By: Linda Rohrbough
You can make a number of mistakes in fiction. I see them in bestselling authors all the time. But the big mistake writers make, the one the marketplace finds unforgivable, and the one that keeps most writers from being published, is what I call The Big Mistake.
The Big Mistake is to have a character bumping along for the ride without telling the reader anything, or very little, about what the character wants and what their goals are. This is, in essence, a lack of ability to tell a story.
If a novel like that gets published (and it probably won’t in this market) it’ll be a toilet tank book. You know, the book someone started on a potty break, put down on the toilet tank and left there. The story won’t stay with the reader.
What’s interesting to me is how simple this sounds. I was one of those people who nodded my head agreeably, yah, yah, yah, about what I thought was a restatement of the obvious. I find this funny now, because clearly I didn’t get it either. The feedback I got on my first novel before it was published was after readers trudged through fifty pages, they couldn’t put it down. But that first fifty was a death march.
I got all kinds of advice on how to fix this. I was advised to cut the first fifty and start the book there, sprinkling in information from the cut portion into the rest of the book. But it wasn’t a plot where I could do that. I thought about shelving the book and writing another, but my readers said no, this is an important book and it needs to be out there.
I tried everything I could think of to fix it: critique groups, contests with feedback, and my own rewrites – lots and lots of rewrites. Rewrites did finally work, but only after several years. I got into a workshop where a scriptwriter, who became my writing buddy, said, “Linda, it’s all here. Just rearrange it like this and add this.” And from there I landed a fiction agent and a publisher.
But I was still lost because I didn’t know why the last rewrite worked. How could I reproduce this success if I didn’t know how I got it to begin with? I realized then why so many authors have a pile of books under the bed. Instead of rewriting until it works, they write another book. And another. They hit on what works by accident, then work by instinct.
Which is probably why so many of my critiquers, including my New York Times bestselling
Let me tell you that in the first fifty pages, I knew my character wanted something — she had goals for the next ten minutes, the next hour, the next week and the next month — but I never came out and said what they were. I knew enough to have conflict and obstacles. And the final rewrite — the one that worked — didn’t require a lot of changes. As I think back now, I believe I was trying to be subtle, something my university creative writing training instilled. (By the way, I have a whopping forty hours of creative writing, most of it at a graduate level, with a 4.0 out of 4.0 grade point average, and I never learned any of this in those classes.)
What my character wanted stayed under wraps until page fifty and that’s where she comes out and says to herself, “I’m done crying, I’m going to do something about this crummy situation I’m in.” And I let the reader see that. By the way, that’s also where the book got much easier to write. Before that, it was torture. The point is, I realized the change I made was that I changed the book so my protagonist was never without clear motivation shown to the reader.
Now this sounds simple, yes? And obvious. But notice I never said it was EASY. Because it isn’t.
This Big Mistake is no secret. I bought Debra Dixon’s book GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict at the conference bookstore during my first Pikes Peak Writers Conference (PPWC). Jim Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel and one of the keynote speakers at the 2009 conference, talked about writing well-motivated characters overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal.
The late Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer asked this question in the 1960s, “What does your character want and what is in the way of them getting it?” And in the 1940s, there was Lajos Egri’s classic, The Art of Dramatic Writing, a book Jim Frey said his mentor made him read forty times before he got this concept. Jim said he even made a tape recording of himself reading Egri’s book and played it over and over as he drove around doing his day job as an insurance adjuster.
Bestselling and two-time Spur award winning author Dusty Richards once told me you cannot remind your reader too many times of your character’s goal. I own and read all these books. I could quote Dusty. But I didn’t hear any of this, if you know what I mean.
Then I spent eight days in the late summer of 2009 in a brutal, intense, invitation-only workshop with Jim Frey in the California mountains. It was there I really saw this principle for writing fiction for the first time. I got it on the first day, watching Jim coach other authors in the workshop (where we shared bathrooms, sleeping arrangements, and kitchen duty like kids at summer camp and spent twelve hour days for eight days working non-stop). Jim fervently complained he was tired of “teaching rocks to fly.” Now that I understand the principle, I get his frustration.
What never ceases to surprise me now is when I read unpublished but extremely talented, and I mean mega-talented, writers who do not tell me, the reader, what the character wants. They do lots right. There’s a strong sense of place. They have voice. I start to get a feel for the characters right away. I can follow what’s happening. They even have the ability to write those one-liner’s I go back to re-read because of the way they turned a phrase. They’ve obviously been practicing their craft for a while, but they are making The Big Mistake. Of course, you can tell too much too soon. Brain dumps are to be avoided. But I see very little of that in writers who come to me for coaching.
I was telling my story about learning this principle to a group of writers during a meal during a PPCW conference. To illustrate, I reached over and picked up at random a book on the table. It happens this mystery novel was getting “buzz” — it was up for a major award. I read it aloud to the table and I didn’t have to finish the first page to prove my point. In the first THREE sentences we knew what the character wanted and what the obstacles were. I could see the light bulb go on for the writers at my table.
Unfortunately, I cannot remember now the title of the book or the author, but I still remember the gist of the story in those first lines. The book started in the middle of a scene and I didn’t even know the character’s name yet or the character’s long-term goal. But I knew I’d finish that page and turn to read another. Of course, when I went to pick up the book at the end of the meal, it had already been snatched up. (Drat.)
Anyway, I hope this long treatise on The Big Mistake helps you get your light bulb moment. From experience, I know this isn’t an easy concept to grasp. But once you get the principle of making sure your reader knows at any given point in the book (and especially in the beginning) what your character wants, and what’s in the way of them getting it, your writing will take a quantum leap forward.
Books to help you avoid The Big Mistake:
GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon
How to Write a Damn Good Novel by Jim Frey
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.
Tip: Record yourself reading each of these books and play them to yourself over and over.
About the Author: Linda Rohrbough has been writing since 1989, and has more than 5,000 articles and seven books to her credit, along with writing for television, and seven national awards for her fiction and non-fiction. Find her on Facebook as "Linda Rohrbough - Author" or visit her website: www.LindaRohrbough.com.