10 Things That Make Your Story UNREADABLE

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Unreadable to me, anyway.

Keep in mind that each reader brings their own likes and dislikes to your story, and not everyone will get it. What appeals to a custom cabinet maker in California may not be what appeals to a retired chemistry teach in Michigan, but they both might read your story.

But here are a few of the things that drive me up a wall, along with a few tips to correct them.

  1. SPELLING ERRORS. And not for the reason you think. Yes, it shows sloppiness and maybe even shows you really don’t know how to spell. They make your story harder to read and reading is done for pleasure, so it’s gotta not be difficult. Spellcheck is right most of the time. Use it. Write in Word and pay attention to what it underlines in red. Then copy paste into your blog or critique group format or whatever.

BTW, that’s true even for critique partners. If they spend their time addressing little typos that are easy to catch, they’ll use up all their energy on that and not help you build a better story. As a CP, to me it says you’re lazy. A typo here and there is understandable in a critique partner-stage MS, but LOTS of spelling errors say you didn’t care enough to give me your best effort – but you want mine? Come on.

That said, if you read my blog you’ll see I make typos. Nobody’s perfect. Do your best. Letting a MS rest is the 2nd best way to catch your mistakes because “in” and “on” aren’t misspelled per Word – but might not be the right word! CPs and beta readers will catch those. They’re your #1 best defense against typos.


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  1. A SLOW START. I like a “grabber” opening to a story – stories that hook a reader right away. Most authors bury the really interesting stuff a few paragraphs in because they take a while to get up and running. That’s fine, to get the story started FOR YOU. Consider cutting that preamble and starting as close to the good stuff as possible, then backfill me on whatever I needed to know.

BTW, I’m a lazy reader. Big blocks of solid text? I want to skim past them. At the front of a story? Uggghhh. So break it up ‘til I get to know you. Start fast and hook me quick. It’s hard to do, which is why it’s awesome when people do it, but you have to try. You’ll get there if you try.

  1. DIALOG TAGS. Little phrases like “he said” are to be eliminated whenever possible. I think it’s worth removing most of them simply because they aren’t needed, and because replacing them with little actions makes the story read better.

Readers can see characters are talking, so we just need to subtly know who is speaking – and since nobody sits around JUST talking, little actions make them more alive – and therefore a better story. You delete needless words and enhance your characters, a win-win. So it can be this way

“You gonna go back home?” I asked him. (We see the question mark. We know it’s a question. We just need to know who said it.)

or

I looked over at him. “You gonna go back home?” (Now we know AND we have an action. It’s just not a very good action.)

or

I looked back down the street.  “You gonna go back home?” (This action adds a slight element to the story. For example, if they were being chased it shows the character is still concerned. This is what they mean when they say NO WASTED WORDS.)

Ultimately, this drives me insane because lots of tags read like a children’s book.


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  1. LONG DIALOGS OR SPEECHES. Looooong strings of dialog – like a paragraph or paragraphs of just one person talking, or a diner scene where two people throw lines of dialog back and forth at each other while doing nothing else – are a big red flag. Why? It’s bad writing and it tips me off to more bad writing to come. Plus it’s usually boring, the ultimate sin.

I call it “speechifying” or usually speechifyin’ because it sounds like an old southern guy’s word. Them characters are speechifyin’. The story’s gonna suck like a catfish on a mud bank.

Okay, I don’t know what I was going for there.

Anyway, real people don’t just speak back and forth like talking statues (talking heads is what CPs tend to call it) but the writer is focused on the messages in the dialogues so they might forget to show me what’s happening with the conversation. In real life, people move when they talk. They gesture while speaking. They listen and react, nod, shift their weight, drop their jaw, scratch their face, that sort of thing.

And each one of those actions tells the reader a little about how that character feels about what’s being said! If they like what they hear, they might smile; if not, they might bite their fingernails. Let them do this. It tells us more while keeping the story flowing and interesting. Watch people talk sometime, at a park or an airport. Observe and make notes. Just not in a creepy way. You’ll learn stuff you can use in your stories.

5. Adverbs. The hated describer. Usually you can replace a –ly word with a better verb choice or phrase. Adverbs are weak. Weak writing is bad. And notice I said usually. Some are okay. Not bunches and bunches, though.

He opened the door quickly.

versus

He jerked the door open.

or

He grabbed the knob and flung the door open, forcing himself to stare into the dark hallway.

or

He wiped his sweaty hands on his jeans and reached for the door knob. Taking a deep breath, he flung the door open and forced himself to peer into the dark hallway.

Write what ya gotta write, THEN on the second draft analyze these passages to make them stronger. After a while it’ll become almost automatic, honest.

  1. PROLOGUES. I’m not a fan, and I usually don’t read a prologue at all. Consider whether you need one. My guess is you don’t. You can reveal the information there over the course of the story, through dialogs and other ways. Maybe you as the author needed to write it as a reference for yourself, but we readers probably don’t need that info. Like they say, assume your reader is smart. Yeah. Do. And they know your story doesn’t start with the birth of your characters and end with their death. Other stuff happened. We get it.

To me – and me only – a prologue announces: “I don’t know how to tell a story.” I’d say 9 out of 10 times, that turns out to be true.

  1. ACTION SCENES. Poorly written ones, obviously. Action scenes are tough to write, and most new writers do it wrong. They try to put lots of things into one long sentence to show the speed at which they happen, but that tends to make the reader have to think about it more, which actually slows things down. Think about highway signs telling you where the airport is. It doesn’t say “The airport is coming up soon,” it says, “Airport 1 mile.” Our brain needs it to come to us in smaller, choppier sentences so it can digest them faster. Chop it up and it will read better for the action scenes. (It will look a little odd to you, but we readers know you don’t write everything that way.) Periods are good; commas are almost as good. Break it up.

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BTW, that doesn’t mean leave out details. You can describe the car rolling over and over as it cascades down the side of the hill and bursts into flames (19 words). It’ll read fast because we don’t read something like that every day and because you built up to it with suspense and stuff, right?

The runaway car plowed nose first into the loose dirt of the brown grass, sending a spree of dirt into the air. The rear wheels left the ground and the sedan flipped. Rolling over and over, smashing and crunching, Jerry’s Buick cascaded sideways down the hill like a car-shaped barrel. Odd pieces of metal and glass spun off in all directions. The driver’s door burst open with each pass and slammed shut again when it met the ground in a sickening farewell wave. The trunk lid ripped free, sailing into the distance.

 The bouncing wreck finally came to stop at the bottom of the rocky hill. As it lay smoldering, the sounds of leaking of engine fluids reached my ears.

 The rumble of the explosion shook me. In a flash, an orange ball curled upwards toward the pale blue desert sky. The heat from it warmed my cheeks and dried my eyes, making me squint as I watched the evidence of my murders disappear with the black smoke filling the horizon. (171 words)

You could rewrite that first pass and make it twice as long and it’d still be a relatively quick action scene. We want action, but we understand it takes a while for a car to roll down a hill.

BTW, I replaced car with sedan, Jerry’s Buick, wreck, etc. It was all “car” and “it” the first time through. Mix it up. Visualize what’s happening, like you watched it in a movie and were telling it to a friend afterwards. Describe it in writing as best you can for a first pass. Go back and add a few dramatic elements (orange ball, curled upwards, pale blue desert sky) then remove repeated words like “car” and replace them with ones that mean the same thing. THEN let it rest and attack it again the next day. You’ll have a much better action scene.

  1. The word START. As in, “She started to sob.” The argument goes, we just do something, we don’t start to do it. I can see it both ways – so why mention it? Red flag, baby. Weak writing ahead. I see “start avoidance” as a way to make for better overall writing and a smoother story, not just an arbitrary rule. I can start to wash my car by gathering a sponge, a bucket and some soap, but the rationale is, you’re doing those things in preparation to wash the car – so say that. (Yes, this one is a minor point, and by itself it probably doesn’t take me off your story.)
  1. SHOW, DON’T TELL. This is not a minor point. You have, have to, HAVE TO  let the reader see the actions happening. Not all the time but most of the time. Describe it. When you show what’s happening, you are putting us there in the moment as readers, using our senses; we get a better feel for the story and characters. We are part of the scene as it is happening, and we immerse ourselves more in your story – making it more interesting and harder to put down.

An example is when Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” If your search for the term “show versus tell in storytelling,” you’ll get a lot of articles that explain this in better detail and that give examples. After you read a few, you’ll see what all the fuss is about.

 10 was adding action beats when you remove dialog tags. Pay attention. That was a twofer. But okay…

BONUS: The dreaded word “Was.” This won’t make me stop reading your story but agents and publishers must get paid extra to look for it. Basically, when you use “was” you’re being less active – and less engaging to your reader. That’s bad. If you do a MS search on any book of mine, “was” is there like a rash on the computer. So I go through and remove a bunch of them and remember I want to make a program that gives an electric shock whenever the letters WAS appear with a space on each side.

Don’t try to lose them all, but see if there’s a better way to say what you said. And then go forth and sin no more, because in a 100,000 MS you might use “was” 200,000 times, and if you start trying to change them all you’ll hate the word “was” for a loooooong time. But ridding your was-filled MS of it once is a harsh method of seeing it each time you type it from then on AS YOU’RE TYPING IT and you’ll see it in friends’ letters and FB posts and it’ll wake you up at night and… okay you get it. Was is evil.

Most of these 10 items alone won’t make me stop reading your story.

img_8110A FEW of them WILL – and have. I indicated which – but a combination of them make most readers come away from your story feeling less engaged than you want. They might not be able to articulate why they didn’t like it as much as some other things they’ve read, but these are mistakes that are avoidable – and we want to write our best and avoid as many mistakes as we can.

.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

44 thoughts on “10 Things That Make Your Story UNREADABLE

  1. Thanks for the advice especially the bit about “was” it is a weak word and replacing it requires some creativity. As far as characters using it in dialogue, most of the time I just let them because that’s how people talk and getting rid of it on every occasion reads awkwardly.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. A word on the action scenes – I had to stop reading a book by a very well known best-selling author, and one reason was he went too far in writing short sentences in an action scene. Most were 2-3 word fragments.

    Coincidentally, that same author broke your speechifying rule too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So if you usually don’t read prologues, how do you know that nine times out of ten the prologue means the author doesn’t know how to tell a story? I mean, wouldn’t you have to actually read them to figure out they weren’t necessary, or to identify that 1 out of 10 where it worked? Now I’m tempted to put the one clue needed to understand the mystery in my prologue and see who doesn’t get it. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very good overview, Dan. Your second point is perhaps one of the very most important—to short story (and especially flash fiction) writers. I’ve been guilty of at least several of these from your list, even in the short story form, where I currently reside. It’s well worth incorporating some of these into the spelling/grammar check at the end: have I overused “was” (or any other words, for that matter) or are there too many dialogue tags like ‘she said’? How about adverbs or adjectives? (For myself, I overuse adjectives.) On another note, hope you are feeling better today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am feeling better! Thank you for mentioning it. I think this is that same cold I had last year at this time and last year’s version lasted for weeks! But it’s not anything horrible, it just refuses to go away.

      I’m sure we all do something from the list on occasion. The key is, until you are aware to not do those things, we probably all overdo them. Once we become aware, we start scaling back. And that’s part of the learning process

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree completely that we all too often get lazy and splash the verb “to be” all over our pages in all sorts of noxious forms. But I also worry about the flip side when a writer contorts sentences into pretzels trying never to say “was.” What’s more (hidden “to be” in there), constructions like “There was” and “It was” affect the rhythm and emphasis in a sentence. Read aloud “There was only one reason Frank wanted to kill Justine” versus “The only reason Frank wanted to kill Justine was. . . .” Both acceptable, but subtly different in emphasis and in what they invite as follow-ups. Our goal should be to use all the elements of language available to us strategically and to be aware (or alerted by our critique groups) when we fall into lazy habits.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. There’s a huge prejudice against dialogue tags. I think, when used judiciously and well, they work. I’ve read some prose that cuts dialogue tags completely and find myself lost in the conversation. Writing good dialogue is an art and requires training and skill. To throw one tool, the dialogue tag, out the window entirely based on the prejudice of a few critics limits your art as much as a poet saying free verse is the choice of unskilled poets or iambic pentameter went out with the Victorians.

    Like

  7. Okay, let me see if I got all this.

    No prologue (darn it), no ‘was,’ little he said, she said, action verbs, stay away from -ly, no spelling errors, quick start, no long dialogues, show, don’t tell and no ‘starts!’

    Thanks for the tips Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is amazing! I just started writing again last May and these are all the things I learned in the past months since starting back. Now I make sure to do all these and see these writing rules everywhere!!

    It would have saved me some time to just have read this! Great article 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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