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. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. Surprising endings seem to cause lots of problems for newer writers, especially when mystery plots are involved. It’s semantics really, but I like to think there’s a difference between a “twist “and a “reveal.” A reveal alters your understanding of the situation where twists feel more like “gotcha moments” to me.

    What writing advice have you misinterpreted in the past?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Write what you know” and “kill your darlings” tripped me up in the beginning.

  6. I struggle with the action beats. A more-than-2-character conversation demands acknowledging the speakers, but I often can’t think of something relevant for them to be doing while they talk, leaving me with a lot of saids.

    Not sure whether it’s me, or my book’s setting. For half the book the characters are traveling, so their main activity is walking (and talking), and they have few items to manipulate. There are only so many times someone can bang his walking stick against the ground or hike her pack’s straps up, or laugh or shrug or look away.

    One thing that helps is combining similar dialogue scenes. This A) shortens the overall time spent on the topic, and B) lessens the number of beats and tags, making them less repetitive.

    (Though, ideally, I would be better at coming up with non-bland actions to convey reactions/emotions.)

  7. Laurids says:

    Really great post – I’ll probably be using a lot of these in my editing phase.

    I’m struggling with a character whose body language says a lot about him. I really like to emphasize his dialogue with how he puts his feet up on a neighbouring chair and smiles a boyishly charming, yet chilling smile. My problem is that I feel like I keep having him do the same actions over and over again, describing his body language (which I’m probably overly fond of). I’m definitely going to weed out some of those when I edit. Thanks!

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‘. […]

  2. […] So this week’s writing tip from K.M. Weiland of Helping Writers Become Authors takes six bits of common writing advice and shines a light on them: how authors tend to misuse them, and what these bits of writing advice really means. She tackles […]

  3. […] all her stuff!) on the issue of writing advice itself and how we take it. In her recent blog post “6 Bits of Common Writing Advice You’re Misusing” she says, “When taken out of context or used without wise moderation, even the best writing […]

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