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  • Anouchka Harris

3, 2, 1: Common Missteps in Writing Fiction

What missteps do you make in your writing?

Do you know how to spot them? When I read manuscripts, especially from people who are quite early on in their writing process, I see a lot of the same problems cropping up again and again. I’ve included here a few of the most common ones I see around and a few words on why these might happen and what you can do to avoid them. Even just being aware of these pitfalls can help boost your writing and give you a bit more confidence.

So, here they are. Three structural missteps, two stylistic missteps, and one formatting misstep.

Structural Misstep #1

You’re not starting the plot early enough. I see this an awful lot and I think part of the reason is that a lot of writers write their opening as a way to figure out the world for themselves. This kind of exploratory writing can be fantastic, but it rarely makes a good opening. You can’t get away with fifty pages of introduction before you make it to the first plot point, I’m afraid. An opening has a lot of work to do. It must be impactful, while introducing the world, the characters, the tone, and the general direction of the novel. Openings are hard to write, so dramatically rewriting it is certainly not a bad thing. I realise that everyone, quite naturally, wants to include all their writing into their manuscript, but this isn’t always the best thing for the novel. If that exploratory writing helps you figure out your world, your tone, and your characters, then it’s not wasted at all. I find it encouraging to think that all writing has a purpose and a use, even if nobody but you ever gets to see it.

Structural Misstep #2

You know your protagonist very well, so you start to assume that the audience does too. This often results in a whole lot of ‘telling not showing’, especially early on in those important opening chapters. This can happen a lot with self-insert characters or with characters who have been based on some of the author’s experiences. And this is totally fine, I’m not bashing self-inserts at all as long as they’re still characterised well. The issue comes with trying to convey to your reader who the character is. It’s really easy to slip into ‘telling mode’ when you know your character well, but this hardly ever comes across well. It’s like the difference between being told about someone and actually meeting them. Your reader wants to meet your character. So, instead of describing your character, show them making choices in those early pages. Show the reader who is important to your protagonist, who they care about or not. Introduce the drama early – as I mentioned in Misstep #1 – and show the reader how your protagonist responds to it. Also, you don’t need your reader to know everything about the character straight away. You can draw it out a little. I think eagerness to convey all the characterisation at once can be a factor that encourages writers to prioritise speedy ‘telling’ over more laborious ‘showing’. If you’re too close to your story to figure out what needs to change – it’s okay, it happens to everyone – then a beta reader or editor may be a good next step for you to help get a bit more objectivity.

Structural Misstep #3

You’re not committing to the drama enough. I often see authors who set up some really great scenarios and problems for their characters… but then they resolve these problems way too quickly. This runs the risk of the reader feeling a bit like they’ve been cheated out of the drama they were promised. If you think you might have a tendency towards this, ask yourself if you’ve taken this moment of drama as far as it can go. Or is there a new way you can develop it? I think some authors have concerns about getting their characters stuck in a situation and then not being able to write them out of it. Try not to worry too much about that. If you find you’re stuck, you can always go back and change details to help you set up your characters’ way out. This is the beauty of writing with a laptop; you can go back and change whatever you want and nobody will be any the wiser. So, go ahead, take a risk and push your characters as far as you can. Do not make it easy for them! Show the reader how capable they are.

Stylistic Misstep #1

There’s a fine line to tread when it comes to dialogue, especially when establishing who is doing the talking. Nobody wants a repetitive ‘x said’ at the end of every sentence, but neither is it great to have no indication of who is speaking over a series of a dozen interactions. If you want the dialogue to be fast-paced (for humour or dramatic tension), you can avoid attributing the actual lines of dialogue to anyone and trust the reader to figure it out from context. But personally, I think this only works for a reasonably short number of lines before the reader loses track. I’d recommend a maximum of five or six exchanges before checking in with reader and reminding them of who is doing the talking. If you’re worried about excessive speech tags, you can also use ‘beats’ which is when you describe one of your characters taking a small action during dialogue. This helps attribute dialogue while avoiding some of the repetitiveness of speech tags. These small actions are not generally plot significant, rather they provide flavour to the scene. It’s also important to consider the number of people involved in the conversation. You’ll get away with a lot fewer speech tags if you only have two participants, but you may need to check in more often if there are three or four people in the conversation depending on how active the participants are.

Stylistic Misstep #2

When you have a number of different perspectives, or even just chapters that focus primarily on characters other than your protagonist, make sure your reader knows who they’re reading about as early as possible. It can be very off-putting to think you’re reading about one character and then realising a page or two in that it’s someone else. Consider this doubly important if you have several characters narrating in the first person. Having the character name as a heading or chapter name isn’t clumsy, it’s efficient. This is a really easy fix, but it can be surprising how big a difference it can make!

Formatting Misstep #1

Don’t use brackets within dialogue. Especially if the words inside the brackets aren’t intended to be spoken by the character speaking the dialogue. I actually see this one reasonably often. It looks quite confusing all round and doesn’t help maintain the pace of the dialogue. Instead, for clarity break up the dialogue with speech tags if there are details you want to add at that specific moment. Save the brackets for narration, if you really need them, but most often you’ll find you probably don’t.

What writing habits have you noticed in your own work? Let me know what you think of this post in the comments!


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