Pub Rants

Beginning Writer Mistakes (Take 3)

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STATUS: When I do my blog early in the day, I feel like I’ve actually accomplished something! Time to channel this energy into all my other tasks for the day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? YOU’RE THE ONE THAT I WANT by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta

I’m still thinking of those sample pages from last night and it totally reminded me of another writer mistake which didn’t become crystal clear until this morning. Definitely another pitfall to avoid.

Okay, the writer writes a solid, action-oriented scene where the characters involved make crucial discoveries that move the story forward. Another plot piece snaps into place for the reader. This is great. This is exactly what a good writer should be doing. This scene works.

Then in the next scene, characters arrive that weren’t in the previous scene and now the writer feels like it’s necessary to recap the previous scene in dialogue for the newly arrived characters.

Sometimes this is necessary but when it happens repeatedly in the story, it’s just bad writing. Not to mention, it’s going to feel repetitive as the reader already knows the information.

As for dialogue revealing back story, sure that’s a good tool but yet another writing element that should not be overused.

Here’s another thing to be on the look out for. Do your characters just sit around having conversations rather than actively doing something in a scene? This one can be hard to spot as the dialogue can be really good, crucial even, but if readers start paying attention, they’ll realize that nothing BUT dialogue and conversations are happening in the novel.

You don’t want that either! Trust me, I’ve seen this. As an agent, it might take me 80 pages to catch on but eventually I will and I’ll pass on the manuscript.

27 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    So, when you pass on sample pages that have these mistakes, do you let the author know what to look for or where they lost you? I assume you don’t give specific critique, but do you drop a line saying “dialogue could be stronger” or “manuscript could use a good review”…or do you just send the “not for me” response?

  2. Pam Halter said:

    Thanks for all these great tips! But it kinda makes it hard to simply tell the story while your head is spinning over everything to remember. HA! Guess that’s what the editing process is for, huh?

  3. ilyakogan said:

    Wow. People actually repeat the dialogue or recap events for the newly arrived characters? I usually go for something like this:

    “What the heck is that?” said Mark staring at the giant hole in the ceiling.

    Everybody started talking at the same time till Josh told them to shut up and told Mark about the spaghetti accident.

  4. jk said:

    Thanks so much for all these insights. They are really, very helpful.

    Also, I now have YOU’RE THE ONE THAT I WANT in my head (which is fine, since Grease is my all-time favorite movie-musical.)

  5. Candy Gourlay said:

    great stuff, kristin! i got an agent last year but i just can’t help continuing to follow your blog. what i’ve realised though is that the rejections don’t stop with getting an agent – i made a film about it called Why Writers Need Agents. you might identify with it.

  6. Candy Gourlay said:

    >the writer feels like it’s necessary to recap the previous scene in dialogue for the newly arrived characters.

    i find myself doing this just because i’m recapping things to myself … but this is first draft writing. it should all get edited out when the ms is revised!

  7. RK said:

    Thanks Kristin for Part 3. You made the light bulb switch on in my mind.

    Very helpful set of posts and comments!

  8. KD said:

    I have two responses:

    1. That’s brilliant!
    2. Ouch.

    Seeing it put the way you did, I realize that I’ve done that way too much. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it also explains why my agent just loved one project I showed him, and hated a different one. First one: action opening. Second one: dialoguey aftermath opening.

    Thanks Kristin!

  9. pjd said:

    … it’s necessary to recap the previous scene in dialogue

    I call this the HGTV Syndrome. Have you ever watched any show on HGTV? They give you three minutes of show, then three minutes of commercials. When they come back from commercials, they give you three minutes of recap followed by two minutes of show. Then the commercials/recap/show cycle repeats until the hour is over.

    When you add it all up, you’ve had about 20 minutes of commercials, 25 minutes of recaps, and 15 minutes of content.

  10. Stephie Smith said:

    Is this mine? Dang it! These posts are making me a nervous wreck. I really don’t think anyone should assume that the whole ms is like the beginning. Some of us have been told so many different ways we should start our beginning (and of course, we immediately change the beginning every time this happens) that we don’t know what we’re doing with the beginning anymore. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the book has boring, backstory-telling conversations!

  11. Cindy Procter-King said:

    I saw this in a published novel recently. The main character had meetings with other characters in a restaurant so often that it jumped out at me. No matter how pertinent the information relayed is, I wanted something different happening than two people talking and eating several times in a story.

  12. Cindy Procter-King said:

    Stephie S., the problem is that the agent or editor reading the sample pages doesn’t KNOW the rest of the story doesn’t have too much repetitive info. They can only go on what they’re reading, and that’s the beginning.

    After judging several contests over the past few years, I can definitely empathize with the editorial viewpoint. I can tell within a few pages if I want to continue reading or not. With a contest entry, you must keep reading and explain to the writer why or why not her pages worked for you. An editor or agent doesn’t have to do that…unless maybe they’re judging a contest. 🙂

  13. Anonymous said:

    Okay, now I’m very nervous about each scene where I have my character sitting down and talking! LOL.

  14. Elizabeth said:

    great info. really proves that you need to have your BEST writing in front of the agent and not something that still needs to be revised. thanks.

  15. D.J. Cappella said:

    This has been a great series and very eye opening for small mistakes that have hug impacts in our careers. While this is basic information is it rare things that an author hears. I love when you do these series, it helps us all improve.

  16. Anonymous said:

    These are great posts by Kristen – frankly even “good” writers do some of this – I just read the 6th Harry Potter (only the second I’ve read in the series) and was shocked at how much rather tedious dialog there is!

  17. Kerryn Angell said:

    Oh my gosh! This is why I didn’t enjoy The Crystal Gorge by David and Leigh Eddings and you’d hardly call David Eddings a beginning writer.

  18. Anonymous said:

    I have made myself a new rule about dialogue. I don’t know if it will work, but I need discipline. Here it is: No dialogue that gives information tot anyone – not the characters and not the reader. I figure that any use of character dialogue to inform a character is wasted words. There are plenty of examples right here to show better ways to let the reader know that the characters are informed. Using dialogue to inform the reader is always obvious to me when I read. It always seems like a contrivance that the writer uses to give me information the easy way. From now on, I won’t write dialogue unless it is part of the story. Basically, if it is not an argument, it doesn’t belong. The conversation itself has to be part of the plot. It has to build and maintain tension. If all parties to a conversation are able to walk away from it feeling the same about each other as they did before, it didn’t belong in the story.
    Of course, I love breaking rules when I write. I’ll break this one too – but only if it works.
    Thank you Kristin. You are worth twice your weight in diamonds.

  19. beagley said:

    Reminds me of all the sequels to Card’s “Ender’s Game”. They had progressively less and less action/plot, and more and more explanatory conversations. Some of the later ones consisted almost entirely of explanatory conversations, so much so that I can not remember the plot of anything past the end of the second book. But I sure kept reading them, like an addicted fan boy… another example of how an established author writing genre fiction can get away with a lot…

  20. Persephone said:

    I think this is what is meant by “soap opera writing”, as the daytime dramas constantly recap via dialogue so that viewers can jump in anywhere.

    Kristin, not only do you have a knack for putting ideas in a nutshell, but I’m amazed at how you come off so positive while offering criticism. I so appreciate both your help and your delivery. 🙂

  21. Julie Weathers said:

    “Then in the next scene, characters arrive that weren’t in the previous scene and now the writer feels like it’s necessary to recap the previous scene in dialogue for the newly arrived characters.”

    I hate having to recap stuff. I try to arrange it so there isn’t a need for a recap or, if it’s absolutely necessary, start it, interrupt it and “tell” the character he’ll get told later.

    I had the dialogue problem between a captain and her fairy dragon. I had to finally have the dragon fighting with her horse to break it up. It was necessary and interesting, but just too much talking.

  22. CM said:

    “Here it is: No dialogue that gives information tot anyone – not the characters and not the reader. I figure that any use of character dialogue to inform a character is wasted words.”

    Anon at 8:36, I think this may be going a little too far. There are times you can use dialogue purely to convey information when it is neither an argument nor a contrivance. And, you know, not all dialogue needs to up tension, either.

    A story has an ebb and flow. There’s a need for comic relief, for high points, for admissions of fault and guilt.

    Conflict is essential to a story, but don’t mistake conflict for the whole of the story.

  23. Mark said:

    Disjointed dialogue, sometimes known as “talking heads.” The question is how many lines before the characters have to perform a physical action? That’s the one I go by.

  24. Madeleine said:

    I’ve heard the same term Mark mentioned: “talking heads”. I’m just a teenager, but I’m already on the look-out in my writing. I read Write Away by Elizabeth George, and she specifically mentions the necessity to employ “THADs” – Talking Head Avoidance Devices. Honestly, when you’re speaking, you tend to be actively employed doing something else, even if it’s simply eating cereal. Reading an overload of dialogue without THADs is a surefire way to make the reader feel awkward simply reading.

    Also, I could not agree more with what you said concerning the spoken recap of information. It’s so redundant it hurts. The reader will inevitably skip the entire scene.


    Oh, and I love your blog.