When giving workshops or helping new writers with their novels, I have found that certain mistakes occurred again and again. These are:

Overly complex plots

There is a big difference between books with complex plots and books with overly complex plots. Books with complex plots are those that may require the reader to have prior knowledge of a particular subject, or to understand the different levels of meaning within various sentences, scenes or chapters, or it may be written with unconventional structures or use unconventional language, and it usually requires close reading. Think Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce [uses different languages, including invented words, many sentences are a pun or have double meanings etc],  The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner [three different narrators – one of which is mentally disabled, stream of consciousness writing etc], Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann [dense text, requires prior knowledge of philosophy, music, medieval art etc], many Russian novels and so on.

Books with overly complicated plots, however, simply confuse the reader with their incohesive and tangled story lines.

Overly complex plots are those that:

• Are trying to tell too many stories in the one book [this does not mean using multiple points of view, but rather having subplots become major plots]
• Includes multiple themes [nb: even if you explore a number of ideas within the book, they must all relate back to the central theme in some way]
• Has too many subplots
• Has too many minor characters
• Poor/no foreshadowing or pay off, or too much use of red herrings
• Has plot holes/too many loose ends

Flat/ unbelievable characters

Flat or unbelievable characters are those that have no depth and no nuance. For example, the heroine who is all good, always happy, always optimistic. Or the anti-hero who is all bad, who never doubts, who has no real reasons for being ‘bad’ other than hinder the hero in some way. Flat characters rarely change as the story progresses.

Unbelievable characters are those who make illogical decisions for no other reason than to move the plot along, or those who suddenly become heroic at the end of the book without having shown any growth, or who know how to do things no ordinary person would know, with no backstory on how he/she acquired that knowledge [eg: fly a plane, shoot a gun, suture a wound etc].

To be believable, characters need complexity. They need to evolve in some way as the story progresses. They need to have fears, doubts, needs, obsessions, flaws and weaknesses, and their motives have to seem real and logical for that character, even if it’s an unsavoury character [think Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs].

The storyline is predictable

Predictability in a story is not necessary a bad thing – readers expect lovers to get together in a love story, crimes to be solved in a crime novel and so on. But it can become a problem if there are no surprises, if the characters’ motivations are too simple, if plot twists are revealed too early, or if the story seems a clone of current best sellers. Unoriginal plots can often be fixed by mind mapping to come up with new ideas for old stories.

Characters who don’t fit the situation, country or time period they are in

Characters need to behave, think and speak in a manner that fits their situation and/or time period. For example, a woman who grew up and has spent her whole life in the slums of Victorian London would not speak perfect English, unless there was a very good reason for her having learnt it. Neither would a Victorian middle-class husband help his wife with the housework, again, unless there was a very good reason for him to do so. What also often catches new writers is using expressions that were not used at a particular time [looking up a word or phrase’s etymology will tell you when these came into use], or in a particular country – for example, to an American character, a purse is a handbag, while to a British character it is a wallet that fits inside the handbag. An American would put on a sweater/an Englishman a jumper, and shopping would be put in the trunk of the car in the US, but in the boot of the car in the UK.

Deus ex machina
[means ‘a god from a machine’ or a convenient coincidence]

Deus ex machina in literature a fault in the story – it is when a new character, force, bit of information or event suddenly shows up to effortlessly solve a hopeless situation. It occurs when a writer has not laid out the necessary groundwork to resolve a situation or ending – ie: he/she has written themselves into a corner they do not know how to get out of. For example, a hero is trapped but a plane suddenly flies overhead dropping bombs on his enemies, or an orphan suddenly discovers papers to prove the kindly gentleman who took her in is in fact her grandfather.

 Deus ex machina makes a reader lose his/her suspension of disbelief, because the resolution is unbelievable, came too easily and wasn’t the result of the character’s actions.

There’s too much [or not enough] action

Too much action gives the reader a frenetic feeling, whereas not enough action results in scenes and chapters that drag or are boring. Here balance is what you are aiming for – there should be an ebb and flow to your narration, layers of contrasts, of harmony and disharmony. Scenes of chaos or confusion need to be followed by quieter, calmer scenes to allow the reader to catch his/her breath and reflect on what has just happened, and vice versa.

There’s too much information

It’s very tempting, after having researched a novel, to want to impart to the reader all the fascinating bits of information one has discovered. But this results in long boring passages that the reader is likely to skim over, or characters’ conversations that feel forced and unnatural. Please don’t underestimate a reader’s ability to infer, to make connections or understand subtle allusions. Give just enough information about a particular topic, and if the reader wants to know more, they can always do their own research.

The ending is

Unsatisfying endings are usually the result of poor plotting, and are so for any of the following reasons:

  • The ending is too quick and/or abrupt
  • The ending is too predictable
  • Deus ex machina solved the problems
  • The ending is confusing
  • There are too many loose ends

Please note that endings need not be ‘happily ever after’ endings to prove satisfying [think The Great Gatsby]. They do, however, have to make sense. They can leave the reader feeling happy or heartbroken, they can fully resolve the storyline, or they can hint at the resolve, trusting the reader to fill in the blanks. #writingtip #plotting #plottingproblems

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