A little while ago, I wrote an article called “3 Things that Ruin a Novel”, where I talked about a few common mistakes that will make a lot of readers put your book back on the shelf. I’m afraid I couldn’t stop at just three, so this week I will be adding to that list.
This point relates somewhat to the problems I talked about in “The Back-Story Ratio” and I see it even in the work of experienced authors, so clearly it’s an easy trap to fall into. When I talk about heavy description, I’m referring to what happens when a story stops abruptly so that the author can tell us every tiny detail about a character, setting, object etc. It can be tempting to give the reader too much information – after all, you want to make sure that your characters and settings come across exactly as you imagined them. But have a read of this paragraph, and you will probably see why this can be a problem.
Harvey was 60 years old with white hair and a long white beard. He wore a tattered leather jacket from his days as a biker. The stitching on the jacket was beginning to fray and on the front of it was a round patch with faded, red, spikey lettering. The zip on the jacket was broken so it was always undone. His trousers were leather too and they were covered in faded spots.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Aside from the fact that this stops the actual plot in its tracks, this kind of information overload can be a little boring to read. Description is not as interesting as dialogue or action, so readers will get tired of it more quickly.
Instead, try to pick out a few defining features of the thing, place or person you are trying to describe. If you choose carefully on what elements to describe, the rest of the picture will paint itself. For example;
Harvey’s haggard white beard spilled down over the front of his leather jacket, to where a faded emblem bore the words ‘Hell’s Angels’ in frayed stitching.
A Perfect Happy Ending
No one could argue that a book cannot have a happy ending. There’s plenty of uplifting stories where it works very well. But be very careful about using a completely perfect ending. Unless you are writing for small children, your readers will find it hard to believe that everything works out great in every way. It is easy to assume that everyone wants to see your character win out at the end of the story, and it might be true, but if they come out of their dilemma with absolutely no downsides, your story and, by extension, your characters will become less believable.
Think about what sacrifices they might have to make to achieve their goal, or what consequence might come of their actions. They don’t have to be plot-breaking, or even bitter-sweet, but there needs to be something that the character isn’t totally happy about.
Completely Evil Villains
Just like perfect endings, having a villain that is nothing but evil is hard to believe in YA or adult fiction. A good way to counter this is to give your bad guy a plausible motive for their actions. For example, if they are manipulative, perhaps there is some other area of their life where they are feeling a lack of control, so they have become obsessed with gaining authority over other situations. If they are a bully, maybe they were treated badly by their parents or other children when they were young.
Having a reason for their actions will not necessarily make a villain harder to hate. It could be that they are overreacting compared to their motivation, or that they have long-since lost sight of why they were behaving that way in the first place. Ultimately, a character that does bad things for no reason will be hard to engage with. The audience will not feel a connection to them and so they won’t feel compelled to see your protagonist overcome them.
Thanks for reading this week’s post. If you enjoyed it, please click like/follow and join me again next week when I will be giving you tips on how to polish a finished manuscript.