3 Common Traps That Can Hurt Your Story (And How to Avoid Them)

by James Preston

Let’s go. Let’s take a walk, you and I. Let’s visit a haunted house in the world we love, the theme park that we make called Storyland.

Come with me. We’ll use real-life examples, poking gentle fun at some people who have fallen victim to the spooks. And to be fair, I’ll use some of my own gaffes as examples.

There are three rooms in our haunted house, and three parts to this walk:

  • Devil in the Details
  • Hide the Gun
  • and Bumps in the Write.

C’mon, the door’s opening. It’s dark in there. Don’t make me go in there alone.

Devil in the Details

Have you ever been to the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland? There’s a painting of a young woman walking with a parasol, and when the floor drops it shows that she’s on a tightrope over a pit of alligators.

Details can be like that. You think you have it figured out until you see the hungry reptiles. “Look at those choppers!” (What movie is that from? Hint: it’s about a writer.)

Research is your friend.

More research is better, until it’s not. Let me give you an example.

Once upon a time, my wife was reading a romance novel and she started laughing. “The heroine just rode her horse from her home in Pasadena down to the beach and it only took twenty minutes!”

Okay, if you live around Southern California, you know that’s not really possible. My guess is the author did some research, looked at a map and estimated the distance, thinking it could easily happen. It’s a small part of the story, so no big deal, right? Like the plastic skeleton that drops down next to you in the haunted house.

Here’s another reptilian Devil from a romance novel: The heroine’s honey works in the space program, for Nassau, er, NASA. Yep, “Nassau in the Bahamas.” Cue the skeleton. 

Side note: these novels are, on purpose, quite old. I’m not picking on these writers. Well, maybe a little.

To show that I’m fair I’ll tell “the beer story” on myself. Most of the scars have healed.

Anyway, after my first Surf City Mystery came out, I got a letter. A fan letter! Yowza! Hot Dog!

I’m hopping around, bouncing off the ceiling because this guy loves the book. Then I get to the end where he says, “But, James, you have a character peel the label off of a bottle of Corona beer.” (I think, “Well, so? “) “It’s not possible,” he writes. “Corona labels are painted on.”

My next scream was me jumping when the holographic ghost sat down next to me.

A Pet Peeve

One more detail because it’s a pet peeve of mine and it turns up all the time.

The super spy hero swims up to the beach and peels off his wet suit to reveal a tuxedo, complete with carnation. Nope. It’s called a wet suit because you get wet. A dry suit — completely different — does not allow water in.

Details like this stand out to the reader. They’re bad because they cast doubt on the rest of the book.

Hide the Gun 

When you are facing the dreaded “What happens now?” don’t make it too easy. Decide what happens next, and then make it harder. Put something in between where you are and where you want to be.

Spoiler Alert

If you haven’t seen the amazing movie, The Godfather yet, you should go see it immediately.

In The Godfather the bad guys try to kill Don Corleone, so his son Michael decides to kill them at a meeting. One of his men hides a gun at the restaurant where the meeting is to take place. Michael goes into the Men’s Room to get it and can’t find it!

Now what?

At last he finds it. Whew! Then, instead of shooting them, back at the table he sits down and continues the conversation.

What?! He doesn’t shoot immediately. Has he lost his nerve? Now what’s wrong?

“Hide the Gun” means don’t make it too straightforward.

Does he kill them? Do they sleep with the fishes? Wouldn’t you like to know? Hiding the gun makes the story way more interesting than Michael simply walking in, picking it up, and blowing their brains out.

Bumps in the Write

Above all, you want your audience to keep reading. A “bump” is anything that slows them down.

The prime offending speed bump is confusing dialog and cases where the reader has to stop and think or, worse yet, go back to figure out who’s speaking. This is sloppy, but an easy mistake to make (and to fix).

From my own House of Horrors, here is a recent instance in which the holographic ghost not only climbed into the car, she also sat on my lap.

A beta reader loved my new book and then said, “but there were places where I had to go back to figure out who was speaking.” Boo! Here comes a zombie to sit with the ghost.

When a reader has to stop and figure out who’s speaking, you know they’ve hit that bump called “sloppy writing.”

Watch out for this, even when there are only two speakers, especially if the dialog goes on to more than one page. And always, always remember that you know these characters. You know who’s speaking so your brain fills it in. Look for this bump when you edit.

Do these things matter? You bet they do because they are “bumps in your writing” These bumps are what make your reader stop in confusion instead of turning the page. 

Don’t Be Afraid

Here’s how to fix those traps, or at least make them less painful. 

Study your craft.

You’re already doing that by reading this blog. Writers In the Storm essays are a gold mine of good advice. Conventions and classes can help, too — but remember your job is to write. Balance convention/class/study time with actual pounding the keyboard.

Remember, we’re all in this together.

The folks that run Writers in the Storm and contributors like me are at your side as the floor drops and the alligators are revealed. Whatever problems you encounter we have probably been there, too.

Get beta readers.

Find readers and learn how to handle their comments. Listen to what they have to say.

Read this great article for the why and how of beta readers.

In the haunted house, the scary figures are really there to entertain you. Your early readers are — or certainly should be — on your side. If it’s all possible get at least one reader who is not familiar with the work. In my case, with the confusing dialog, the first readers knew the books and knew who was speaking. A new reader didn’t. 

Final Thoughts

Remember when I said, “Come with me?” I meant it. We’re all in this together. 

I’ll close by adding a word to your vocabulary. When a young friend was guiding me through a challenging computer game called Halo, he’d say, “James, look behind you!” That was almost always followed by, “Too late!”

In gamer terms he was my Sherpa, like Tenzing with Sir Edmund Hillary. It’s called Sherpa-ing.

And that’s what Writers in the Storm does. We Sherpa new writers and each other as we make our way through the haunted house called writing fiction.

Watch the details. Hide the gun. Avoid the bumps. 

Bonus task: Find a gamer and ask them if they’ve Sherpa’d anybody lately. They’ll be impressed.

Now that I’ve revealed some of my mistakes, how about you? Wanna share them with us down in the comments? Have any of your readers called you out on any of your details? C’mon, there are new writers out there who will read your comment and learn from your mistakes.

* * * * * *

About James

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley. 

Find out more about James at his website.

Notes

  • The movie reference is Romancing the Stone.
  • For a great essay on research, see “Research: How Far Will Fiction Authors Go for Facts?” By Sandy Vaile.
  • For essays on beta readers and more on research enter those terms in the Writers in the Storm search box.

Top Photo by Eleanor Brooke on Unsplash

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