Four Mistakes that Will Doom Your Novel

From Kill Zone Blog: Four mistakes that will doom your mystery. They did mine.

And, having read through the post, I would definitely say “novel” rather than mystery. These are mistakes that could doom most novels in any genre except maybe literary.

Here they are:

1) Introducing too many characters too soon.

2) Beginning with a boring opening where nothing happens.

3) Beginning with too much backstory.

4) Letting your protagonist become passive.

You can click through and read the comments about each one. The last is the most interesting, but let me hold onto that one for a minute.

For Point 1, I think introducing too many characters too fast is pretty much the kiss of death. I’m not sure it’s possible to introduce twenty characters, or even five, in chapter one and make it work. I mean important characters; I’m sure it’s possible to have a crowd scene in the opening. But I’m not sure it’s possible to have a crowd scene where you name a lot of characters, far less show them to the reader in any kind of detail.

However, maybe somewhere someone was so good a writer that they pulled this off. If anyone has a counterexample — a great, compelling opening, or a least a reasonably successful opening, where the author introduced a bunch of characters really fast — by all means, drop it in the comments.

For Point 2, I added the word “boring.” It’s definitely possible for talented writers to open a story quietly, with a scene where basically nothing is happening; see for example many books by Georgette Heyer or From All False Doctrine. I’m sure there are quite a few. Quiet is fine, if you can pull that off. But if quiet slides into boring, oops, that’s a novel that’s not likely to find much of a readership.

Point 3 is tough, because you do need to build the world and set the protagonist in place in the world. In SFF, one way to do that is with tidbits of backstory. I’ve seen plenty of advice not to go overboard with that, and I basically agree. Tidbits of backstory are fine. Lots of backstory is likely to push the reader away. This is true even if you’re avoiding the dreaded (well, dreaded by me) history-lesson prologue.

In fact, I suspect too much backstory is a real problem for mysteries and thrillers because there’s a tendency to start book in these genres like this:

EXCITING TWO PARAGRAPHS. Loooooooong chapter explaining backstory.

And while a really talented author can pull that off, it’s a trick and a half to hold onto your readers through a first chapter that’s structured like this. Have you ever hit something like this and skipped ahead to see what happened after the initial two paragraphs? (Raises hand). If you don’t find the section where the present-day story resumes pretty quickly, do you DNF the novel? (Raises hand again.)

I guess I’d say the trick is to make the backstory just as compelling as the exciting present-day scene. If you can do that, go for it. If not, maaaaaybe think twice about this kind of structure for your opening.

Point 4 is interesting because the example used in the post involves a mystery where the bad guy walks away at the end while the hero stands there and watches him go. This would be AWFUL if it also meant that the bad guy got away with the murder. For me, an unjust ending to a mystery or thriller is an absolute dealbreaker that means I’m done with the author forever.

But evidently this was not the case here; in the book cited in the linked post; the wheels of justice were grinding away, but offstage. The bad guy was going to go down, but not right at the moment. For me … I don’t know. That certainly wouldn’t be a dealbreaker in the same way. It might be okay. Nevertheless, I think I agree with the author of the post that adding a physical, active reaction there (the hero apparently beats up the bad guy) is likely to be more satisfying to the reader.

For me, this is not a question of passivity, or I don’t think it is, at least not most of the time. It’s a question of the justice of the ending. There are some books that I really like, but the ending kind of messes with that. An ending that seems unjust (worse: and ending that is clearly and definitely unjust) will sometimes retroactively spoil the book for me, no matter how much I loved it to begin with.

Maybe passivity itself could also be a problem. I’m not sure. I think that if your protagonist’s choices and actions don’t drive the resolution, that could be a problem. But it seems to me that if the protagonist’s choices and actions do drive the resolution, but in some more subtle way than a fistfight, then the reader as well as the protagonist might be satisfied to watch the bad guy walk away, with his doom hovering metaphorically over his head, knowing that in the next scene — whether that’s shown or not — that doom will come crashing down. I think that could be fine. I bet there are mysteries with that kind of ending, though I can’t think of specific examples offhand.

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8 thoughts on “Four Mistakes that Will Doom Your Novel”

  1. Umm… War & Peace starts with a crowd scene. Lots of dialogue, too.

    There’s an apparently very popular Mercedes Lackey protagonist who is passive. Some one or something has to be employed to force her to do anything. She’s also a downer, and since she narrates… I don’t get her popularity. … Actually, I think the people who like her take the narrative claims about her instead of noticing how much isn’t backed up, and how passive she is. (Kerowyn .)

    Good writers manage quiet openings that tell you things are beginning. From All False Doctrine certainly did. Or Sorceress and the Cygnet.

  2. I think the opening chapter of Pride & Prejudice introduces about as many characters as is possible before running into problems – Mr. & Mrs. Bennet have a dialogue that establishes their characters very clearly, gives you a good enough introduction to 4 important characters (Bingley, Lizzy, Jane, Lydia) that most readers will remember who they are later, and also mentions 3 named minor characters (Mrs. Long, Sir William & Lady Lucas). So that’s 6 important characters introduced and 3 minor characters namedropped in under 850 words (plus a quick reference to a Mr. Morris who I do not believe shows up again later) – and I don’t think it becomes either boring or confusing!

  3. I haven’t read War and Peace, alas. I’ve always regretted that wasn’t assigned in a class, because I doubt I’ll ever read it now. But Pride and Prejudice — that, I’ve read. I’m smiling at the memory of that introduction. Fine, I grant, if the writer’s good enough, they can definitely introduce a whole bunch of characters really fast.

    Passivity, eh. I think any passive protagonist is likely to slide from passive to ineffectual, and there is almost nothing worse than an ineffectual protagonist who stands by as things go terribly wrong, wringing her hands and moaning, essentially, “Oh no, whatever shall I do, look how wrong things are going!” and never taking decisive action to put things right. I can think of a small number of protagonists who are like that not only early in the book, but all through the book, and these days that is very much a DNF quality.

  4. I’m struggling with a book right now for some of these reasons. Julie Czerneda’s A TURN OF LIGHT, which I see you’ve mentioned previously in this blog as starting but not finishing—I see why! On the surface the book is exactly the quiet domestic fantasy I’d been wanting, but it is SO slow to start, and the protagonist is an-almost-19-year-old who behaves more like she’s 13: continually skipping out of chores, leaving the work to other people, complaining about how bored she is in her small community (but while the adults clearly believe she MUST stay there or the world will crumble, no one trusts her good sense enough to explain this, so far). I like the toothy housetoads and the carnivorous horse but I’m not sure they’ll outweigh the protagonist for me.

  5. Haven’t read Lackey in years, but I don’t recall Kerowyn as passive in the first chapter; just forced into a restricted scope.
    * she browbeats her brother’s sword instructor into give her fighting lessons.
    * she is co-managing a kitchen during a wedding banquet at age 14 or so.

  6. Yes, Mary Beth, I see I never did go back to A Turn of Light. I’ll be curious about your opinion if you do finish it.

  7. Pete – reread. I revisited it a few years ago and discovered the Suck Fairy had paid a long visit. If you do check, pay attention to her decisions and how she comes to make them.

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