In order to get better at something, we can’t always try harder, but try smarter. We need to take common mistakes out of the tool kit like rusty hammers and dull nails to be examined, and then try our best not to use them again. In this series on beginner mistakes, I’ll be doing just that.
This learning process can be difficult. As Thomas Szasz said, “Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.” I ask all writers, new and seasoned, young and old, to try to set aside their self-esteem for this series and look at common writing flubs like the old, hilarious stories of our past that have lost their ability to embarass us. If you’re new and you realize you do some of the things in this series, that’s ok—you’re a beginner, and with that comes the expectation of mistakes. Nay, the necessity of making mistakes. This is how we learn, and this is why we call these mistakes out plainly.
Tossing Chekov’s gun
Good old Chekov and his gun. The principle of Chekov’s gun says that all elements in a story must be relevant, and all irrelevant elements removed. Chekov’s gun comes with great power; using it correctly adds depth and connecting threads throughout your piece, strengthening it and satisfying your reader. If you describe your lawyer protagonist’s paisley tie on page one, and then you discover that it was a gift from his mother on page five, and then he uses it to strangle the judge who abused the protagonist’s mother twenty years ago on page ten, how much more satisfying is the story as a whole?
While this principle is powerful, beginning writers often neglect to make use of it, or worse yet, they break it. When this principle is broken in short stories, it’s particularly jarring, because every single word in a short story should be relevant. As an example, you decide to describe the perfume bottle on the protagonist’s bedside table: the deep aqua color, floral etching, and gold edges, told in detail for a long paragraph on page two. If the bottle gets a whole paragraph on page two, then it sure as hell better be thrown at an intruder’s head later.
You can get away with the paragraph description of a perfume bottle in a novel occasionally, but certainly not in a short story. When you describe something in great detail, or even in enough detail to intrigue the reader beyond the realm of normal “setting,” you’re making them a promise that it’s important. You’re telling them to remember it, and odds are, they’ll obey you. But when you drop it entirely, you break a promise to your reader, and they will not appreciate it. It’s as if you put your hand out to the reader for a low five, and when they go in for the slap, you yank your hand away and shout “sike!”
The good news about the tendency to break this principle is that it’s relatively easy to fix. Read your story with a keen eye for details and connections, and focus on where you might be over or under describing. Add emphasis to elements when necessary, and remove it when it’s not. For more detailed help on crafting in this regard, see our series on crafting, particularly part 3. Make Chekov proud.
Sad things happen all the time, and as writers, we often write about them. This is perfectly fine. My writer friends and others who have read my work often give me a hard time for how “dark” my writing is; I’m okay with that. However, there is a big difference between having “dark” themes or moments in your writing and overdoing tragedy. Many beginning writers—and, sadly, a lot of veteran writers—tend to inundate their stories with sadness, assuming that somehow that makes their story more memorable, more dramatic, and more (curse the word) literary. Here’s the brutal truth—excess tragedy doesn’t make a story more dramatic. It makes it ridiculous, sometimes even comedic.
Let me give you an example. Your protagonist grew up in an orphanage, until he was adopted by abusive parents. One of them was an alcoholic, the other one was a pedophile. Your protagonist grew up and met the girl of his dreams, but then (plot twist!) he gets cancer. His amazing girlfriend cheats on him while he’s in a chemotherapy session. Oh, and his dog gets hit by a car and ends up with only two legs. No, one leg. Your protagonist dies of the cancer, and his one legged dog is given to the pound by his evil girlfriend and is then put to sleep. The end. Do you smell a Pulitzer? Because I smell a comedy. In the end, that’s what overdone, tragic stories turn into—bad jokes.
You may argue that fiction is a place for serious topics, hard realities. I agree. But when you keep shitting on your hero, it’s hard to take any of the bad things that happen to him seriously. It’s like writing in all caps for the entirety of your piece. STUFF HAPPENED AND IT WAS REALLY SAD, SO LET ME BOMBARD YOU WITH THE FEELS AND MAKE YOU CRY FOR MY AWESOME CHARACTER! Your readers’ eyes will gloss over it all, unable to tell what your story is really about.
Try taking out all of the tragedy except for what truly matters. Maybe you just leave in that one legged dog—there could be something to him. We could name him “Uno” and seeing him get hit by a police car that just kept driving when your protagonist was a kid could resonate with him for the rest of his life. That could be a perfectly fine short story. And I’ll feel really bad for the kid and the dog, without rolling my eyes.
Think of it this way: Is it better to shoot your character full of bullet holes, or is it more meaningful to go into that shot in his heart and explore what size caliber gun made it, what damage it did, and how it scarred and still aches when it’s cold out?
Getting caught up in one’s own cleverness
This mistake is a bit harder to explain, even though it’s seen all the time in beginning writers’ stories. Writers get caught up in their own cleverness when they break something: rules, promises, or focus. Before you can break the solid, foundational rules of plot and character, you have to master them. It’s safe to say that beginning writers haven’t mastered them, and should therefore not try to be “original” by tossing them out like yesterday’s bad clichés.
For example, you could have your hero put on a purple suede top hat and clogs and spin around for five pages to symbolize the plight of the endangered earwig in Macedonia, but good God, why would you? Instead, give us the beats of the story, the plot laid out, clear and shiny. You could also kill the love interest that you’d promised, through images or just plain English, to be the future wife of your hero from page one, but the reader will hate you for it. You could also sandwich in a political soliloquy about the abysmal quality of school lunches between two paragraphs of scene within your primary plot, but your reader’s head will spin with the whiplash.
Be smart—reel in your own cleverness like an exploratory cat on a leash. Save all that super witty “originality” for when you’re a famous, award-winning author and can get away with it.
This series is meant not only to help writers become better craftsmen, but to also give them a few good laughs. Think back to some of the first stories you wrote, to your intro to creative writing workshops, or the stuff you had to read in high school that you now realize was terrible. We must grow as artists, but we should have fun doing it.
By Madeleine Mozley