Five Things Writers Do to Ruin Their Stories

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Even seasoned authors make mistakes. We’re all human, right? But what if I could share with you five ways you might be doing a disservice to yourself…and to your coveted reader?

  1. Too many cooks in the kitchen

This is always a recipe for disaster. And what I mean by this phrase is that it’s possible to too many opinions. Not everyone has the same taste. One person might prefer a lot of spice, another may feel the meal is too salty, and some might find it hard to swallow. In other words, when having your work critiqued, keep in mind that this is your story. If you take everyone’s advice, you’ll edit your voice right out of your story.

I’ve learned a way to determine if the advice is warranted. First of all, I stick to seven critiquers (or less). If I take advice from too many people, my crust becomes soggy and dense instead of light and fluffy. Second of all, I check to see if more than one person agrees with a particular issue. If, for example, only one person has an issue with naming twins Cassie and Corey and no one else is confused by the ‘C’ names, then I will keep it. But, if three or four people tell me that they kept getting the two confused, I might check to see if it’s the names that are the problem, or if I have made the twins too similar in personality.

When people read your work, they may have suggestions that stifle your character’s voice. Or slow down the pacing at a critical moment. Or want you to give up too much information too soon in your story. (I’m sure you’ve all been there!) Yes, it’s important to keep an open mind when evaluating critiques, but just like with any choice you make in life, you want to be sure you agree with the advice you ultimately accept.

Here’s a personal example: Years ago, I took a writing course through Writer’s Digest (highly recommended if you need help with motivation). The short story that came out of it needed critiquing, and I had a group I went to on a regular basis. I trusted the members and felt they usually had great comments to make. But after they read my story, one of them had an issue with the plot. This woman, a well-meaning friend of mine, hadn’t read teen fiction and didn’t understand what I’d been trying to say in this particular story. She had many ideas on changes I should make. I listened, as I know best to do, but the advice didn’t resonate with me. Had I made changes based on her feedback, my story probably wouldn’t have sold to Cicada. It wasn’t that she was a poor reviewer, she just had a different perception of how the story should go. She wanted to turn my boeuf bourguignon into beef stew. And substitute chicken.

2. He said/she said dilemma

We’re told to give description and supply information so we can watch a scene unfold. But I cannot tell you how many times a writer has done this by simply changing up a dialog tag. Here is an example:




“You must be joking,” said Wendell.

“I’m not,” said Leslie.

“Who wants a hot dog?” asked Peter.

“This is preposterous,” said Wendell.

So, a writer might think, I know how to make this more interesting! And he fixes it to look like this:


“You must be joking,” gasped Wendell.

“I’m not,” Leslie said, flat-toned.

“Who wants a hot dog?” interrupted Peter.

“This is preposterous,” muttered Wendell.

It’s basically a list of who said what and in what tone. And now, instead of sliding through “said” with ease, we’re stuck on each sentence, imagining the tone while not seeing the scene. Very disconcerting. There’s nothing wrong with using “said.” However, action should break up the pattern. Which brings us to point three…

3) Get active!

Writers are told to include action to help move the story along. But you can further wreck your story by doing this. Let’s use our previous example and add action:


“You must be joking!” Wendell picked up his hamburger.

“I’m not.” Leslie took a sip of Limeade.

“Who wants a hot dog?” Peter waved a weiner on a stick.

“This is preposterous!” Wendell threw down his hamburger and it spilled across the table.

This is really just a laundry list of things occurring. Sure, we’ve increased interest, after all, food is flying around. Some people might say, “Well, then, let’s do all of that…use “said,” more descriptive dialog tags, and action tags. Here is what you might come up with:


“You must be joking,” gasped Wendell, picking up his hamburger.

“I not,” said Leslie. She took a sip of Limeade.

“Who wants a hot dog?” interrupted Peter, waving a weiner on a stick.

“This is preposterous,” muttered Wendell. He threw down his hamburger and it spilled across the table.

Better? Sure, except it still sounds like a list. Time to break up the sentence structure. Let’s move some things around:



“You must be joking,” gasped Wendell, picking up his hamburger.

Leslie took a sip of Limeade. “I’m not.”

Who wants,” interrupted Peter, waving a weiner on a stick, “a hot dog?”

Wendell threw down his hamburger and it spilled across the table. “This is preposterous!”

Okay, better, still. However, it still isn’t giving us a clear picture of the scene unfolding before us. If you continue “fixing” your story this way, it’s going to sound forced and contrived and the reader is distanced from the characters’ psychology. Which brings me to point four.

4) All your dirty laundry in a heap

To combat this issue, writers might decide to share everything we need to know about the characters upfront. One of the problems with this is that it becomes a mass of “data dump.” And why is “data dump” frowned upon? Because it takes us out of the story. The reader might lose track of what’s occurring in the scene and be confused as to what is happening. But writers decide this is great filler material. And now the reader will understand why the characters are acting they way they do. Brilliant, right? Here’s an example:


“You must be joking,” gasped Wendell, picking up his hamburger. He’d always been a meat-eater. Always enjoyed beef, chicken, pork. Grilling made everything taste better, and this backyard barbecue was a perfect time for him to argue with Leslie. In front of witnesses. So they could see what a little bitch she really was.

Leslie took a sip of Limeade. “I’m not.” She would remain calm. Unflustered. This was so like Wendell to make a mess in front of mixed company. Well, she would show him. The day they were married, she knew they’d be bumping heads. Especially since he kept correcting her on the way she chose to say her vows. People noticed, but Leslie, who was an expert at appearing relaxed, prattled on, ignoring him.

Who wants,” interrupted Peter, waving a weiner on a stick, “a hot dog?” Tiffs like this made him nervous. Everyone should be able to get along. The world needed more peace. And yet, two of his best friends, warmongers, couldn’t stop arguing for two seconds. Not even at his son’s graduation party. His son almost hadn’t passed high school, so this was a momentous occasion. Didn’t these two understand that?

Wendell threw down his hamburger and it spilled across the table. “This is preposterous!” As soon as his hamburger hit the filthy table, he regretted it. That beautiful hamburger in all its meatiness. And it was all Leslie’s fault for getting him so upset.

Besides this being what’s called “head-hopping,” and often frowned upon in literature, it also carries us in so many different directions. Sure, we’re learning more about the characters, but we’re flying off in so many directions, we don’t know if we should care about Wendell’s anger at Leslie, their wedding, Peter’s son, or Wendell’s odd attachment to his hamburger. Like, couldn’t he just ask Peter to cook him up a fresh one?

5. Explaining everything through dialog

Occasionally, we’ll hear advice on how to prevent data dump, and one effective way to do this is by using dialog. But let’s explore this. If we took that to task in our example with Wendell and Leslie, it might look like this:


“You must be joking,” gasped Wendell, picking up his hamburger. “At least you’ve chosen a perfect time to argue with me. In front of witnesses. So they can all see what a little bitch you are.”

“I’m not.” Leslie took a sip of Limeade. “And yes, this is the perfect time to spill our tea. From the day we married, I knew we’d bump heads. Especially since you kept correcting me on the way I chose to say my vows. People noticed, you know. But I took the high road and ignored you.”

Who wants a hot dog,” interrupted Peter, waving a weiner on a stick. “Come on, guys. You know tiffs like this make me nervous. The world needs more peace. And yet, my two best friends can’t stop arguing for two seconds. Not even at my son’s graduation party. which is a momentous occasion. He almost didn’t graduate, remember.”

“This is preposterous!” Wendell threw down his hamburger and it spilled across the table. “Damn it! Leslie, see what you made me do?”

So, we’ve improved this a little because now we see the psychology behind the characters. Compare this to our first draft:


“You must be joking,” said Wendell.

“I’m not,” said Leslie.

“Who wants a hot dog?” asked Peter.

“This is preposterous,” said Wendell.

We’ve gone far, haven’t we? But now, we need to know, whose story is this? Which character are we rooting for? Do we root for Leslie, who is standing up to her brute of a husband? Or Peter, who just wants to enjoy celebrating his son’s success? Or Wendell, who has a problem controlling his temper and needs to find a way to communicate better? When writers don’t have a particular protagonist in mind, it’s a difficult story to wrap up. Sure, we could have more than one protagonist. Perhaps it’s a story of how Leslie and Peter fell in love, told from Peter’s and Leslie’s different POVs. Or it’s a story about how Leslie murdered her husband to get away from his overbearing presence, told by Leslie’s POV. Or it’s Wendell’s journey into understanding himself and what’s led him to this angry place, told through Wendell’s POV. Sure are a lot of options. But, you probably want to narrow it to one. Will it be romance, mystery, or literary? This decision alone will improve your story.

So we’ve gone over five ways a writer can ruin his or her story. The first being taking advice from too many critiquers. The second, overusing dialog tags to show how a character responds. The third, overusing action tags so something occurs in each sentence. The fourth, giving us too much information upfront that isn’t dealing with the issue at hand. And fifth, using too much dialog to explain what characters are feeling or thinking, and missing out on an opportunity to present the protagonist to the reader.

I am happy to answer any questions. 🙂

#writingadvice #said #dialogue #showingversustelling #dialog #datadump

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