Updated: Jun 10, 2018
Most years I critique anywhere from 50 to 100 manuscripts. This would include, synopsis, first chapters, first pages, and full manuscripts.
What problems do I see over and over again in these pages? Sit down. Get comfortable and let's chat.
1. Don't even think about opening your story with a heroine on a plane, train or automobile going back home for the first time since she left many years ago and having introspection about how much the town has or has not changed or about what she fears lies ahead.
Go ahead and skip all that-YES, HIT THE DELETE KEY!- and go immediately to the moment of change. Everything up to the moment of change is back story. We don't care about then, we care about NOW!
2. Avoid opening with anyone sleeping.
The job of your opening is to pull your reader into the world of your protagonist. You have only so many pages to engage them and that is done by emotionally involving them. If they care they keep reading. We don't care about a sleeping person.
These two problems are about the opening of your story. If you need help, review my post Hooking the Reader.
3. Please don't end a scene with your hero or heroine falling asleep. This is one of the most basic rules we learn as writers. Don't give the reader a reason to put your book down. Force your reader to forgo food, and sleep because they MUST keep turning the pages. That's what end of chapter hooks are for. Scenes are created using this formula based on Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer.
Let's repeat. Scenes do not end with the protagonist falling asleep, they end with disaster even if that disaster is simply worry.
4. Do not allow your heroine/hero to do any of the following multiple times.
We write fiction. Our job as writers is to get the reader to connect with these heroes and heroines. In order for that to happen we must get emotionally involved. To get emotionally involved we must LIKE the character. Very few of us look up to whiny, crying, sniveling people.
I find it easiest to remember in terms of Michael Hauge's The Hero's Two Journeys. He tells us to first establish empathy by using two of these five traits for our protagonist.
1. Make the character the victim of an undeserved misfortune.
2. Put the character in jeopardy.
3. Make the character liked by others.
4. Make the character funny.
5. Make the character powerful.
THEN you can introduce character flaws. And sure they can cry maybe once, even twice in an epic novel. But then stop. JUST STOP. And absolutely no whining or sniveling. Snap out of it!
They are heroes!
5. All behavior, including internals must be motivated.
Motivation is the reason we do something. Enter Dwight Swain again, and his MRU or motivation, reaction units. Motivation causes an effect which causes a reaction.
The reader will believe anything that you properly set up. So if you want your hero or heroine to do something that stretches our common sense believability, simply lay the ground work from the beginning.
This would include getting the reader to believe that two people can fall in love in two weeks for a novella. How would you do this? By carefully building the steps of intimacy. (You can Google Linda Howard's Steps of Intimacy if you need a refresher.
When you create a character with a belief system you are obligated to have that character act in the motivational manner you established for them.
So don't tell me your heroine hates the hero and then let her do something totally unmotivated that shows she doesn't hate him. It simply makes the reader cranky.
This goes along with too-dumb-to-live heroine syndrome. Sure they can go into the basement with a flashlight when the lights go out, but they better have a really strongly motivated reason.
6. Stop eating. No really. Just stop it.
I too was guilty of this as a new writer.
In his DVD, Creating Powerful Movie Scenes, Michael Hauge calls this Momentum of the Scene.
"At the end of the scene the hero must be somewhere different than he was at the beginning."
• Closer to the goal.
• Further from the goal.
• Met another obstacle.
• Revealed something.
• Risked something.
If there is no change then get rid of the scene.
7. Don't make the mistake of qualifying all dialogue with internals.
What does this mean?
A character says something, and then they clarify/explain what they said in an internal thought. Or a character says something and then they mull on what they said in an internal thought during a conversation.
Scenes are live and when two people are talking, sure there are internal thoughts, but it should be short and quick. BECAUSE:
• You don't want to slow the pace of the story.
• Your dialogue should be strong and crisp enough to do the work.
• It isn't necessary to spoon feed the reader.
• If there is too much internal between bits of dialogue the reader forgets what was said last and is pulled out of the story as they scramble to re-read.
YOU NEVER WANT THE READER PULLED OUT OF THE STORY.
Think of movies. You don't have the crutch of internals in a movie. EVERYTHING must be in dialogue or action.
That's it. Now promise me you will please stop doing these things. Right now!
*image courtesy Jess Walters Unsplash