I have been a slushpile reader for a medium sized publishing house for over sixteen years now. In that time, I’ve read just about everything imaginable, and I like to think I can tell what separates a good story from a not-so-good story. When people ask me how to improve their story, I find that the easiest way to help is to provide examples of what NOT to do. I’ve compiled quite a list of so-called “red flag” mistakes that are commonly found in manuscripts. And at the request of my friend Kim, I present some of them for your enjoyment and enlightenment.
Please note: while the specific elements have been changed to prevent anyone from becoming embarrassed, every one of these examples are taken from actual manuscripts that have come across my desk.
Pro Tip #1: Prologues. I have mixed feelings about prologues. If done well, they can be a valuable asset to your story. Unfortunately, most prologues are too long and are trying to accomplish too many things at the same time. If you’re going to include a prologue, keep it short and simple. Mysteries Of Cove author Jeff Savage has said that a prologue ought to be like icing on the cake rather than containing the one crucial bit of information your reader needs to understand the story. Evidence also suggests that many people skip prologues altogether, so there had better be a really good reason why your prologue isn’t just chapter one.
Also, don’t do what one manuscript did, and have chapter one begin six months earlier than the prologue. A prologue, by definition, is what takes place before the main story starts, just as an epilogue is what happens after the end.
Pro Tip #2: Details. A good story can live or die with the amount of detail an author shares. Some details are necessary, such as the age, sex, and race of the characters, or the time of year, or the physical setting of the story. Other details are also good, and help to enrich the world the author is building, such as the color of the classic Corvette being rebuilt in the garage, or the smell of chlorine and Coppertone at the swimming pool, or the tenderness of the fliet mignon being enjoyed at dinner.
But know when to draw the line. You aren’t Herman Melville. Too many details can clog up the narrative, bog down the action, and grind the action to a halt. For instance: unless it specifically helps me to understand some aspect of your character’s personality, or unless it specifically helps move the story forward, I don’t necessarily need to know every scrap of clothing your characters are wearing at all times. I have a solid imagination, and I know what clothing looks like. If you’ve told me that your story takes place in upper Wisconsin in January, I can surmise that pretty much everyone will be dressed in parkas and snow boots. Don’t worry—I won’t assume that your characters are running around buck nekkid just because you neglected to tell me what color socks they are wearing.
Pro Tip #3: Beware alarm clocks. Few things scream “AMATEUR!” like opening your story with your character waking up. Don’t get me wrong—if your character is waking up handcuffed in the back of a police car in Hong Kong in the first couple of sentences, I’m going to read that story. But more often than not, characters wake up, stretch, and then stumble off to the bathroom, where they come face to face with…
THE MIRROR. Beware the mirror. Nobody looks at their reflection in the mirror and notices how their auburn hair with chestnut highlights stands out in stark contrast to their pale skin, accented by their hazel eyes. That’s how writers think, not regular humans. Come up with a more creative way to describe what your character looks like.
Pro Tip #4: Show me, don’t tell me. This is a pretty standard rule of writing, and it applies to just about every aspect of storytelling, and it is especially true when it comes to characterization. I read a manuscript recently where a certain character was introduced by way of the omniscient narrator listing out the character’s entire curriculum vitae. Then, only two paragraphs later, this character stood at a podium to deliver a speech—and then proceeded to list out his entire curriculum vitae. Not only was it horribly repetitious, it was a very boring way to introduce this character.
Similarly, don’t tell me that a character is devoutly religious, or politically liberal, or a class clown—show me. Let your characters speak for themselves. When I hear Bob talking about going to the church potluck, I’ll figure out that he’s religious, just as I’ll deduce that Jane is politically liberal by listening to her debate with her coworkers about gun control, and so on and so on.
Pro Tip #5: Bob already knows. You’ve heard the dreaded “As you know, Bob” conversation before. It’s when two characters who have known each other for a long time speak as though they don’t know anything about each other. “As you know, Bob, since we’ve been business partners for ten years, we really need to work closely on this deal.” “As you know, Bob, you’re marrying my sister on Thursday.” “As you know, Bob, you’re my younger brother.”
Yeah, Bob already knows. Bob knows that people don’t really talk like that.
Pro Tip #6: Infodumping. Infodumps are literary landfills. It’s when an author dumps too much information on the reader all at once. They stop the story by creating visual roadblocks. When an infodump happens too soon, it can be overwhelming for the reader, as though they’ve been given an assignment on Monday that they will be tested on Tuesday. Parcel out information about your characters gradually over the course of the story. You’ve got plenty of time for the reader to get to know them better.
One manuscript had a character spill her entire life story on another character while on a first date in chapter one. Her story went on for about four or five pages, and by the time I was done reading it, I was thinking, “Check, please!” What could have been an interesting conversation about two people getting to know each other turned instead into a monologue by someone who sounded more and more crazy the longer she went on.
While there isn’t a magical formula for what works in a story, I feel confident in saying that avoiding these red flag mistakes will drastically improve the overall quality of your story. Happy writing!