’t have to dumped all at once. Occasional reminders may also be necessary. I commented to an author about how I went back to an early chapter to where a character was introduced and didn’t remember that she wore glasses. It’s not important to the story, but a little part of her character. I suggested, and he later used, something subtle like “she glared over the top of her glasses…”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I forget little details like that all the time. It’s so easy to lose the forest for the trees when writing. Thank heavens for revisions!

  10. “6 Snippets of Writing Advice You Muse Use–But Never Abuse”
    Perhaps a typo: “must” instead of “muse”?

    Anyhow, it’s so very true how we can fall into the trap of playing by the rules and getting stuck writing (and even living) the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it.

  11. “… how sometimes even an excellent story can be derailed by an inexperienced author’s well-meaning but misguided attempts to adhere to common writing advice.”

    There’s a frequently used quote I recently saw cycle through on social media from Maya Angelou where she says that there’s “no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” But as I thought about it and watched it circulate, as others people discover it, I found I had to disagree, the greater agony (as the opening quote illustrates) is telling that story wrong.

    I recently read an interview with the director of The Suicide Squad and how he wished he had a time machine to go back and do it over again… the regret was apparent. And it’s not just him, but so many others George Lucas constantly (and detrimentally) tinkering with Star Wars post release.

    To a point it’s paralyzed the process, but to a point it’s helped me to be patient… hoping to get it right.

    I think the most confusing advice would be not to start with action and to always introduce the protag first. (now granted I may be making the novice writer mistake of missing the essence of these tips…) The reason they’re confusing is because Star Wars (New Hope) opens with action and introduces the antagonist first… and I’ve thought of doing the same (tentatively named ‘Stellar Conflict’)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You see stories open with antagonists frequently. Personally, I’m not a fan of the technique, for the simple reason that it does not leverage what is almost always the best possible hook in the beginning: the protagonist.

      It’s also important to note that movies can get away with “opening chapter gimmicks” in a way that books can’t. A movie’s audience is already captive, so it can take a little more time in setting up the story.

      Still, this isn’t to say the technique can’t be used to good effect–just that you first have to understand the reasons it might *not* be the best choice.

      • You raise a good point. While I don’t want to challenge the norm for the sake of the challenge and end up just being gimmicky; neither do I want to be hindered by a popular axiom/rule (Maya’s quote) and miss something more important behind it.

  12. Your advice in point two is spot on. Readers want the ending the story demands, not a story the author made up to be surprising.

    However, I’m surprised by how often the ending is neither. Especially in fantasy novels, I run across a lot of too-perfect endings. The author clearly didn’t make them up to be shocking, but they don’t fit with the dark and gritty world of the story either.

    Is that what you meant when you said readers don’t want endings that are cliche?

    I have a suspicion that, no matter how often it’s technically been done, no ending which truly fits a story will come across as cliche because it will feel natural and necessary. It’s only the contrived happily ever after or the out-of-nowhere twist that read as tropes. I can’t actually back that up. It’s just a hunch.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Almost always when I run into the type of ending you’re describing, it signals to me that the author did not plan the ending before he started writing the beginning. The strongest stories are those that bring the reader in a full circle. The ending fulfills the beginning. Obviously, outlining is an intuitive way to set this up, but you can also make it work in revisions as long as you’re willing to go back and appropriately rewrite the beginning to match whatever ending you discovered.

  13. I love it! For some reason, I adore “what not to do” writing advice. I guess because it makes me laugh, but I also get the point.

    The “unpredictable endings” one is a great point. I would rather read a fitting and predictable conclusion any day over an unpredictable end that doesn’t answer the emotional question raised by the story. And, the thrill of the unpredictable twist, as fun as it can be, lasts only through the first reading. The beauty of an ending that truly completes what came before becomes more apparent on rereading (and this applies to the fitting twist, too).

    Pride and Prejudice has a fairly predictable ending. It would be more unpredictable if Mr. Darcy fell off his horse and died before he could propose again, but it wouldn’t be better!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! That made me laugh. Something tells me that if Jane Austen had picked that ending, we’d all be following Mark Twain’s advice and digging her up and beating her with her own shin bones. 😉

      • Haha! Such a funny quote from Twain, though I’m not sure why he didn’t like Austen. I would have thought her playful irony would suit him. I totally get why Charlotte Bronte didn’t like Jane Austen, but not Twain.

  14. J.M Barlow says:

    Honestly, this post (with different content) applies to all fields of life, in my opinion – and I know we’ve had discussions before on how a lot of writing advice, rules, lessons, and experiences have a tendency to apply to real life in many regards.

    I’m having a similar discussion with A.P Lambert on his site regarding limitations and guidelines. They aren’t there to make society robotic. How we use them and work within their limits, and apply them the way they were intended – as methods of improvement – is what makes us who we are. There are endless ways for us to respond, and it affects our personal outputs directly.

    Writing advice and rules exist to help hone a craft, but sometimes their true meaning, intention, or application lies somewhere a little beneath the surface.

    Sometimes the issue is how the message is communicated. Sometimes it’s how the message is received. If you receive advice and it seems rather simplistic, chances are there’s something beneath the surface that you’re missing. Don’t be afraid to ask – do some digging.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great point about “simplistic” advice. I would also add that if you hear a piece of advice and feel immediate resistance to it (e.g., “write what you know”), then that feeling is always worth paying attention to. It doesn’t mean the advice is necessarily wrong, but it probably does mean there’s something you’re not fully assimilating.

  15. Max Woldhek says:

    Right, let’s see.

    1. Thank goodness that Terry Pratchett and Jim Butcher number among my favourite authors. Both have given me examples of fantastic protagonists who are deeply flawed. Butcher’s Harry Dresden, in particular, would make a psychologist cry. 😀

    2. As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I’m struggling with making my endings a bit less predictable, but I’ll gladly take that over some Shyamalan-esque “twist out of NOWHERE!” hoo-haa.

    3. I think I’m on top of this, though that could of course be the Dunning-Kruger effect talking.

    4. Yeah, this one I’ve had some issues with. Like in the first draft of my first book, where I couldn’t even really nail down who the protagonist was (a common hazard if you’ve grown up on Robert Jordan novels).

    5. I read Marvel comics, so thankfully I’m provided with a lot of examples on how not to do this.

    6. Never even thought about this one. Thanks for the heads-up! “Runs off to nervously comb through the latest draft.”

  16. Action beats and dialogue tags… I try to feel my way around that one, but I use a lot of different tags, I think. Let me see. Ruling out the word “said” and “asked” alone,

    began, said with a grin, whined, piped, said drearily, started, continued.

    All in three and a half pages, double spaced, it’s a WIP and you know. I also have a part where a character’s “squeaky tenor voice tickled the room.” I’m trying to do a James Joyce thing that’s probably better left alone, how he would emphasize sounds.

    Ideas about archetypal characters can become misused advice. People will have their opinions, but I was always skeptical of archetypes. I prefer Dramatica’s take on them, that they are simple, fundamental characters available as a standard and (in many cases) not good for storytelling. Of course, to know Dramatica is to misunderstand it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Dramatica’s approach to archetypes is definitely my favorite as well. It provides structure without being stereotypical.

  17. 1. Sometimes you can even come up with a flaw that makes them more likeable. That probably takes an extra touch of skill though. The main character in my series has some anger issues as her main flaw. Sometimes I try to use this to comedic effect.
    2. In my early work (that I really don’t like to look at anymore), all of my endings were either completely predictable or completely out of nowhere. I’d like to think that I found a better balance now.
    3. I’ve never had a problem with too much description. Usually it’s the other way around. I’d rather read a book with a bit too little description than one that takes several pages just to describe this one character’s outfit though.
    4. It’s fine to have detailed stories about every minor character in your head and notes. Just don’t tell us everything in the main story. We probably won’t care. Even if it’s a major supporting character, we don’t necessarily need to know his or her favourite pastime, unless it somehow affects the plot.
    5. Another mistake I used to make a lot in my early writing, usually with conflicts that didn’t only not add to the plot, but in some cases, they were conflicts that didn’t even make any sense.
    6. Can’t think of anything to add here, except that action beats should probably be used mostly to help reveal character or intensify an already existing conflict.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree about number one. Most of my favorite characters are massively flawed. They’re more relatable and enjoyable because their larger-than-life virtues are balanced by equally larger-than-life flaws.

  18. Great Post! They say you should dance as if no one is watching, but I don’t believe we can really write as if no one is reading. There’s always an audience even if it’s just you. With that said, there will always be rules and guidelines to follow. Your post accentuates an aesthetic to maintain while doing so. I absolutely dislike using ‘said’ as a tag. It comes off as fake to my inner reader. I don’t think readers are so stupid that we have to lead them through our stories by pointing out who spoke what line. If we describe our characters well, I think they’ll know. Nothing against the author you mentioned who stated that we should only use ‘said’, but I’ve read all of Agatha Christie’s short stories ( over sixty) and she rarely used ‘said’! All her tags were imaginative. I have used ‘said’, but sparingly. I do agree that action tags are a great alternative and I concentrate on using them properly. All in all, the end result should be a story ‘well played’ or in our case, well written. Thank you K.M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      They say you know you’re truly dedicated to something if you’d do it even if no one else ever knew about it. That’s certainly how I feel about writing. But if we also want people to read and enjoy our books, we certainly have to be considerate of them. A book is a bargain between reader and writer: the reader agrees to stick around, but only if the writer holds up his end and writes something worth sticking around for!

  19. Thank K.M. for another great post! I find your advice extremely applicable and inspiring – so thanks for that! If you want (I know you are busy, so I sincerely don’t mind if you don’t) you an see some of my thoughts and reactions to your posts here: http://millerbrian.com/stories-n-stuff/writing-and-life-and-the-advice-were-misusing . But again, no worries if not. I just wanted you to know that your time is not wasted:)

    Enjoy the day!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Of course not! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Enjoyed your application to real-life scenarios as well.

  20. Yes, I like how you summed it up at the end by noting, what things *mean* is really the most important thing. That’s what takes so many years of practice and writing to get! Even then, I doubt any of us really ever feel like we are masters. Each new story and scene provides opportunities for us to prove if we’ve learned from our previous foibles. But writing is so great in that just seeing that progress… personally for me, is enough to continue on with the craft.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As theologians might say, it’s all about the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.

  21. Kate Johnston says:

    I always notice when authors include a dialogue tag and an action beat–and every time I see how unnecessary it is. I guess some writers don’t see how the action beat can be substituted for the tag, so they feel they have to use both?

    Out of anything in a book, it’s the ending that makes or breaks my experience. I can’t think of anything worse than hunkering down for days with a book that is meeting my every expectation only to come to an ending that is unfulfilling.

    Great post!

  22. About endings: Shawn Coyne of the Storygrid Podcast says that endings should be “surprising but inevitable”. I think that is an excellent description! It should logically flow from everything that came before but still have something about it that the reader didn’t expect.

  23. Oh action beats and dialogue tags. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about certain writing styles that I love and then apply it to my own writing, and I have found that one thing I don’t overly love is dialogue tags that go out of their way to not use “said”. I personally find it distracting. I don’t mind the occasional “yelled” or “replied” or “countered”, especially when a character changes volume, but when every single tag is trying desperately to avoid “said” and doesn’t add anything to my understanding of the words being spoken, I get tired of it. I can pick up the tone of the dialogue from the dialogue, so being told over and over what I already know can be jarring. However, I have seen writers use other dialogue tags to great affect, so I suppose like with everything in writing it just takes ballance.
    What you said about action beats revealing character was really helpful; I guess I knew that, but at the same time when being stared in the face by a long conversation scene, the temptation to throw random actions in just to keep the characters from seeming like talking statues is huge. Thanks for the roadmap. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I much prefer action beats myself. They have so much more to offer, although the simplicity and invisibility of a little dialogue tag is still going to be the right choice in certain situations.

  24. Mike Crowl says:

    This is some of the best advice ever. Thank you! It kind of reminds me of a quote from Star Trek Beyond, when Kirk says (I’m sure this is not word-for-word), “Welcome to Star Fleet. We have a lot of rules. You don’t have to follow them all.”

  25. About action beats: when a character is giving a lengthy speech (fatherly advice, for example), is it appropriate to include several action beats interspersed within the dialogue all in one paragraph?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Let’s say this: it’s not inappropriate. It really depends on the rhythm and pacing of the dialogue and the relative needs of keeping readers grounded in the setting. But, generally speaking, it’s best not to let go dialogue go on *too* long uninterrupted.

  26. As my husband, a retired police officer, says, “There is the law and then there is the spirit of the law. It is the spirit that should govern our actions.”

    Great post, Katie, as all your posts are. Your book on structuring your novel was a pivotal mark in my writing. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree with him! That’s the essence of good writing. Good living too, really. 🙂 Great to hear you’re enjoying the posts and the books!

  27. Andrea Rhyner says:

    Thank you for this list! It’s difficult to find the middle ground in all the rules, and this helps. I once spent a week trying to think of a surprise ending that would give the story a big twist. I’m realizing that unexpected and left-field are two different things. People love good surprises, but not left-field random things that make no sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I realize not all authors work this way, but I always want to know my ending before I start planning a scene outline. If I don’t know how it ends, how will I know how to set it up?

  28. I remember that conversation! I’ve been running into it a lot lately–even in my own stuff. I’ll read and go. Hmmm… nope. Can’t do that.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If you’ve ever read one of the hundreds of books and blogs and pieces of particularly literary graffiti on how to write a story, you’ll be familiar with this – overly familiar, to the point it’s a little uncomfortable: ‘write something that completely surprises your readers but also feels inevitable, like there’s no other satisfactory way things could have ended‘. […]

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