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Common Pitfalls for Beginning Fiction Writers

Summary:

This handout discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.

Many of the issues with which beginning poets struggle will also apply to beginning fiction writers. However, students writing fiction will also struggle with some craft issues specific to their genre.

Beginning fiction writers tend to:

  • do more telling than showing (more summary than scene)
  • struggle with the scope of their story
  • fall back on stereotypical characters
  • employ overly dramatic or “action movie” plots

Summary vs. Scene

Beginning fiction writers will still be learning how to differentiate scene from summary and when to use each. Their stories may not yet have clear distinctions between one scene and the next, or their story may be one long summary. It is often helpful to reinforce the differences between summary and scene during the tutorial, especially if the student’s story has a great deal of summary.

Scene: takes place in real-time, like a movie, usually contains dialogue between characters, and should be used for important interactions and events.

Sample Scene:

She was quiet as he drove her home. He parked by the curb in front of the yellow house with its overgrown lawn. She reached into her purse and pulled out a white envelope and handed it to him.
“Read it later,” she said.
The car door squeaked as she got out.

Summary: moves quickly, giving the reader important highlights or reminders, and is used for background information. Bits of summary often occur within scenes.

Sample Summary:

He remembered the letter she’d written him last summer. She’d given it to him on their last date after he’d driven her home. She’d said she never wanted to see him again. He still had the letter tucked under his shirts in a drawer.

A written scene is like a scene in a movie: we watch everything that happens to the character(s) as the action unfolds. Summary is more like watching a character talking to you on the screen about something that already happened to him/her: this would get boring if it went on for too long.

Telling vs. Showing

Most of us have heard the old adage “show, don't tell.” In order to become involved in a piece of prose, a reader must be able to see, hear, taste, touch and smell things throughout the story. Is the setting painted clearly and vividly? Are characters described well? Showing is especially important when writing scenes.

Here are some ways to help students concentrate on showing.

  • Point out places where you have trouble seeing action, characters, or setting. Have them describe the scene to you and encourage them to jot down details, or jot them down as the student describes them to you.
  • Brainstorm lists of details associated with the setting in each scene.
    Example: What kind of décor does the character have in his/her apartment? What kind of bar is this? What’s the atmosphere of the town where the story takes place?
  • Encourage students to think of each written scene as a scene in a movie.
    Example: If this were made into a movie, what would be the most important scene? What would you see and hear as that scene took place?

Getting the Scope of the Story Under Control

Many beginning fiction writers have read more novels than short stories. While novels have hundreds of pages to lay out setting, character, and action, a short story may have only twenty pages (or less for an introductory workshop). If you notice that a student’s story lacks action in the first few pages or seems to be dragging, s/he may be struggling with scope.

Here are ways to steer the writer in the right direction.

  • Have them describe the plot of the story to you. What do they feel is the heart of the story? What’s the central conflict? Lay a timeline for the narrative.
  • Encourage them to start the story in the middle of the action or conflict. Certain things should be revealed on the first page of any story, for example, the main character and his/her gender, age, occupation (if applicable) and location. What would get the reader invested on the first page?
  • Suggest that the student revise the story starting in a different point in the plot.
    Example: Many students end their stories with a couple finally coming together. What if the student began with the couple’s first date? How would the story change?

Fixing Stereotypical Characters

A student may or may not be aware that s/he has employed a stereotypical character. If they’re not aware, point it out to them and work from there. Stereotypes may appear in issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, even a character’s occupation or interests.

Remind the student that stereotypes are predictable, and readers would rather connect to a character that seems more real, flaws and all.

Here are some ways to help the student flesh out a stereotyped character.

  • Point out the stereotyped character and discuss what makes him/her a stereotype. Next, ask the student how s/he could they revise the character to make him/her more realistic?
    Example: Say a character has blonde hair and is obsessed with buying expensive shoes. This seems like ‘the shallow blonde’ stereotype. Perhaps she collects something other than shoes. What hobby might be surprising and also tell us something about her character?
  • Ask the student to create character by drawing on real life. Suggest s/he even go to a café and people watch for an hour or so to get ideas.
    Example: Does this character remind you of anyone you’ve encountered in real life? Who? Can you describe that person in more detail? What were his/her flaws, strengths, fears, and desires?

Reining in Overly Dramatic Plots

Most beginning fiction writers worry about plot. Will it be entertaining and hold the reader’s interest? Will it be exciting enough? However, plot often evolves from strong characters, not shocking events. If a student’s story contains exploding cars or houses, car wrecks, or multiple deaths, they may have an overblown plot.

Here are a few tactics to help them out.

  • Ask the student to consider what made memorable events in their lives, or the lives of their friends. Many students don’t believe their own lives are exciting enough to use as fodder for writing. In reality, readers are more compelled by characters and events they can relate to on some level.
    Example: Tell me more about the summer camp you mentioned a moment ago. What were the other kids there like? What did you take away from that experience?
  • Have the student examine whether his/her plot is realistic. Could this really happen given the characters and the setting, or does the plot rely more on shocking the reader, taking a sudden and unlikely twist?
    Example: I see that on this page, the main character’s best friend gets in a car wreck and is now in a coma. How does this fit into the progression of events? How does this action help the plot? Where might you go from here?
  • Have the student keep the element of surprise but tone down the shock value of the event.
    Example: Let’s say the student has a character who gets drunk and dies in a fatal crash. What else might happen to this character? Does he have to die? Maybe he walks somewhere and gets lost, or perhaps he drives to his ex-girlfriend’s house instead. Perhaps he wakes up in a park and doesn’t remember how he got there. The student can make a list of all the possible things that might happen to a character.

Summary

Most beginning fiction writers will need to work on showing vs. telling, scope, character development, and plot progression. Encourage them to read as many short stories as they can for models, and remind them to keep it real in order to keep the reader involved.

For more suggestions on working with beginning poets and fiction writers, view the accompanying PowerPoint presentation “Working with Creative Writers.”

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Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.