There are some common mistakes which will make your reader want to throw your manuscript out of the window before they have finished the first chapter. Some of them are obvious – like bad spelling or illegible fonts, but there are plenty of little traps which are easy to fall into if you aren’t looking out for them.
Looking in a Mirror
Somewhere around the start of your story, you are going to want to tell the reader something about what your character looks like and, of course, you want to do this in a way that fits in well with the plot. Simply stopping to say “John had bright red hair and wore a blue duffel coat” can seem forced if there isn’t a clear reason for you to explain this.
The trap that many writers fall into is to have their character look in a mirror, which gives them the chance to say something like “John looked in the mirror at his bright red hair and blue duffel coat”. On the face of it, this seems like an improvement and in terms of flow, I suppose it is. But I’m quite sure that you could name a handful of novels off the top of your head which have used this introduction.
For a start, this theme is just not original. It’s been used countless times, even in many bestsellers and it has to stop somewhere. Another problem is that the situation rarely makes sense. Sure, most people look in the mirror every day, but you’re not really analysing the basic aspects of your appearance.
And one more bonus tip when it comes to describing your character; don’t bother telling us what colour their eyes are unless it is going to be particularly relevant later in the story. Assuming it wasn’t something particularly unusual, when have you ever met someone and immediately noticed their eye colour? Never. Never is the answer.
There’s a good chance you’ve already heard of “Mary Sues”. These are characters who are absolutely perfect in every way. They have no discernable faults, everyone loves them and the entire world seems to revolve around them. It’s easy enough to avoid creating a character who fits this description completely, but even a skilled writer may find a little hint of it creeping into their work.
For a start, it can be hard to give our beloved characters faults. After all, we want our readers to love them as much as we do. But remember, even your best friends are far from perfect and you love them all the same. The faults that you give your characters don’t have to be absolutely villainous (unless you’re trying to create a villain, of course). They can be small, believable imperfections like being a little short tempered, slow to warm to new people, or easily distracted. Your other characters need to react to these traits too and may even dislike your protagonist. This can help drive home the fact that your character is flawed, and therefore a more realistic person.
As for the setting, all of your characters need to appear to have their own lives that don’t simply revolve around your protagonist. That’s how real life works. You can achieve this by creating side plots, even if they are relatively small.
Overuse of Clichés
My lecturer used to strike out every use of anything that could even be vaguely construed as a cliché from my work. He even counted “rolling your eyes” as a cliché. I’m a little softer than that. Sometimes, using a known idiom is the only sensible option in your work, especially if you are trying to create realistic dialogue. That said, I would always recommend using alternatives where you can. Some of my most hated books are those that use clichés where there are countless original options. I’m talking about phrases like “she had a heart of stone”, “her legs felt like jelly”, “it was love at first sight”. It can be tempting to take the short and punchy option, but these clichés really don’t add anything. Your prose will have a lot more life and personality if you take the time to express your thoughts originally.
These three aren’t the only traps that a writer can fall into, but I think the others are going to take more than a third of an article! So please join me again. I hope I will be able to talk more on them so you can avoid ruining a perfectly good manuscript with an easily avoidable mistake.