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Monday, February 29, 2016

Your Novel is Boring (Here’s Why and How to Fix It) By Bethany Brengan

Your Novel is Boring (Here’s Why and How to Fix It) 
By Bethany Brengan  

[Chris's note: The text of Bethany's post included proper footnotes and list formatting in the word document she sent me, which I tried very hard to make Blogger reproduce, but my full on lack of HTML coding is why I chose blogger over Wordpress in the first place, so apologies, but I had to improvise. The option of pasting the text as is usually leads to even worse format issues (as you can see with some of my older guest posts). Let's all pretend I totally did right by her.]

Your character lets out a scream into the void of space. Because you forgot that sound can’t travel in deep space.

Your protagonist introduces himself as “Jones. Joe Jones.” Because you forgot that in the previous chapter his last name was Johnson.

Your teenage protagonist ends up in an “oh-so-confusing” love triangle. Because you forgot that love triangles are stupid.

There are as many ways to screw up storytelling as there are types of novels in the world, but you will find audiences willing to forgive almost any mistake (real or imagined) as long as you don’t commit the one unforgivable sin of writing: boring the reader. Nothing makes a reader (or an acquisitions editor) more likely to put down a novel than boredom, and no trait reveals itself as early in a manuscript as monotony. Here are the four most common reasons a novel is boring:

The “Nothing to See Here” Opening.  I almost called this the “Nothing Happens” Opening. But you can start a novel (in certain genres) slowly, with descriptions of scenery or a character, as long as those descriptions are good and meaningful (and connected to the tone and themes of the novel overall). What you shouldn’t do is start a novel with a blocks of information. You need to engage the reader’s senses. Pride and Prejudice starts with a statement (and a killer one at that): “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This is followed by an equally satirical statement, and then Austen moves straight into dialogue. Two sentences of (funny) information to set the tone and then right into a scene. Even before television, most good writers knew better than to waste the reader’s time pontificating.

Avoid what I call the “drinking orange juice and thinking about life”[1] opening. You know. . .that first chapter in which the character wakes up, drinks orange juice, and thinks about why her ex-husband left her, how she hates her job, and why she worries about her teenage daughter. Pretty soon you’ve got five pages of text and all that has happened is the character thinking. And she’s still got half a glass of orange juice left.

Information about your character’s relationships and job might be important, but unless orance juice has a symbolic significance, there’s no reason to start your novel with it. Your job is not to give the reader information. A novel is not an essay or a scientific report; it is an experience.

The Fix: Bring the reader into the protagonist’s experience by engaging the senses. Don’t just start with an info-dump about your character’s past. If the information is important enough to spend more than two hundred words on, then it probably deserves a fully realized scene.

I’m currently reading Open City by Teju Cole. It’s a slow-moving piece of literary fiction. (I have no idea yet if I will like it.) But even though book starts slowly (the main character literally walks around and thinks about life), it immediately gives the reader something to experience (the geography of NYC), followed by something to see (migratory bird patterns and “the faint contrail of an airplane bisecting the window”[2], and something to hear (“the odd way my voice mingled with the murmur of the French, German, or Dutch radio announcers”[3]). Even though this is obviously a novel of ideas rather than action, Cole quickly gives the reader something tangible; he builds a scene in the reader’s head.

Or to put it more bluntly: Don’t tell me that “it’s literary fiction” is your excuse for a dull beginning. All that means is that you need to work even harder than traditional genre authors to maintain the readers’ attention while you lure them into your ideas and language.

Start with the good stuff. And then stay with it. Always ask yourself “Is there a better way to get this information across—a way that reveals something about the character or foreshadows something or ties into the theme in an interesting way?”

Nobody Special Protagonist. Now, I love stories about regular people. But part of what I love about them is the way they reveal how “unregular” regular people can be, how they highlight the human experience. Sometimes authors say, “I want to write a story about an ordinary [mom/police officer/teenage boy/doctor/etc.].” But when the manuscript is finished the characters don’t resemble anyone I know. Instead, they resemble the author’s mental image of certain people, and that image is boring. In order to follow your characters for 250+ pages, the reader has to enjoy them. This is sometimes described as “likability,” but I think that term can get confusing. Not all characters are for all readers, and that’s fine. But when we talk about whether or not a character is “likable,” it has less to do with the character or the interests of the reader, and more to do with how you have presented that character to the reader.

Last year, I read the graphic novel Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. The main character is several things I normally hate: a self-important sexist going through a midlife crisis. But he also has a wonderful dry wit. I kept reading because I wanted to hear what horrible thing he was going to say next. His horribleness was interesting (and ultimately contained a small seed of vulnerability, buried at the bottom of his character). The author let me enjoy watching Asterios without forcing me to sanction his behavior.

When approaching character, many writers mistake ideology for personality. In essence, “the character who believes all the same things I do and is therefore good” will generally have the traits and quirks the author secretly considers “best.” This is boring for several reasons but mainly because what happens to the characters ends up being based, not on their choices or circumstances, but on the approval or disapproval of their less-than-subtle creator. There are no surprises. The indie-music-loving, poor-writer-guy comes out on top; the jerk-boss-who-only-listens-to-oldies gets his comeuppance; and the pretty-but-not-too-threatening-girl learns to stop listening to Taylor Swift and love poor-writer-guy.

This is not simply a failure in writing; this is a failure in imagination. The author has failed to imagine people complexly[4]. Instead of really thinking about how and why people act certain ways, the author relies on stereotypes.

The Fix: Do your own research. Fortunately, you live in a world full of people. Talk to your neighbors. And actually listen. Every time your neighbor says something that doesn’t fit with the type of person you’ve already decided they are (e.g., soccer mom, stoner dude, won’t-pick-up-her-dog’s-poop idiot), don’t automatically dismiss it as an anomaly. Consider it another facet of his or her character. Study personality and basic psychology. Study people. Study yourself. Pay attention.

I love listening to actors talk about changing their body language for particular roles. It makes me consider how to describe my characters in physical space. Think about the ways different people move. Think about the ways different people react to anxiety, sadness, or anger. Now think about how emotional expression changes depending not just on personality but also on who a person is around. Think about your characters in various environments and relationships. Think about how people behave in groups and as individuals. Remember that the expression of personality isn’t static.

Let your characters be complicated.

Obvious Plotline is Obvious. This one is tricky. Frankly, predictability isn’t always bad. We repeat certain types of story for a reason. However, there’s a difference between “I knew from the beginning that this would be a story about the protagonist finding her voice and becoming brave enough to stand up for herself” and “I knew the treasure chest was actually empty this whole time and that his mentor was going to betray him.” One is an element of character growth that we recognize and crave, and the other is a plot twist that never twisted. Plot problems are difficult to discuss in vague terms. I can point at specific elements in a story and say, “That’s predictable” or “I’ve seen that too many times.” But it’s harder to discuss what makes something predictable. Perhaps because what is predictable now was once fresh and innovative. And perhaps because even the most overused plot elements can be written in fresh ways. I can, however, give you some pointers for finding the overly obvious plot points in your own writing.

The Fix: Ask others to read your manuscript and comment on what they “saw coming.” See if you can tweak these areas.

Don’t make things easy, either for yourself or your characters. One of the major pitfalls that makes a storyline predictable is the overly simple resolution. Number 19 on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” (I know Pixar writes “kids’ movies,” but I also know that the beginning of Up made you cry. Look up the whole list if you haven’t already.)

Let your characters lose things. Even things they deserve to win. That said, also let them win sometimes. Grim and gritty can become predictable if it’s always the outcome. Let characters win things they should lose. Letting a potentially terrible situation fizzle out unexpectedly can create a good moment for comic relief, or for a break from suspense right before you build it back up.

Don’t telegraph your moves. Writing a scene that’s going to end terribly for someone? Try writing it in the exact same language you would use if everything was going to be fine, and then use that last paragraph to pull the rug out from under the reader.

Raise the stakes (emotional, personal, physical), and then raise them again. Make the characters face the things you are the most afraid of, and then bring them through to the other side.

Dick-and-Jane Prose. “The author writes sentences. The author gives the reader some information. The author gives the reader more information. The reader is bored to tears.”

This can be a subsection of the “Nothing to See Here” Opening. But the problem isn’t necessarily info-dumping; it’s just repetitive sentence structures.

This isn’t restricted to the “subject verb object” structure. All authors have personal clichés: phrases and sentence styles that they lean on a little too much. I like sentence fragments. A lot.

Too much?


Also, I like starting sentences with also. In moderation, any of these things can work. But the variation of sentence length and subject placement does a lot to build, or demolish, the pacing of your novel, and thus, the attention of your reader.

The Fix: Read it out loud. Unnecessary repetition should become obvious. If it doesn’t, try reading aloud to someone else and notice when that person’s attention starts to drift. Read passages by your favorite authors and note the varied styles and lengths of sentences they use. If all else fails, buy a copy of The Art of Styling Sentences (Sullivan and Longknife) and practice the sentence exercises. (I know I mentioned Provost’s Beyond Style last time, but that also contains advice on sentence variation.)

So go ahead: let Joe “Johnson” Jones scream his love-triangle woes into the depths of space. Just make it interesting.

1- I read about this years ago in Writer’s Digest, back when the magazine used to critique first chapters. I don’t remember the exact wording or the author of the critique, but I do remember thinking, Oh, crap. I do that. So thank you, forgotten editor from Writer’s Digest.
2- Teju Cole, Open City (New York: Random House, 2011), 4.
3- Cole, Open City, 5.
4- Totally stealing this phrase from John Green.

Bethany F. Brengan is a freelance writer and editor who reads too many comics. She is a contributing writer to Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder: Scholars and Creators on 75 Years of Robin, Nightwing and Batman (
McFarland Books). Her poetry has appeared in The 2015 Poet’s MarketPoetry Quarterly, and The Crucible. She can be found at www.brenganedits.com and

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