Beginner writer mistakes I made (so you don’t have to)

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Learning to write great stories is a process and a part of that process is making mistakes that you can learn from later on. Or, if you’re lucky, someone else has already made the mistakes and they show you how you can avoid them yourself.

If you’ve already made some of these common beginner writer mistakes, there’s no need to feel bad! Knowing you have something to improve is the first step to becoming really good and saying goodbye to sloppy writing.

So what are these mistakes to avoid in writing your novel and how can you fix them?

The WORST beginner writer mistake: Your story lacks a clear plot

A lack of proper plot is what often happens when you have one, cool idea, perhaps a plot event or a character, and you just start writing without a plan. Unless you’re a very experienced writer, that’s rarely a good idea if you’re trying to write an entire novel.

Stories are about solving a single, big problem. There definitely are other problems over the course of the story, but story isn’t about them. And what that problem does is ask a question. When that specific question is answered, the story is essentially over. Will Katniss get out of the Hunger Games alive? Will Rose and Jack’s love survive? Will Elizabeth and Mr Darcy get over their differences?

If your story doesn’t pose a question and then answer it, you just have a bunch of events in your hands but not a proper plot. If you end up answering a different question altogether, your readers will be confused at best and pretty miffed a worst. This is the bare minimum of planning you need to do if you want to write a good story.

How to fix an unclear plot, by Protagonist Crafts

How to fix a flabby plot

Plan, plan, plan. Use some of my methods of outlining to hash out your story before you start writing it so that you won’t get lost and end up with a mish-mash of random plot events and characters that don’t go together.

If you’ve got no experience in writing a novel outline, you could do it easily in just a month with Outline Your Novel in 30 Days. I give you all the steps and the schedule to planning your story and you’ll never have to worry about having no plot again.

Starting your story with a character waking up

Unless your character wakes up with the ceiling caving in or something else dramatic, there’s nothing interesting about hearing your alarm clock and getting out of bed. The very first lines of your story should hook your reader in and have them wondering what’s going to happen next. But also, you should have them wondering what was happening right before the story started. That’s why you need to start where things are already happening.

Now you’re probably saying that you have read books, good books even, that start with someone waking up. And you’re right, but if those were truly good books, they did have the reader asking questions and provided important information about the story or characters. Here’s how Hunger Games starts:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My finger’s stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover

Why is the other side cold? What’s the significance of that? Oh, so the narrator is looking for someone who probably means a lot to them, and they’re sleeping in pretty rough conditions.

See? That’s already a lot of meaning and information in just two sentences. You don’t get that with “He woke up when the alarm clock rang. He was going to be late for work again.”

Mind you, it’s more than okay to write something like that in the first draft. That’s just you telling yourself the story and it’s perfectly fine and maybe even encouraged to spell it out for your own sake. But when you’re writing the version of the story that other people are going to read, they don’t need to hear about anything that isn’t actually relevant to the story itself. Generally, we all start the day by waking up and if your character is already going about their business, we assume they’ve woken up as well.

How to fix your character waking up

You should start your story as late as possible and end it as soon as possible, though that’s sometimes easier said than done.

Considering what your story is actually about, would it be a big deal if you started your story 36 hours later? Three days later? A week later? Keep shaving off days until you find yourself saying “no, it wouldn’t make sense anymore” and track back to where it starts to make sense. That’s the right place to begin your story.

There’s no conflict in the story

Why lack of conflict in your story is bad

Without conflict, there’s no story, but it isn’t enough to just have one big conflict – you have to have several mini conflicts along the way if you want to keep your reader interested. But what is conflict? Essentially, there are two forces with their own goals and they clash. (You can read this post for more conflict ideas.)

Conflicts can be anything from “Izzie wants to get married but there are no single people in her small village” (this is Izzie vs. her surroundings) to “John wants to become the best doctor in the hospital but this guy Ted keeps sabotaging him” (John vs. Ted) or even “there is only one habitable country left in the world and the protagonist must get their family there no matter what it takes” (protagonist vs. climate disaster).

Let’s get back to Hunger Games. The big conflict in the story is that Katniss needs to make it through the Hunger Games alive. But does she just kill everyone else right off the bat and then win the whole thing? Of course not. All kinds of obstacles bring more conflicts along the way and the other tributes nearly get her several times. There are wasps. Rue dies. And although Katniss does get a few wins along the way, they never come easily.

One of the biggest beginner writer mistakes is being too kind to your characters – you have to make them work for their victory. An easy way to do this is to list all your conflict ideas in the brainstorming phase and use them when you’re writing your story.

In dystopian worlds and horror stories, it’s easy to find ways to bring in conflict, but it’s crucial for other kinds of stories too. All of them. Romance novels are often about X wanting to get together with Y, but if that happens too early on with no additional conflict, the rest of the story is essentially pointless. Maybe Rose agrees to go out with Julie only one quarter into the story and the date goes really well and there’s no additional conflict between them, then what? Maybe Julie gets a job offer that would force her to move continents. Maybe Rose’s family doesn’t approve of Julie because she isn’t Jewish.

There needs to be multiple obstacles along the way because without conflict it really won’t matter that much when your characters get to live happily ever after at the end of the story.

How to fix having no conflict in your story

If you’ve already written your story and there’s no conflict, I’m afraid that you’re going to do a whole lot of rewriting.

Think about movies and books you love. What is the big problem, also known as the main conflict, in those stories? Make a list. Then look at your own story idea and come up with possible Big Problems for your story. Choose one. When your protagonist sets off to solve that problem, they should encounter multiple smaller conflicts on the way, because if they reach their goal straight away, you don’t really have a story. Don’t be too kind to your characters. It’s your job to cause problems.

Looking at story structure when you’re planning your story usually helps you overcome this issue. Get back to the drawing board and plan your story from the beginning including plenty of meaningful conflict.

There are no stakes in your story

A story with no stakes is a common beginner writer mistake

If your story makes the reader say “so what?” and you can’t answer, it could be that your stakes are too low. Or maybe you’re writing about the apocalypse, but we have no reason to care because you haven’t made it personal. Essentially, your story needs public AND private stakes.

If you’re wondering what stakes are, you just have to think about what does your character have to lose if they don’t reach their goal. If Katniss doesn’t get out of Hunger Games alive, she will, well, die, but also her family will lose her, and we’ve already been shown how she needs to be there to look after her sister. If Katniss hadn’t volunteered to go instead of her sister, we might not care about her fate quite so much and her life wouldn’t matter much more than the other tributes’.

Your character should always have some kind of a problem, and the reality of that problem is that it’s been going on way before the story started, whether the character realises it or not. They desperately need to be able to fix it because the problem is more or less ruining their life. It might not always be obvious or dramatic, but it’s true. Shallow Hal was already shallow and lacking a meaningful romantic relationship when the story started. Harry Potter already was Voldemort’s enemy although he didn’t know it himself. Elle Woods didn’t quite believe in herself.

Your reader needs to know how so very important it is that your character gets their sh*t together and solves their problems the right way. You don’t need to spell it out, and possibly shouldn’t, but you do need to make it matter. Make your readers care.

Do you know what your protagonist has to lose if they fail

How to fix low or no stakes

Ask yourself the question: what’s going to happen if your protagonist doesn’t reach their goal? Then answer it. Keep writing reasons after another until you can’t think any more. If any of those things are meaningful, show them in your story, too.

Remember that different things will be meaningful to different people. Not being invited to the popular girl’s birthday party might not mean anything to a 57-year-old lawyer but it can be the most important thing to a teenager. At the same time, most people do not want to die, so if you’ve got really big stakes, make sure they’re also personal. Tie your protagonist’s flaws and problems together to come up the most meaningful stakes for your story.

Including scenes “just because”

What are filler scenes and how to fix them.

Every scene should take the story forward and bring us vital information about the characters or the story world. I know it’s fun to get carried away and write a scene where the characters go to Tesco or have a sleepover with a dragon and not much happens, but those scenes need to be weeded out if they don’t actually have an important purpose in the story. These scenes are also known as filler scenes.

The importance isn’t necessarily that a lot of stuff happens to further the plot. Your characters could be learning important information or skills that come useful later on or we might be learning something impotant about your characters or settings. If you can remove a scene and it doesn’t affect your readers’ understanding of your story at all, you don’t need that scene.

Mind you, it doesn’t have to be obvious straight away why the scene or the information provided is important. But it DOES need to come up later on. You might not consciously realise it, but readers assume everything in the story is relevant. As the old saying goes, if you introduce a gun at the beginning of the story, it needs to be shot before the story ends. (Likewise, if someone is going to get shot, you’d better be showing that gun well before it’s actually needed!) In Jane Austen’s Emma, there’s a scene where they’re talking about someone’s dream in great detail, which can be very annoying for a reader, but later on, it turns out this was completely relevant after all.

How to fix filler scenes

First you have to evaluate each of your scenes. What is the purpose of the scene? If you’re not sure, imagine you remove it completely. Would it change the reading experience and your reader’s understanding of your story and characters? If yes, leave it. If not, you have two options: remove the scene or change it.

When you remove a scene, you don’t necessarily have to erase the events from your story. For example, you could summarise what has happened in the next scene, like “Darcy and Stacey had just been to the supermarket and for once they hadn’t argued about anything.” That would save your readers from having to read an extremely uneventful scene but they’d still know something had happened between two other scenes.

Let’s imagine your character Darcy ends up killing Stacey by hiding peanuts in her food and causing a fatal allergic reaction. If you really want to keep your supermarket scene, you could have Darcy noticing that they have extra large jars of satay sauce in the store or Stacey wanting to stay as far away as possible from Reese’s peanut butter cups. Keep the scene fairly short, though, if you can’t work any other meaning or hints in the scene.

Inconsistent point of view

Don't make these mistakes with your story's point of view.

In fiction, you have three options for point of view: first-person POV (I saw a cat), third person intimate POV (she saw a cat and she didn’t know if the cat had seen her) and omniscient POV (she saw a cat but the cat had seen her first, as had all the other cats on the street). Short stories are sometimes written in second-person (you see a cat) but not full novels unless it’s something really experimental that most people wouldn’t be reading anyway.

All the points of view have their own rules, but the most important rule is this: whichever point of view you choose, you must stick to it. If you’re writing from Kevin’s point of view, you can’t occasionally jump into Nick’s POV, and you can’t write in the third-person inimate POV and dip into omniscient when it suits you. I’ve read a couple of books where one character’s point of view was written from third person and another character’s from first person, but you do have to be intentional with that and you can’t confuse your readers.

The mistakes the beginner writers most often make with point of view are headhopping and including the wrong kind of information.

Headhopping means that you suddenly jump into another character’s point of view in the middle of a scene, and this usually happens when you’re writing in third-person intimate POV (it’s less likely to happen in first-person POV). If you’re writing from the POV of multiple characters, you can’t switch in the middle of a scene unless you’re using the omniscient POV. If you’re writing only from one POV, you can never wander into someone else’s thoughts and feelings. You have to figure out a different way of letting your readers know what that character is thinking of if it really is that important.

Including the wrong kind of information means that you’ve mentioned something that the POV character shouldn’t be able to know or what they wouldn’t normally think about themselves. How often do you think something like “I am pretty and I have blue eyes” and would you know what your brother is currently thinking? Remember, when you’re writing in first-person or third-person intimate POV, you’re essentially being that character and you’re inside their head so the character needs to think like a real person would think.

How to fix inconsistent POV in your writing

First of all, remember it’s totally fine to make these mistakes in your first draft. That’s what editing is for, it turns your writing into what it’s supposed to be. Fixing problems with your point of view can be time-consuming but it’s 100% worth the effort.

When you’re writing or editing a scene, make a note of whose POV you’re supposed to be writing from. If you find yourself wandering off, make corrections. Either you have to remove something completely or you have to figure out a different way to give the information to your readers.

If you’re writing in third-person intimate POV, it’s basically the same as writing from first-person except for the pronouns, so you can test your writing by imagining you’ve written it from first-person – does it still make sense? I’m currently rewriting one of my novels in first-person and I’ve found an embarrassing amount of accidental omniscient point of view from my writing even though I had supposedly written in third-person intimate.

Writing characters who are too ordinary OR too perfect

The biggest character mistakes that new writers make

Your characters need to have something that is exceptional about them as well as flaws that complicate the conflict of your story. Even if you’re writing about Eli Everyman, he needs to be funnier, braver, meaner, more outrageous, more SOMETHING than we are. This is particularly true when it comes to your protagonist – your other characters can afford to be a little less exceptional.

I’m currently reading Anatomy of Story by John Truby, and he says that a character needs a psychological flaw that makes the character harm herself in some way and a moral flaw that harms others, and overcoming those flaws is what helps her solve the big problem in the story. If your character doesn’t have significant enough flaws, there’s something lacking in your story.

At the same time, there needs to be something great about your character. Of course, authors write about “bad” people all the time, but even those characters need to have something that makes the reader go wow. Maybe they’re really funny, maybe they have a soft spot for their grandma or maybe they’re just really good at justifying their actions. Just remember, your character’s only exceptional feature can’t be how they’re more beautiful or handsome than others, because that’s not that interesting and it probably doesn’t make them very likeable or relatable. My Protagonist Workbook helps you create a character with traits that actually matter, if you’d like help with character creation.

Always spend some extra time on their flaws when you’re creating characters, because it will become more difficult to come up with them afterwards, and besides, those flaws contribute to your character’s “dark night of the soul”. Their strengths are equally important to developing the story as well because they’re usually (unbeknownst to them) the very things that will help them solve the main conflict.

30-Day Writing Challenge - 30 days of unique writing exercises

How to fix your characters

This is one of those things that’s easier to fix by starting over than by making changes to your existing writing. You need to have a clear idea of what your main character is like before you start writing your story and you can’t rush the character creation process.

But if you do want to fix your writing instead of starting over, you should take a closer look at scenes where your protagonist is interacting with other people. Can you somehow amp up the way they are? If they’re being witty, can you make them more witty? Can you make their mistakes bigger? Can they show their love more obviously? Look for chances where your character can be more than they already are without turning them into a caricature.

Nothing changes in your story

Why your story needs change

There needs to be CHANGE happening in your story and you need to show your readers how it happens and why it matters. If nothing changes, is it really a story?

I’ve talked about this before in my post about my writing process, but change is also the main ingredient of any scene in your story. Something needs to happen that changes things or changes the way your character goes about solving their problem, or there needs to be new information that will change things in the future or change your reader’s perception of your story world.

So if your main character and their world are completely unchanged at the end of the story, you really need to consider if what you’ve written is actually a story at all. That might sound harsh but it’s true. It’s totally fine to write fun stuff with no point when you’re writing for yourself, and those stories are certainly good practice, but if you want to write an effective story for others to read, change is one of the elements that simply needs to be there.

How to fix lack of change in your story

I have a feeling you’re not going to like this answer, but… If nothing changes in your story, you’re going to have to write a different story.

Plan and outline a new story using story structure as your guide. That way you’ll be sure that what you’re writing is not just a series of unrelated events that lead nowhere. You can start crafting your stories more intuitively once you’ve gained more experience.

Dumping backstory in the beginning is a common beginner writer mistake

What is infodumping and how can you fix it.

If you’re reading this, you’re not one of Jane Austen’s contemporaries and you probably shouldn’t start your story by describing your main character’s family tree and estate in detail. Often it’s enough that YOU know the backstory, but your readers needn’t hear ALL of it.

You might think it’s important that your readers know about your character’s traumatic past, and you might be right, but you’re robbing yourself of writing a really impactful story if you dump it all out in the beginning. You can show the shadow of what has happened without stating it outright, and you should hold off information until the moment it’s most effective.

Another thing I learned from Anatomy of Story is that your story should be built on a series of revelations. That is, you should keep introducing new information to the reader and to your protagonist. Some of this information can include things from the character’s past and it wouldn’t wow your readers as much if you spelled it all out in the beginning.

How to fix infodumping

The first step to fixing infodumping is recognising it. Starting from the beginning, find any passages of writing where you’re sharing a lot of information about something that isn’t currently happening. Now take it all out – will it matter to your story if it’s all gone? If not, don’t put it back, but if yes, put the most important piece of information back. Do you absolutely need the rest? Sprinkle them somewhere else.

Witholding information from your readers until the right moment is a great way to create suspense and to make moments more meaningful. Experiment on revealing information at different times and see what that does to your story.

Do you want to jump into writing your novel the right way?

I know, writing a novel is not easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it. But when you start it off strong, it’s a lot easier to finish what you started and feel confident that you’ve got what it takes to write a good novel.

I know so many aspiring authors struggle with starting, so I created this free 5-day course that gets you started in less than a week. Imagine if a week from now you were already writing your first draft!

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