What Writers Always Get Wrong
There’s two things writers get wrong more than ANY OTHER writing craft elements … Yep: Not. Even. Kidding.
We’re talking novelists AND screenwriters, plus pro writers JUST AS MUCH as the seasoned and newbies too ! Just about every single writer IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE including aliens (and why wouldn’t *they* write?) get these two things wrong in their early drafts. And NO it’s not hyperbole either!
Bang2writers might come to me and ask, “What are the most likely things writers get wrong in early drafts?” I suspect this is because they want to try and avoid said mistakes and go straight to the good stuff. And c’mon, who wouldn’t?
BUT YOU CAN’T. Because unfortunately it’s not *just* (!) a question of using perfect craft, fancying up that format or polishing that dialogue ’til it shines … It’s a question of REACHING INSIDE YOURSELF and pulling out your writing GUTS and then SPLASHING THE GORE ALL OVER THE PAGE. A bit like this, in fact …
… Really. (What?! Quit whining … As a writer, you get to SOAR as well).
So, yeah. ALL WRITERS have problems with these two things in early drafts … and if they say they don’t? THEIR PANTS ARE ON ACTUAL FIRE.
But what are these things ALL writers get wrong that have readers and editors reaching for the red pen?
I got 99 problems but a script ain’t one. OK it is – and it’s ‘cos your characters SUCK. Are you trying to kill readers and editors the world over? BECAUSE YOU JUST MIGHT. Here’s why:
i) Too many characters.
It’s very simple, homies. You just DON’T NEED a billion named characters in your screenplay! 6-8 main roles MAXIMUM is *about* right, depending on what story you’re telling and whether it’s for film or TV.
In novels you have more leeway, but don’t forget that you don’t want to confuse the reader either! so think very long and hard before introducing a new named character. Instead, think about character role function and what that character contributes to the STORY. Boom!
ii) Clichéd characters.
You know how someone writes something really FRESH and ORIGINAL and then everyone else imitates it until we all become SICK to the back teeth of it? THAT. Don’t do it. Always, always innovate. Also: Maverick Cop with a dead wife/girlf: get outta my sight! You were cool in 1987. Now you’re stinking the place out with your psychotic rage and Mullet. Begone!
iii) Bizarre characters.
“You know those boring clichéd or stock characters? I want something that’s the EXACT OPPOSITE and what’s more, I want those characters to be TOTALLY UNRECOGNISEABLE.”
Said by no reader, editor, agent, producer, publisher or audience member EVER. Balance, my friends! Give us something new, but don’t take us to the other end of the scale, FFS.
iv) Un/Likeable characters.
NEWSFLASH: Your characters don’t need to be “likeable”. This is bullshit. But equally if they’re SO obnoxious they have no redeeming features whatsoever (even if that’s just being brilliantly humourous with their obnoxiousness), then we can’t get behind them EITHER. Because characters need to be RELATABLE.
vi) Characters without a clear motivation.
Sure the objectives of various stories differ, but if I grind your story up into the basics, what do we get? Using a character that wants or needs something. So if I don’t know what your character wants, why s/he wants it, how s/he proposes to get it and when by, then what am I signing up for exactly? Sure, a novel may tend more towards the psychological here, but still there is the question: Why have we dropped into these characters’ lives AT THIS POINT? If you can’t answer, then neither will the reader.
vii) Characters doing what we expect.
A lot of writers don’t believe that characters may do EXACTLY THE SAME THINGS in various stories, regardless of genre. On this basis then, go read your nearest spec pile of novels and screenplays. Seriously. OFF YOU GO. See you in 5 years …
… 2019 UPDATE: Oh hai! You’re back. Told you, didn’t I?!?!
vi) Characters doing something completely out of the left field.
Aaaaand we’re back to point iii). Seriously, DON’T take us from “samey” to OTT. This writing shit is about BALANCE, innit. Tattoo it on your forehead (only do it backwards, so you can read it in a mirror).
THE LESSON HERE:
Good characterisation is not about being “the same”, but it’s not about being completely off the wall, either. Audiences want to recognise **something** of themselves – whoever they are – in your characters, so make sure you are authentic and don’t EVER write clichés or stereotypes. Last of all: ensure your characters know what they’re doing, else you will give your audience NO REASON to get on board their journey with them.
Listen carefully: I SHALL SAY THIS ONLY ONCE (bonus cookie to whomever gets that 80s TV reference).
i) The First Ten Pages.
Novelists: don’t make the reader “wait” for something to happen while you spend the first thirty or forty pages setting up your characters and storyworld, seriously. Your readers are the most media literate they’ve ever been! So hit the ground running, they can take it.
Screenwriters: make sure you have an OPENING IMAGE. Make sure your first page rocks. Don’t start with clichés.
Let us know who the characters are and state your story’s intent. End with a page 10 that MAKES the reader want to read more.
ii) What the hell are you using, here?
Non linearity, non linearity, non linearity … Guaranteed to make a script reader’s brain EXPLODE for a multitude of reasons! Usually because the writer doesn’t know what s/he’s doing. (And yes, this applies to novels as well as screenplays).
First of all, does your story NEED to be non linear? If it does, then you need to RE-structure your structure!!! So first, know what you’re doing structure-wise, before you re-arrange stuff.
When it comes to novels, your story may well be psychological and time may well be more “fluid”, but that doesn’t mean you can jump all over the shop: readers still have to be able to FOLLOW. You need to indicate this in the description clearly and preferably “anchor” the reader in the “present” somehow.
You can do this any way you want, but in addition there needs to be a “point” to that “present” – if you’ve just got a character sitting there and thinking/remembering stuff, then why not actually have the story IN the “past”, since it’s obviously more interesting?
Screenwriting-wise, when it comes to storytelling devices like intercuts, flashbacks, framing stories, dream sequences, montages etc, first ask yourself: are they “fillers” — does the story warrant them a) at all? b) at this particular place in the narrative?
Secondly, ask yourself: can the reader FOLLOW what you’re doing? Have you indicated where we are time-wise ON THE PAGE, using clear formatting techniques?
iii) Jeopardy vs. Lethargy.
Are your scenes, chapters or moments too long? Be honest with yourself. When I read early drafts of screenplays or novels, often characters will talk for pages and pages. As a result, the work becomes rather theatrical and play-like, so dialogue “leads” the story.
Remember, we want to read novels or see movies about characters DOING stuff. If you ever feel compelled to write a long conversation in your screenplay or novel, then ask yourself if you could turn it into ACTIONS instead. Bet you can.
iv) Treading Water vs. Climbing Walls.
Thanks to all the first ten page advice on the web, very often screenplays will hit the ground running now … BUT then they slow down and tread water from p 10 or 20 onwards.
Novels will frequently have the opposite problem. They will spend an aaaaaaaaage painstakingly setting up the entire storyworld, and everything about its characters before actually kicking off.
So envisage Yves Lavandier’s great advice: your character wants/needs something, but is encountering obstacles in his/her way. This means they have to “climb walls, each one bigger than the last”.
So what’s in your character’s WAY and HOW will s/he defeat it (or not)?
And last of all:
v) Page count and you’re DEAD!
There is nothing more dull than a spec screenplay or novel where the writer has CLEARLY said, “Well I need to ensure [THIS] happens on [THAT] page to keep my audience interested.”
No. It is NOT interesting. It is TICK THE BOX WRITING. And yes, it is completely and utterly OBVIOUS. Have faith in your characters, your writing and in your story. Be intuitive. Don’t let structural methods or formulas dictate what you write and where.
THE LESSON HERE:
You will get things wrong in your early drafts. Don’t panic or be a perfectionist! Getting characters and plotting wrong first off will lead you to getting them right. It’s part of the process.
Also, don’t forget there is NO SUBSTITUTE for using your own intuition and having faith in your characters, your story and own writing. It’s this that will showcase your writer’s voice, ultimately.
Now — go start that redraft!!!
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I’m reminded of Adventures in the Screen Trade: I) Nobody Knows Anything, and II) Screenplays are Structure.
Based on this post, I’m the exception that proves the rules you’ve laid out above.
Thanks for the reminder.
I get the bonus cookie! Yaaaaay! Love ‘Allo ‘Allo. It was structured entirely of callbacks.
Short, sharp and to the point. With all the info out there on the web it’s good to have a quick punch in the face like this.
Jeopordy Vs Lethargy and Treading Water Vs Climbing Walls are the stand outs for me.
I think this speaks to the pitfall of getting to the fun part–writing the actual script–too soon. Before you’ve created the world fully, before you’ve given enough thought to the people who inhabit it. Writers try to pass off what is essentially exploratory writing, for your own use, as finished product. Edward Albee says he carries a play around in his head for about five years before ever writing the first draft. Extreme…but I think it’s his way of saying the by the time he’s writing a script, everything has been given time to come fully to life.
An excellent point, Wendy. Patience really does pay dividends.
Patience, Realy Pays.
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There’s a thin line between wanting to surprise the audience, and giving them what they expect in a way that satisfies them. I currently have the “left field” problem. Well, actually, I only got that from one or two readers, but I’ve known characters (from successful stories and actual people in real life) that do a lot more for a lot less, so I’m sticking to the premise. But it’s one complicated road: trying to craft the most engaging yet believable story you can without betraying the original tale you wanted to tell, while trying to make it marketable…
Yeah, well, no one said screenwriting was easy:)
So true! Balancing what is considered “fresh” and what audiences want is a difficult road, plus what we want to write as writers doesn’t always match with what people want to read or watch.
Writers need to ‘stay in the room’ as Ron Carlson famously advises.
Man, my forehead tattoo is wearing off already. Time to get it touched up to make it to 2019…
Thank you so much for this information. Now I have to throw out my entire first chapter. LOL
Seriously, thank you. I couldn’t figure out how to start my novel until I read this.
Hey you’re welcome, glad it helped 😀
Can you expand more on Jeopardy vs. Lethargy? I’ve noticed my draft is very dialogue heavy, I’m wondering what I can do to get more prose on the page and use less conversation between characters
Sure, check out THIS POST and others that use the B2W plotting worksheet via the ‘stucture’ or ‘case study’ labels in the drop down menu on the right hand side of this blog.