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3 Killer Story Mistakes

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.'

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Reader Comments

Linda Pickens Phalen @ Sunday, May 12 2013 2:26 PM Flag Inappropriate
You make some excellent points here! Now I just need to remember them. I have two stories and one book going to print soon. People tell me I am a good story teller but still make some mistakes. After reading this wonderful and helpul article, maybe I will not be making so many mistakes. Thank you!:)

Antonio Palao @ Saturday, March 23 2013 8:02 PM Flag Inappropriate
Bogging myself down with set up at the cost of advancement is a costly habit I haven;t been able to break. Yet. I will print this blog & put it where I can see it every day.

Mimi Barbour @ Friday, January 18 2013 1:15 AM Flag Inappropriate
Great blog Jim! I recently read through a few chapters of Strunk & White - The Elements of Style, and even though I have 11 books published, I admit to shrinking with horror at the many possible errors one can unknowingly make…and not just in spelling.

Jim Miller @ Thursday, January 17 2013 6:54 PM Flag Inappropriate
Yes, excellent point, Matt. In this day, a slow start to the story means it will never be read past the first page.

Matthew Hughes @ Thursday, January 17 2013 1:20 PM Flag Inappropriate
The most common beginner's error I see is lengthy scene-setting before the action begins. Better to get your character(s) into conflict, then gradually fill in the background as you roll the story forward. No one ever complained that the opening of Raiders Of The Lost Ark needed more backstory.

linda maree malcolm @ Thursday, January 17 2013 12:29 AM Flag Inappropriate
Thank you for that information about the "read it to me". I haven't heard of it before and as I am about to publish my 3rd book am very interested in it and will look into it.

Ash @ Tuesday, January 15 2013 7:38 AM Flag Inappropriate
I like this article, but I want to point out that people with schizophrenia don't have multiple personalities. Out of all the books I've read, only two published books had no typos, even the slightest typo can distract me from the fictional world.

gazi saiful islam @ Sunday, January 13 2013 9:15 AM Flag Inappropriate
I think it's very important piece, it will helpful for the new writers, they who want to write something attractive.

A G W @ Wednesday, January 09 2013 8:50 AM Flag Inappropriate
Da Vinci Code ? "London police here - Holborn Precinct". LMAO

Jo Swift @ Sunday, January 06 2013 2:40 PM Flag Inappropriate
Factual inaccuracies: I had to smile when reading New Moon (Stephenie Meyer) that as the plane touched down in Italy the cabin crew spoke french. That's always bothered me, I know its only a small mistake in a huge volume of work but even so...! ;)

Yam Erez @ Sunday, December 09 2012 12:51 PM Flag Inappropriate
Hear hear. The thing I remember most about The Da Vinci Code? I remember highly doubting that the bathrooms in the Louvre are highly unlikely to have bar soap. What I remember most about Bee Season? The double spaces following the periods. Like this. And the nonsensical "Hebrew".1 word: RESEARCH.

Sally Jones @ Friday, December 07 2012 4:15 AM Flag Inappropriate
You should read The Prisoner's Friend (e - novel from Amazon) as an example of what NOT to do

TR Wallace @ Saturday, March 31 2012 11:37 AM Flag Inappropriate
I could not agree more. Having read a few short stories this week I have stopped on page one several times because of grammar. I learned this the hard way myself. Proofing, polishing and editing are the key to a great story. Find someone to proof read after you have finished a piece.

L. H. Lewis @ Wednesday, November 30 2011 2:08 PM Flag Inappropriate
Very good advice, just wish I followed it, as I've known its truth since I worked as a type setter after school as a young teenager. Doing that we learned to read upside down and/or backwards,

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