That’s probably why I hear a lot of the same storytelling misconceptions from the authors I work with, no matter their background or educational history. As a content editor, I’m happy to help authors deal with these misconceptions, but that takes up time I’d otherwise use to work on more complex issues. So in the name of saving authors everywhere time and money, let’s go over a few of these myths so you’ll be able to fix them yourself.
1. You Shouldn’t Use Exposition
One of the few writing problems that’s well understood outside the industry is having too much exposition. Authors dread the possibility that they might bore their readers by explaining too much of the hero’s backstory or the setting’s main conflict. Unfortunately, when trying to avoid boring info dumps, many new writers go too far in the other direction.
It’s easy for new writers to forget that nothing is as clear on the page as it is in their heads. This is perfectly understandable. When you spend months plotting a story and building a setting, you tend to memorize it backwards and forwards until you can call up even the most basic trivia on a moment’s notice. From there, new writers often leave out critical details because they seem obvious, or only explain them once at the beginning of the story and trust that’ll be enough.
This lack of exposition can affect almost every aspect of the story, but there are a few places where it’s especially important to explain things:
- The protagonist’s motivation
- The villain’s motivation (unless it’s a mystery)
- What the conflict is
- What the stakes of the conflict are
- What type of setting the story is in
- How the world’s speculative elements work
Missing any of these is a serious problem, even if it doesn’t seem that way to the writer. Authors know their protagonists really well, so it’s easy to assume that of course everyone knows the hero is secretly communicating with the Hidden Gods, receiving a divine mandate to hunt the villain down. As for setting conceits, writers often assume that if they put a tricked out V8 Interceptor in the first scene, it’ll be obvious that this is a Mad Max–style postapocalyptic world.
When I lay it out like that, it’s probably no surprise that readers can have trouble keeping up. They don’t remember that hidden gods were mentioned once in the first chapter, so they have no context for these mysterious and inaudible whispers the story keeps describing. And while readers who’ve seen Fury Road recently might pick up the V8 reference, everyone else is just as likely to think it’s a story about cyberpunk street racing.
That’s why you’ve got to explain early and explain often. Naturally, this isn’t easy. Exposition is a tricky beast, and it takes work to learn it properly. It’s likely that at first, you’ll end up overexplaining something and needing to make revisions. But that’s a much better place to be than underexplaining. If you include too much exposition, beta readers will tell you they’re bored in certain sections, and you can make tweaks. If a beta reader doesn’t understand what’s going on, then most of their feedback will be useless as they’ve missed the basic premise.
2. The World Will Sell the Story
Spec fic authors spend a lot of time building their strange and unique worlds, so it’s only natural to be proud of them.* That’s great, until you start thinking that the world itself is the reason people will read the story. That’s how you get beginnings, and sometimes entire novels, with little or no conflict. Instead the author focuses on explaining as much about the world as possible, hoping that will keep people interested.
This misconception stems from a basic misunderstanding about what settings are for. First and foremost, a setting provides novelty. That’s a defining feature of speculative fiction. Some settings are higher on novelty than others, and if yours is one of them, then by all means, put it on display. But you also have to remember that novelty fades quickly. Readers will soon be asking “What’s next?” as they get used to your amazing aliens and clever magic. This effect is even stronger in veteran spec fic readers, as there’s a good chance that whatever you’re doing, they’ve seen something similar before.
Some authors try to counter this by adding more and more setting elements to keep the novelty flowing. This usually has the opposite effect, making the world too complex for readers to keep track of, at which point all your carefully crafted novelty goes to waste. If you manage to avoid this fate, your new setting details still won’t be as interesting as the story continues. No matter how amazing your world is, your story will get boring if that’s all it has to offer.
The only way to prevent that is to focus on the fundamentals of storytelling: conflict, stakes, and good ol’ fashioned drama. Your setting’s novelty will intrigue readers, but only the drama will show them why they should care. That means you need a strong throughline, likable characters with agency, plus all the other elements that make a story work. This is what will keep readers glued to the page.
Don’t worry, I have some good news for you worldbuilding enthusiasts out there: your setting can be part of this process as long as you set it up to create conflict. Your world might be rife with inequity or built around some kind of mystery. Your worldbuilding can go beyond cool aesthetics and weave itself into the plot until the two become inseparable. That way, all your deep worldbuilding will serve the story instead of sitting unused in your many notebooks.
3. Fictional Events Are Morally Neutral
If I showed you a story where the hero was struggling to keep a children’s hospital open, but then at the end, the villain appears and convinces the hero that actually, children’s hospitals are bad and should be closed, you’d be pretty weirded out, right? What about a story where the protagonist keeps going on long rants about how dogs are just the worst and no one should keep them as pets? That would probably leave you feeling not great about the story.
In the abstract, this is easy to understand, but when we get into specifics, I meet a lot of authors who think that no one will conclude anything from the events of their stories. They say things like, “Well, that’s just what the protagonist thinks,” as if that doesn’t mean anything. Then they’ll have their hero decide that actually we do need an evil tech company to control all our data, or that maybe it’s fine for the main character to make friends with a mass murderer at the end.
The problem here is a misunderstanding about authorial endorsement. When something happens in your story, it has meaning. When your main character does something or agrees with an idea, readers will assume that action has your endorsement. That’s just the way stories and main characters work. If you put in the effort to invest readers into a protagonist’s POV, then they will treat that protagonist as the story’s mouthpiece by default.
Naturally, the messaging of your story isn’t just tied up in the main character. If you have a background faction that loves to eat babies and you present this as a neutral event, readers will feel that at the very least, you’re saying baby eating isn’t wrong. This is bad enough when it’s about dogs and hospitals, but it gets way worse when you bring bigotry into it. All other factors being equal, a racist protagonist will give the impression of a racist story, and I sure hope that’s not something you want.
Of course, there are ways to remove authorial endorsement. If you are careful and determined, you can show why your main character is wrong when they start the story thinking that they don’t have to consider other people’s feelings or what have you. There are still risks to this approach, but it’s doable. Before you can even think about removing authorial endorsement though, you need to recognize that a main character’s opinion isn’t some minor detail that can be glossed over.
4. Action Cures Boredom
There’s an old piece of writing advice from pulp novelist Raymond Chandler: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” It gets passed around a lot in various iterations, but the general idea is that if the story is stalled, introduce new conflict.
That’s not terrible advice, especially at the plotting stage, but it becomes a problem when writers take it too literally. I see this happen all the time. I’ll open a manuscript and BOOM, there’s a big fight scene on the first page even though I have no idea who anyone is and why I should care about the outcome. Or I’ll be slogging through a story with no stakes to speak of, and then one chapter will have a big fight out of nowhere, only to return to the status quo once that fight is over.
Stories need conflict, and action is a straightforward way of creating conflict. A sword fight has built-in, easy to understand stakes, and if that’s the main source of conflict in your story, then all the power to you. But action alone isn’t enough to produce meaningful conflict. For that, you need to show readers why they should care about a fight scene and how it ties in to the rest of the story.
If you’re opening with an action sequence, that means you need to establish sympathy for the protagonist right away. You have a bunch of ways to do this. You can show that the hero is an underdog, give them a child to protect, or even establish that the hero is just trying to survive in a battle between much bigger forces. Any of those can get readers hooked on your conflict, so it’s your job to pick whatever fits best with your plot.
As for action that happens later, the key is to make it part of the larger story. The worst-case scenario is for your hero to do battle with an unforeshadowed enemy who then leaves, never to be heard from again. At that point, it feels like your story is throwing out random encounters to fill up page space. No matter how well-choreographed the fight is, if there isn’t a good reason for it, readers will be bored.
Fortunately, it’s not difficult for action scenes to be part of the main story. You just need a main story that supports action scenes. If your hero is on a quest to rescue union leaders from a mega corps’ private army, you have plenty of reason to include some high-stakes gun battles. What won’t work is for your hero to be attending regular college where everything is normal, only for them to have a boxing match with some random mugger in the woods before returning to English class.
5. You Can Describe Everything
Movies and TV don’t have to describe what things look like using words on a page; they can just point a camera at it. Of course, building sets and shooting on location tends to be a lot more expensive than typing on a word processor, but the point stands. As long as they have the budget, filmed stories can show every punch in a fight scene and every stone in a castle wall.
Perhaps because so many of us learn storytelling from TV these days, writers often imagine they can do the same thing in their manuscripts. Pages and pages of setting description are one way this misconception manifests, especially when so many of spec fic’s most vaunted works are specifically known for spending too much time on world description. Looking at you, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.
However, I’ve actually found that over-description is most common for character appearance and fight scenes. Authors put a lot of effort into what their main characters look like, with significant details in everything from clothing and accessories to expression and eye color. When you put so much work into something, it’s only natural that you’ll want to include it in the story. And fight scenes are exciting, so it’s easy to imagine that describing every blow will be even more exciting. Plus, in filmed stories, you really can see each blow as it happens.
Unfortunately, the written word isn’t efficient enough to describe the entire world and still keep the reader’s attention. Instead, our job as writers is to condense the world down into a handful of critical details, then let readers fill in the rest with their imagination. If it takes more than a few lines, you’re probably over-describing the main character. Either simplify what they look like, or find ways to space that description out instead of dumping it all at once.
As for fight scenes, save your description for actions that significantly change the situation. An exchange of punches isn’t particularly important, but the one punch that knocks your hero off their feet certainly is. On the bright side, there is a lot of great advice out there for this type of wordcraft, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding resources. Some of them are even here on this very site.
6. Opaque Characters Are Intriguing
This is another misconception that I blame on film, and it’s all about what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head. Specifically, not showing readers what’s there. In a TV show or movie, this is perfectly natural. When the protagonist first appears, we have only their actions and dialogue to judge them by, since we can’t know what they’re thinking without heavy-handed voice-overs. This can add a sense of mystique that filmmakers are all too happy to exploit.
But when prose writers try the same thing, there’s no mystique, just frustration. Instead of a cool hero who could be up to anything, we’re presented with a blank wall that doesn’t tell us anything about the story. This is especially bad in a close viewpoint, when we depend on the protagonist’s senses to tell us what’s going on, but it’s painful in every POV style. Even an omniscient narrator needs to tell us something about what the main character is thinking; otherwise, we have no context for their actions.
So why does this work in film but not prose? Part of it is down to expectations. The convention is that in prose, we’ll know what the protagonist is thinking. But far more importantly, because film usually has no narrator, it falls back on a laundry list of other techniques to give you an impression of what’s going on inside the main character’s head. Filmmakers use everything from costuming and the actor’s expression to light levels and background music. When that doesn’t get the job done, filmmakers will simply tell the audience with dialogue.
Films need to do all this because if a character is a complete cypher, it’s much harder to invest in them. Prose stories can simply use narration. In fact, they have to use narration, since as we discussed in the previous section, it’s not practical to fit in the same level of detail that a film does.*
Beyond building sympathy, the protagonist’s internal narration is vital for grounding your readers in the story. Without those thoughts, it will seem like the hero is taking random actions for no reason at all. Readers will constantly be wondering why a hero is doing something or what prior experience led them to reach certain conclusions. All of that can be avoided by using internal narration, the prose medium’s greatest strength. Yes, it does make certain reveals about your main character more difficult, but that is a price well worth paying.
None of us are born knowing how to tell a story. If you found yourself holding any of these misconceptions, don’t worry, that’s what the learning process is for.
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