With so much writing advice available on the Internet, it would take forever to incorporate every single tip into your work. For this reason, it’s sometimes more practical to opt for the process of elimination instead. In other words: you can best improve your writing by keeping an eye out for common narrative mistakes to avoid.
So which false steps should you steer clear of in the minefield that is writing a book? Here are five of the most common narrative mistakes to avoid when you’re writing your novel.
1. Don’t just show — sometimes it’s good to tell
The old adage ‘show, don’t tell’ has a proven track record in encouraging writers to find subtle ways of expression. Still, it’s not an unbreakable writerly pact; on the contrary, it’s a rule you can (and should) defy when necessary.
Think hard about the context of the scene you’re writing and decide accordingly. For example, ‘telling’ things can be an excellent narrative technique if your character is unable to emotionally process a given situation because, say, they’re living through trauma. Here, you may find that simply stating, ‘Darren didn’t know what to do next’ can be a more effective way to portray emotional paralysis than an elaborate description of Darren wandering around his apartment and gazing out of the window. Sometimes, just telling can be punchier.
Finally, if you’re forcing yourself to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ purely to meet this rule’s demands, you risk ending up with some awkward turns of phrase. Your prose is the essence of your work, so don’t compromise its quality for the sake of ‘showing’.
2. Don’t overuse foreshadowing
Writers are often told to foreshadow ensuing turns of events to pique the readers’ curiosity. It’s a great technique for building suspense, and can be especially compelling when used in your book description, but overdoing it in the text itself can make readers impatient. And a frustrated reader does one of two things you don’t want them to do: they either skip pages or, even worse, give up on reading your book.
So, be kind to your readers — try not to irritate them with too many teasing clues. Most importantly, trust them to keep reading without the help of one too many a hint. After all, they picked your book and trusted you to take them on a fictional journey.
3. Don’t (completely) disregard genre
It’s fun to experiment, and brilliant books can be born at the intersection of genres. If you write literary fiction, a niche that really tests the boundaries of genres as a whole, you may have more room to experiment. For example, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy is at home in the mystery genre as well as among literary fiction, and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being blends fiction with nonfiction in a characteristically ‘auto-fictional’ move.
In most other cases, though, it’s beneficial for your brand — and your story — to limit yourself to one or (at most) two genres: too many overlaps always pose the risk of alienating readers, and you might find even yourself mixing up genre tropes. It’s easy, for instance, to find people who either love historical fiction about Tudor England, sci-fi novels about alien invasions, or romance books about relationship turbulence. However, it’s much harder to find someone interested in all three, so a romance novel about an alien invasion of Tudor England would probably struggle to appeal to a decent readership.
Don’t forget that this tip also applies to your book cover design. Remember, even though we’re technically not supposed to, readers do pick books on the basis of their covers since covers can say a lot about what to expect from a book. As such, make sure your cover design effectively reflects your genre. (Bonus points if you can get your author website and other promotional materials designed with your genre’s aesthetic in mind!)
4. Don’t forget to pace effectively
As you’re writing, try to keep an eye on the pace of your story. Some days writing is a struggle, and though you may still manage to produce something, you might find that you wrote 1,000 words about your character’s stroll through the park and then spent a meager 200 on a crucial revelation. Similarly, you may have taken some time to get into gear for a new chapter, and ended up over-writing your character’s morning routine, when you could have launched straight into the action instead.
To prevent this, go over your work regularly, keeping note of how many words each section has taken up. If you notice an unreasonable inequality, you probably have to speed up certain sections. Which brings us to the final mistake you should try to avoid…
5. Don’t allow yourself to get too attached
You need to bear this one in mind while you’re writing, so you can be prepared for the next stage: editing, a.k.a. the stage in which you will probably need to kill some of your darlings.
Of course, no writer can help getting attached to their work, and that’s fine! However, being emotionally attached and emotionally blinded are two very different things. When you’re writing your first draft, try your hardest to get your story out on paper, and be proud of yourself — after all, the first draft is the part that requires the most perseverance.
But don’t take your armor off just yet, because you’ll need your courage for the editing process. To really mine the potential of your writing and remove elements that don’t contribute enough, you will have to detach yourself from how good it felt to write that one scene, how fantastic that one sentence sounds, or how funny that dialogue exchange seems. Editing is hard, but keep at it! Just remember, no one’s first draft is flawless.
Finally, though all these mistakes are important to bear in mind, don’t let them overwhelm you. If worrying about potential mistakes while you write is too stressful, write badly and courageously, as long as you get words on the page. One of the most widely accepted pieces of writerly wisdom is that “You can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page” — that’s what you should keep in mind as you write your own story into existence.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with resources on self-publishing and professionals to help polish their books. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. She tries her best to avoid all of these narrative mistakes!