Picture this–every day before bed you read a book. Today your friend published their very first fictional book and they gave you a free copy to check it out! After being so eager all day to read it, night has finally arrived, so you put on your nightgown and your nightcap, blow out the candle on your nightstand, and get to reading. For the sake of your friend, you wanted to finish the story, but after hours of enduring it, you closed the book. The story had a few issues that ruined the immersion. Sometimes the dialogue fell flat, things were too descriptive or not descriptive when they should’ve been. Your friend introduced so many characters at once that by the middle of the story, the characters weren’t themselves. And the story was written in a way where at times you couldn’t tell whose perspective you were reading from. You believe your friend has the creativity to thrive as a writer, but they need to fix a few things. If only there were a listicle for the issues in her story… oh wait!
1. Boring dialogue
One of the greatest immersion killers in a story is boring dialogue. There are many factors to boring dialogue, but I’ll include the main factors.
Too many filler words
In a real-life conversation, there are lots of pauses, stutters, and fillers in between. When you write dialogue, adding too many pauses/stutters can greatly harm your writing. For example, try to avoid words such as “um,” “uh,” “ah,” “like,” “well, “I guess,” etc. I’m sure reading all those words back to back gave you an idea of why you want to avoid them. If it didn’t, think about it like this–when you use words such as “like, um, or well” in a conversation, it is most likely hinting to an assumption that you are unsure of what you are speaking about. In writing, including that will drag out your dialogue and make it boring/hard to follow. In short, get your point across clearly and concisely.
Power Thesaurus is a great writing tool you can download on your phone to help with repetitiveness and enhance your vocabulary to make your story sound better.
Characters all sound similar
Just like people, characters have their unique personalities. When reading dialogue, we create individual voices that we “hear” for each character. When characters speak the same, it takes away the personality and makes the voices in our heads hard to produce. Having characters use different vocabulary is a prime way to differentiate these voices. Look at it like this: Nathan has been an English college professor for ten years, and Liam is his sixteen-year-old son. Nathan would probably use bigger words that show off his intelligence and big vocabulary while Liam would use smaller words. But, because Liam is Nathan’s son, his vocabulary would be a mix of basic and complex words because he’s learned from his dad.
Dialogue has no relevance to the storytelling.
The most important thing that makes or breaks how good your dialogue in a story is, is whether or not the dialogue is relevant to the story. A lot of the time writers tend to add in dialogue that does nothing for the story as a whole. Keep this as a general rule: If the dialogue does not advance the plot, reveal character, increase conflict, or set or change the mood. You can go without it.
I recommend watching this video by Abbie Emmons on YouTube “How to Write GREAT Dialogue” It sums up some of the ways I explain differently as well as gives new very useful tips on how to improve your dialogue. How to Write GREAT Dialogue
2. Unbalanced “showing-not-telling”
I’m sure at least at one point in your life you have heard of the phrase “show, don’t tell” or one of its many iterations. “Well, what does it mean?” you may be asking. To put it simply, “show, don’t tell” means to demonstrate something using sensory language rather than laying information out flat for the reader to just accept.
To show what this means, here are some examples:
Telling: Mrs White is intimidating
Showing: Mrs White’s glare sent shivers down my spine.
The telling in this instance is straightforward, it tells the reader Mrs. White is intimidating but doesn’t give an idea as to why. The showing in this instance gives something for the readers to imagine, and lets them “live” in the scene.
Now here is where things get a little bit tricky. “Show, don’t tell” is advice often given to writers, and it is great advice! However, there is such a thing as too much show.
Here is an example of what I mean:
Too much showing: His glistening golden hair reflected the sunlight directly into my baby blue eyes. My pupil shrinks to the size of an ant, and my heart races. I begin to feel my heart drowning as my body defies the force of gravity. (This example has too many visuals and may complicate the story, instead, you should keep it simple and give minor details here and there that can immerse the reader without overwhelming them)
Telling: His blonde hair reflected the sunlight into my eyes. Causing me to fall over. (Once again the information is being laid out for the reader to just accept.)
When you write something like this, you want to mix showing and telling so both don’t become overwhelming.
Here is an example:
Showing and Telling: The reflection from his glistening blonde hair bounced into my eyes. Before I knew it I lost my balance and ended up on the floor.
This example is much better. It gives the reader just enough to visualize while not flat-out stating it. The scene is not of importance so it is not required to go all out.
Have you ever heard the saying “clear as mud”? If you haven’t, what the saying means is that something is difficult to understand. In a story, you don’t want the point of view to be as clear as mud because it’ll confuse and lose the reader. One thing that could make a huge difference with how clear a POV is, is how pronouns are used. In the following examples, Charlotte is observing her best friend Robin. It’s also worth noting that the perspective is written in close third-person.
Muddy POV: Robin leaned on Charlotte’s desk tired. (If the story is from Charlotte’s POV, including her name was the first issue.)
An easy way to fix this issue is to use articles instead of pronouns. Articles are a type of adjective used before nouns. In this example, the article used is “the.”
Improved POV: Robin leaned on the desk tired.
This is much better. Charlotte thinking about her name not only throws names at the reader, but it makes it seem as if the perspective is from another character who is neither Charlotte nor Robin. Using “my” instead of “the” would work better if the story was written in first person. However, this sentence can still be further improved. Showing Charlotte’s observation(s) of Robin and including knowledge she knows about him will further convey that the perspective is from her.
Clear POV: Robin leaned on the desk. He was more tired than he usually was.
This POV is much clearer it’s from Charlotte than the previous ones. Charlotte being Robin’s best friend it makes more sense that she’s noticing his behavior change. This observation and her background knowledge of Robin make it much clearer that Charlotte is observing Robin.
4. Being inconsistent
Have you ever finished a story that just left you with more questions than the amount that were answered? That was probably due to the writer skipping over a few things they put in. When you start writing your story you want to plan everything out from start to finish. You want your characters, plot, arcs, etc. As your story progresses, to engage the reader you want to produce questions so that it leaves the reader wanting more, but when those questions are left unanswered it will leave the reader confused. Revise your story as much as possible and try your best to make sure characters develop accordingly, and there are no plot holes. Answer more questions than you produce at the end, but if you want to write another part of your story you can leave some questions unanswered to make the reader want to come back.
5. Introducing unnecessary characters
Okay, so we have Leon, the cocky one. Ada, the mysterious one. Frederick, the nerd. And then Greg, Rowley, and Rodrick. I do not remember their traits… Actually, why are they even in the story??
Introducing unnecessary characters is the perfect way to wrap this listicle up. Why? Because all of the topics written about can stem from this singular mistake. Does a character have no unique voice and sounds like everyone else? Delete. Does the character take up plot because you have to introduce them for the one second they are in the story? Delete. Is the character difficult to write into the story in a way that makes sense for both the reader and the writer? Delete. Does the character randomly appear for plot relevance after being forgotten throughout the entire story? Delete. Was the character crammed in just because? Delete. We all love characters, sometimes we get the idea for a whole bunch to accompany our protagonist but how many of them do we really need? Adding too many characters can complicate the plot, confuse the reader, and make writing your story difficult. When you write try revising your story and see which characters are important and which characters are expendable. You may not like the idea of getting rid of characters, but in the long run, losing a few expendable ones will make your story feel more fleshed out. I recommend this article which shows four steps on how to fix too many characters in your story.
Now that you’ve read this listicle you feel better than ever and more prepared to explain to your friend some ways they can fix their story. This will help improve their writing by a mile. It even helped improve your writing by a mile. Now it’s time to get out there and put these tips into use!