Since these things in literature are so annoying to me, I try to avoid using them in my writing. However, no writing is “perfect” so every author, from the greatest bestseller to the novice, will have these. At least some of these are present in every single book ever written, so while you can’t eliminate them altogether, avoiding them as much as possible will make your writing so much better. DISCLAIMER: This is my personal opinion and not professional advice.
1. Excessive, unnecessary use of profanity.-There was one ebook I was checking out the other day and the first chapter had the F word no less than six times. Granted, the main character was a jaded 15 year old and the author was going for a Catcher in the Rye-type voice. But even Holden Caulfield didn’t use that much profanity. I understand that profanity does have its place in writing. Just use it sparingly and only to make a point.
2. Out-of place sex scenes- Stephen King is the biggest offender in my experience as a reader. The most memorable is in Christine where Leigh says “for Arnie” (her boyfriend)-just before having sex with Arnie’s best friend. Like profanity, sex scenes have their place in literature as long as they have a purpose and are not just placed in the story just to include a sex scene. They don’t really appeal to readers that much.
3. Being too esoteric-I was reading this story on an self-publishing online site. The author was a trained paramedic. The story was extremely well-written an would have been a great read, but contained so many terms that only an EMT would understand. If your reader needs a dictionary (or specialized training) to get through your story, he or she is probably going to lose interest quickly. In other words, remember the old rule “think about your target audience.”
4. Going off on tangents too many times- For this, I would say Isabel Allende is a huge offender, although she is still one of my favorite writers and her works are wonderful. Mrs. Allende will start a scene and then take a different direction for 2-3 pages before going back to the main point. In the writing industry, they call this an information dump. Background information should be given in an appropriate place. I realize that this isn’t always possible and I am guilty of this myself, but if it happens too often, your reader is going to be confused. If you have to give background information, keep it very brief and limit it only to what is required for that particular scene.Alternately, you can explain how or why that bit of information is relevant to that scene.
5. Too much background information-Remember in The Grapes of Wrath the two pages it took to describe a turtle crossing the road? Sometimes less is more.
6. Not enough background information-This leads to plot holes, unanswered questions, flat characters, and an inability of the reader to visualize your scenes. The point is, include relevant background information in an appropriate place. This takes practice.
7. Unrealistic or highly improbable coincidences or scenes- This is called “McGyvering,” after the character who can get out of any dilemma with a rubber band, a straw, and duct tape. In The Hunger Games (as much as I loved the book), Katniss just happened to have iodine in the backpack she randomly picked to purify her water.The Careers really believed that Peeta was going to help them find Katniss after he publicly declared his love for her. Cato, a skilled killer, left him with a quite-not-fatal wound.Marvel was all alone when the Careers usually hunted as a group? Clove spent more time talking about how she was going to kill Katniss instead of actually doing it, which somehow infuriated Thresh enough that he stormed out and killed her himself. Then, Thresh had a clear shot at killing Katniss but instead lets her go because he feels like he “owes’ her because she sang to Rue as she was dying. (It does explain that if Thresh won, he would have to go back to District 11, who sent Katniss bread, but how would Thresh know about the bread?) The Game-makers set themselves up to be humiliated and it’s Katniss’ fault (but not Peeta’s) Congratulations to Mrs. Collins for successfully pulling off such a long string of coincidences. And sometimes a coincidence is necessary to keep the plot moving. But overusing them is just lazy writing.
8. Too-perfect characters- I loved East of Eden, but I hated the character Cathy Ames. Not because she was an evil, murderous whore, but because she was so unbelievable. Every man (with a few exceptions) who came in contact with her fell in love with her. Even her brother-in-law, who could see right through her, eventually succumbed to her charms. She was able to get away with murder twice. She can lie her way out of any situation and always be believed. The house of horrors she operated in the small community of Salinas was something everyone knew about but no one did anything about. The wrapped herself in a web of lies but never, ever slipped up (unless she was drunk). Cathy was untouchable, above the law, and did whatever she pleased and never faced any consequences (expect the beating she got from her pimp). Her only mission in life, it seemed, was to cause as much destruction as possible. Like the overuse of coincidence, the overly perfect character is just a lazy way to move the plot forward.
9. Annoying characters, especially ones who don’t contribute to the plot or any subplot-such as Ackley in Catcher in the Rye. He has no other function in the novel except to bother Holden in one scene. Main characters can be annoying, too, like the hypersexual, pushy, arrogant Roy Hobbes in The Natural. Sure, Hobbes was a great baseball player, but the way he kept pestering Memo made me just despise him. Annoying character are those that (a) are overly emotional or dramatic (b) are overly submissive or excessively pushy (c) are narcissistic and think others exist only to serve them (d) complain too much or are always unhappy (e) are rude to others or have an attitude problem (f) are frauds, phonies, or hypocrites (g) blame others for their own actions, and (h) just plain dimwitted In fact, I can think of one book where almost every character annoyed me: Sound and the Fury by Williams Faulkner: Quentin was a weirdo who was for some reason obsessed with his sister’s virginity. Jason was a greedy, bitter mooch who complained about everything. Caddie was a dingbat who thought she could somehow hide her pregnancy from her husband. Carolyn was a whining, self-pitying hypochondriac. Miss Quentin was a promiscuous, hateful teenager. Jason, Sr. was an alcoholic who was completely indifferent to everything going on around him. The “idiot” Benji was, ironically, the only sane member of that family. In fact, it seems that the whole point to this story was to show how much the members of this family irritated each other. Ask yourself: If this character were a real person, would people like him/her very much? Of course, all characters have personality flaws. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t seem human. But if the readers start to dislike your main character(s), they are going to lose interest in your story. Don’t center the story around your character’s personality flaws, and only reveal them if it is essential to the plot or a subplot. Consider omitting characters who do not contribute to your plot Note: I am not talking here about evil characters, whom the reader hopes gets brought to justice. I’m talking about books with scenes where the character’s behavior just bugs you AND there’s no real purpose for the scene.
10. Stories that have no real plot-They just describe what each character is doing at that moment. Unless your story is meant to be a journal or a memoir, have a point and have the story go somewhere. Speaking of Sound and the Fury, I still don’t know what the plot line is to the story. The same goes for The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. The whole story just seems to be a series of parties and bullfights. If there was a plot or a point, I failed to see it.
11. Subplots that don’t go anywhere or scenes that end abruptly with no explanation-I read almost all of Arthur Hailey’s work with great enthusiasm. I just couldn’t help but admire how much time and effort he put into the research for his stories. However, Mr. Hailey put more effort into researching his novels than actually writing them. They were suspenseful, mostly well-written, and the plots flowed smoothly. However, one thing regarding Hailey’s work sticks out in my mind: in his novel, The Evening News, there was a scene in which a customs inspector was searching the bags of a terrorist. The scene built up a lot of suspense and even described how the terrorists were preparing to take the inspector hostage. Suddenly, the inspector is called away by his supervisors for some urgent business. The reason is not explained at all. I read the rest of the novel in hopes that the reason would be explained, but it never was. This falls under #7: Coincidences. if you have to have a scene like this to keep your plot moving, give an explanation or revise your scene. If you have subplots, wrap them up.
12. Lack of continuity, both within the novel and between series of novels-In Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, Pauline del Valle was pregnant with her 4th child. In the sequel A Portrait in Sepia, she only has three children and it specifically mentions that she was only pregnant three times. What happened to the 4th baby? Plot holes are often unavoidable and sometimes necessary to keep the plot going in the absence of any other alternative. For example, in Nineteen Eighty Four, any person who was seen as a threat to the government, but for some reason, they chose to follow him for seven years to collect “evidence.” (like the Superstate Oceania needed any evidence to arrest or execute someone. If they had arrested him when he started his first journal entry, there would be no story. But gaping plot holes that are not necessary to the plot reflect laziness on the part of the writer. In my example above, the plot hole is not that big of a deal. Professional writers know how to avoid these. i have seen some blaring ones in some of the amateur writing I have read.
13. Literary devices and motifs that are just there for the sake of having a literary device or motif. The following is an except from Dominick Dunne’s A Season in Purgatory:
“She [Kitt Bradley] opened her bag and took out a pair of glasses and put hem on to scrutinize the buttons. I noticed that one of lenses was cracked.
“isn’t it confusing for you to see life out of a shattered lens?” I asked.
“I’m used to it.”
“I remember the day you stepped on them. Almost a year ago.”
Kitt Bradley is the daughter of one of the wealthiest, powerful men in America, and the story revolves around a murder her brother Constant committed as a teenager. The family hid it for so many years, and when he was finally put on trial for the murder, the entire family was expected to lie to defend Constant. Certainly, someone as wealthy as Kitt could afford to have her glasses fixed and would not wait a year to do so. This is too obvious of a symbol of the denial in which Kitt is expected to live. Symbolism, motifs, foreshadowing, and other literary devices should be subtle, not blaring.
14. Lack of variety in your vocabulary-Don’t use the same words over and over. Get a thesaurus.
15. A build-up of suspense that leads to a let-down ending.-This just leaves you feeling empty and disappointed. In In Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende, a character named Francisco (I think. i have misplaced my copy of the book and can’t find it online), who lives under a repressive dictator, is trying to hide is secret past as a rebel. He truly lives in great fear of what would happen if his past were revealed (he is in a budding relationship with a journalist who is engaged to an Army captain, so his chances of being found out increase each day). I read anxiously trying to get to his big secret, only to find out that his experience as a “rebel” amounted to nothing more than a a camping trip with a group of other boys. This leaves you with the same feeling you get when your boss tells you that you are getting a “big raise” and you find out it’s only $40 a month more. Sure, it’s better than nothing, but don’t make things seems bigger than they are. Now, the opposite (understating and then ending with a shocker, is highly effective).
16. Unexplained- In every book I have I have ever read, there has been something-usually the way something is worded, that bothers me and I can’t figure out why. Most of the time it doesn’t cause me to hate the whole book, but sometimes it does. I just couldn’t read Twilight because the wording of it (I just can’t figure out why) just bugged me. it all goes back to chemistry. A book that does not give you that dopamine rush will not interest you, no matter how well-written or popular it is. Twilight just didn’t have the same magic with me as it had with almost everyone else. it doesn’t make it a bad book, just not the right one for me.
Now, here are a list of things that do NOT bother me:
1. Ananchonisms-as long as they are used sparingly and for a reason, i think they are actually cool and fun.
2. Alliteration-For some people, it drives them up the wall. I like it as long as it is not used excessively.
3. Wordiness-A person puts “very’ in front of an adjective. So what? I read somewhere that you should not use adverbs in writing. Why not? As long as a person is not repeating the same phrase over and over again and is going somewhere with his wording, why shouldn’t he be able to use “very’ or “clearly?’ This isn’t English class. Concise is not the point, readr interest is.
4. Using weather as a symbol- Some say this is cliched. As long as you get to the action quickly, it’s OK to set the scene with weather and use it as a subtle symbol. Just make sure it fits realistically with your setting. In my favorite novel One Hundred Years of Solitude it rains continuous for years and years to represent the constant repression and hopelessness of the people of Macondo when the banana company. I loved it so much that I incorporated it into my novella, Ice.
5. Names of Characters- As long as you aren’t trying to be cute with names (someone suggested I name a killer in my one of my short stories “John Wayne Bundy.” WTH?), and the names fit the time period and culture of your characters, you can name them any darn thing you want. They’re your characters.To name my characters, I just flipped through the phone book. Picking names should not be a difficult process.
6. The Way the Cover Looks- I have my covers professionally designed because I’m no artist and I can’t do it myself. However, in a sea of books, no particular cover is going to get my attention. I’m not saying a professional-looking cover is not important, but I’m not going to rule out reading something just because of the way the cover looks. Plenty of wonderful books have had very plain covers. What IS important to me is the book description. If it doesn’t pique my interest, I’m probably not going to read the book.
Now, I have a challenge for you: Read my novella, Ice, and tell me if i am breaking any of my own rules. it is only available on Amazon Kindle, but i hope to have it in print soon.