Three Little Mistakes That Will Kill Your Story
Here are the 3 biggest issues that will cause a reader to put your story down and move on.
1. Factual/Historical Inaccuracies
Crafting a story means inventing a world of your own. Whether that world is based on the framework of everyday life or a completely fantastical invention in another dimension, the rules you establish need to be followed throughout.
Our earlier interview with S.G. Browne contains a good example of this. In Browne’s manuscript for Fated, the personification of Fate is wearing a T-shirt. But his copy editor quickly pointed out that there were no T-shirts in the times of Julius Caesar and the Titantic. You could argue that fate knows the future and could easily have decided to wear a T-shirt for the rest of eternity, regardless of where he shows up, however other uses are not going to slide so easily.
For example, let’s say your character is on the Titanic. You mention that he checks the time on his wristwatch. However, these didn’t become popular until the 1920s, and the famous ship sailed in 1912, so he would be much more likely to carry a pocket watch.
Even in a world of your own making, you must follow your own rules. If you create a landscape with mountains to the north, then later refer to them as being in the east, your reader will most definitely get turned around and have trouble understanding what is currently happening. These issues can become even more complex as you write more and more in that world and create a history for it.
Though these elements may not destroy your plot, each time you break the laws of the world of your story, you lose that much credibility and trust with your reader. If you are writing in the real world, the key is research. If you are writing in your own world, the key is documentation. Keep track of 'reality' and stick to it.
2. Logic Problems & Plot Holes
These are the actions/occurrences in your story that make your reader say, “How did that get there?” or “No way could he jump that far.” or “Why didn’t he just do ____?”
The classic instance of this is the action character with one gun and six bullets shooting 13 evildoers.
Another common example is having a character easily slip past security at a NASA-like secret research facility, when in real life there would be 37 highly trained, fully armed soldiers, not to mention high-tech electronic security, guarding it. That's not to say one man couldn't slip past, but you will need to explain, in logical detail, how he does it in order for the reader to believe.
This extends beyond action sequences to character behavior. Characters shouldn’t waltz from one personality to another, otherwise the reader may assume that schizophrenia or multiple personality disorders have afflicted all of the characters in your novel.
If you want to change the behavior of a character, there should be an explanation to the reader. There are some stories, A Christmas Carol for example, where the entire story is devoted to making the reader understand why a character has changed his ways. Dickens takes a whole novella to justify Scrooge's change of heart, so you'll likely need at least a few paragraphs to justify yours.
You need to be constantly asking yourself "Could what I just wrote actually happen, and if so, how believable is it?"
3. Lurking Typos
You wrote it, you read it, you caught a couple typos and now it's perfect! Not quite, and here's why:
Your mind has the ability to fill in what is supposed to be there when you read. You may have even left words out completely and read right past them during proofing.
Solution number one is always going to be letting as many people as you can read it to see what they catch. Another way to catch typos, misspellings and missing words is to use a "read it to me" program. There are plenty out there that will have a computerized (some more than others) voice read you what you've written, and when you are hearing what you've written it is much easier to spot any issues.
So often we hear, "So what if there is a typo? They know what I meant." While that may be true, typos are the first thing that detracts from your professionalism, and agents, editors and publishers want to work with professionals. Regardless of how annoying it may be, the fewer typos, the more professional you seem, and that fact is only getting stronger as more and more people are taking their shot at a writing career.
Catching these 3 types of mistakes will get your story solidly into the 'Good' category, which will only leave the fine-tuning to make it truly 'Great.'