Ray Nelson
Science Fiction Author and Cartoonist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Checklist of Fiction Faults
And What to do about them

by Ray Nelson

In the beginning, I do not like:
Premature flashbacks.
Suggestion: Don't tell me about the past until I am worried about the present

Action or dialogue in a vacuum
Suggestion: In the opening paragraph unobtrusively tell me where we are, whether indoors or outdoors, the location of people and important objects, particularly doorways, windows, stairways, furniture which will be used, important props, etc., and most vital of all, how the scene is lit.

Characters I can't visualize.
Suggestion: Immediately after each character's entrance, begin telling me his or her age, sex, social class, major mannerisms, race, physical type, etc., feeding me everything in little bits, not all at once. And make sure I know, at least in a general way, how the character is dressed.

Narration in the present tense.
Suggestion: Though some modern writers use it, they pay for it in obtrusiveness. Stick to the simple past tense unless you have a very good reason not to.

In the middle, I do not like:
An inconsistent emotional tone.
Suggestion: If you have begun in a comic mood, continue in a comic mood. If in a fearful mood, grow more fearful; if in a tragic, remain tragic. A touch of contrasting emotions is all you can allow yourself, never a total change of tone.

Missed opportunities.
Suggestion: Make good on every implied promise you have made the reader, and let the big scenes take place on-stage, not off stage or after the story ends.

Showers of trivia
Suggestion: Determine the point of the story, then ruthlessly cut what is not relevant.

At the end I do not like:
The "Little Nemo" ending, in which it turns out "It was all a dream".

Suggestion: The reader has been kind enough to suspend disbelief. Don't tell him he needn't have bothered.

The Paper Tiger ending in which we learn "It was all a misunderstanding", "He wasn't really murdered" etc.
Suggestion: Surprise me by giving me more than I expect, not less.

The unresolved ending
Suggestion: Tell me frankly if your protagonist wins or loses or draws, or what the solutions are to your puzzles or mysteries, if any.

A Protagonist who ends in apathy, suicide or insanity.
Suggestion: There are so many ways someone can solve his problems there's no excuse for these arty cliché non-solutions

A false surprise ending
Suggestion: Early in the story, plant enough information so a few really alert readers may guess the ending, and the others will kick themselves for not guessing it.

Throughout I do not like.
A passive protagonist who is, at best, a spectator and, a worst, a professional victim.
Suggestion: Select someone more suitable to be a protagonist, or give your present protagonist some spunk.

Characters who lack motivation
Suggestion: Allow no major characters who don't want something, and struggle to get it.

Characters who all talk alike.
Suggestion: Let dialogue reflect differences in age, sex, social class, nationality, and background, plus special individual turns of speech. Let vocabulary reflect profession and educational level.

Scenes that are thin and unconvincing.
Suggestion: Make sure you are reporting most or all of the five senses, even if you have to use a checklist.

Clichés
Suggestion: Read aloud to one or more writers or critical readers and let them help you prune these away, but don't forget that there are rare occasions when only a cliché will do.

Overuse of any form--too many adjectives, too many adverbs, too many metaphors or similes, too many forms of the verb "be", too many phrases in the passive voice, too many proper names, too many repeated words.
Suggestion: Set a norm of simple sentences--subject, verb and object--and use other grammatical forms and more complex constructions to produce calculated effects, not just for variety. Study grammar and rhetoric from old Victorian schoolbooks and practice building sentences the way a musician practices scales and arpeggios.

A viewpoint that floats aimlessly through space fro head to head.
Suggestion: Normally, within a given scene, select one head and stay in it, telling us nothing that cannot be thought, seen or sensed by that person.

Too much unbroken narrative.
Suggestion: Write more dialogue with stage business and less telling. Regard with suspicion any page totally lacking in quotation marks.

Pointlessness
Suggestion: Determine for yourself what central theme you will use and write it out in a single sentence. Do not include this sentence in your story, but use it as a guide in a comprehensive rewrite in which not one sentence remains unchanged.

An antagonist who is a pushover.
Suggestion: Make your protagonist's opposition seem, at first, overwhelming. Even at the end, I want to feel I've watched a fair fight.

Obtrusive substitutes for "said"
Suggestion: Often it can be made obvious from context who is speaking, particularly where only two characters are on a stage. Then no "said" forms are needed. In other cases "said" can be baldly repeated a lot before it becomes obnoxious.

An unconvincing setting
Suggestion: Through research or invention, create a "backdrop" that is detailed, authentic, consistent and clearly visualized, even if you must draw a lot of maps, charts, floorplans, costume sketches, family trees etc. and write several long essays for your own eyes only.

An unconvincing chronology
Suggestion: Plan your action in a diary, datebook or calendar, or in a dated cardfile. (Cardfiles are more easily changed in the plotting process).

Aimless digressions
Suggestion: Make a detailed plot synopsis before you write page one. Work out most of the "bugs" in the planning stage, but leave yourself a little room for improvisation.

Datedness
Suggestion: Read what others are writing in your genre and outside it. Steal their tricks shamelessly, and don't worry about ruining your originality. No writer can write exactly like another writer.

General amateurishness
Suggestion: Join a group of writers who meet regularly to read aloud and discuss works in progress. Write for nonpaying markets, listening to what feedback you get. Imitate the work of some famous writer you admire. Practice, practice, practice!

 

 



 

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