Sam Garrett and Company Presents—
How to Prevent Prejudgment of Your Story
Part 0: A joyous introduction—
This is not a guide on how to write. No, I have finally decided that such a thing should be determined by your skill, and no rules or advice I give could change the fact that you either write very badly or very well. So let's move past your ability (or lack thereof) and into a less vague field, one with little foliage and much dirt.
The point of this guide, therefore, is to help you prevent your story from being cast aside after the first paragraph, first page, or first chapter. Many stories have been rejected because the reader was turned off—sometimes those stories were even good. The key here is to present a story that does not offend. A literary deodorant, if you will.
Part 1: Names—
There are certain names in the world that do not please the common reader for atheistic reasons. Hugo, for instance, calls to mind the image of a fat, unapproachable man with a bowel problem. Gladys, too, brings about a negative image—one of a bitter, middle-aged woman with a skirt that's too small around the waist. Names such as Bob, Jenny, Tom, John, Sue, and Betty are common, clichéd and unwanted simply because they aren't charming—a flat, transparent category of names.
The problem with names does not stop there. There are also names that are overused in the modern form of entertainment. With the Japanese anime influence came such clichéd names as Ryu, Yoko, Yuri, Yuki and Steve. Well, minus one of those anyway. Using Japanese names, unless your story is set in Japan, is horribly unreasonable. The anime-esque approach is so apparent that the reader is right away pushed away. Exceptions, of course, would be if you were aiming your story to a 10-year-old audience. And that isn't an insult—a lot of writers aim for that age group. Simply bear in mind that using such names will turn off most more mature readers.
Then there are the bizarre, nonsensical names that come from what I call High Fantasy¹. Writers believe that, since the story takes place in worlds far, far away, they need to name their characters Loukunlivarine Undeliarium—Lou'li' for short, Makiviarin Grettlebush—Maki' for short, or, even worse, simply S'tun. I hate to break it to you, but apostrophes and unpronounceable gibberish are not a proper substitute for a name. Even if you are going for authenticity, just think about it. Would such a name be common? If the name sounds that way, then the language would have to have the same basic styling. If the language isn't full of awkwardly placed sounds, then the name, therefore, cannot be so strange. Moving away from the idea of authenticity, they just sound bad. Who can relate to a character when they cannot even pronounce their names?
Part 2: Clichés—
As a writer, I understand that there are cases when a cliché is necessary. Predictable characters are fine when they're flat and unimportant. But that's when the idea of a cliché begins to change. When the plot itself is as predictable as an episode of House, the writer needs to step back and reconsider.
First of all, let me make a list of clichés that simply are unforgivable at this point. Don't get offended, don't get huffy, don't push your Naruto Fan Club button into my face and call me a "bakatare." I really don't care. Now, the list at current ends up being something like this (and, yes, they are in order of importance):
The Chosen One
Vampires who want to be good despite their desire to suck blood
Vampires who want to be bad despite their emotional restrictions
Vampires who fight other vampires
Ninjas outside of the feudal era
Ninjas in- or outside of the feudal era who wear colors other than black and can perform impossible feats
Pirates who care
Pirates who don't rape women
Pirates who wear makeup and/or are clean
Girls running away from a marriage she doesn't like
Girl who runs away from a marriage she doesn't like to become a vampire, ninja or pirate—or any combination of the three
Demons versus angels (either side of the fight)
Teenage girl/boy with sudden and random ability that allows them to fight a secret organization of bad guys that no one knew about because they're so well hidden for no reason whatsoever (note: reasons given will not justify cliché)
Bitching at Sam for writing this is clichéd. Yes.
Now that I've got that out of my system, let's continue. You really can't have these sorts of things in your stories because they've been overdone or they're just bad. I don't care if you think you can do it better—it's been done so many times before that no one will give you the benefit of the doubt. And even if you do write it well, all you will attract are people looking for that genre. If that's what you want—fine. That's your choice.
Note: the "chosen one" cliché is never acceptable.
Part 3: Endless description—
While no one minds some proper explanations at the beginning of the story (since too many questions can turn the reader off), too much explanation can send them packing. It's not that I have anything against proper description—on the contrary; I believe it is the foundation of good storytelling. What I do have a problem against is endless and monotonous background information. Sometimes saying what you think is enough is too much.
The general rule that I find to be important is that if it's boring to you, then it's boring to the reader. Honestly important information can be missed because the reader will get impatient and skip over it. Conversely, unimportant information will be read in the misguided notion that it is important.
Take, for example, if you spent a page describing an ornament on a mantel—an ornament that would hold some value later in the story. Now, you could write that piece as poetically as possible, but the fact that it's longer than the Declaration of Independence will deter the reader's interest, make them want to skip ahead. Vital information could be lost.
On the other aforementioned side of the spectrum is if you, the writer, wrote just as much information on that very same ornament and the ornament meant nothing whatsoever. The reader, feeling rather clever for noticing such a thing, would start to think that the ornament was important when it really meant nothing at all. When all was said and done, the reader would feel lost and confused—"What about that ornament?" they'll cry.
Do you really want such lament for the sake of an ornament?
Basically, most people are lazy, and they don't want to encounter an endless wall of text the moment they either open a book or click upon a link. They want to find something that seems balanced, and balance happens to be an equal division of description and dialogue.
Another point that should be covered has to do with what the description is all about. If the reader is told who the main character is in the first page—what he looks like, what he acts like, what he believes like, and how he breathes…like?—the reader will be turned away. "What's the point in reading this if I already know who he is?" they'll ask. Try to keep them wondering. It's the spectacular style of "show"—as opposed to the tainted technique of "tell."
Part 4: Annoying characters—
Have you ever met that girl? You know, the one who chews gum with her mouth wide open, twirls her hair with her finger and expects every guy she meets to fawn over her? Are you that girl? If your answer to the first question is yes, you have my sympathy—if your answer to the second question is yes, leave. Just leave.
Anyway, you know the type—am I right? That bothersome, irksome, annoyingsome (it's a word now!) girl you just want to strangle! Well, that would be an annoying character—if you put her in your story.
The fact of the matter is that most people don't want to read about a character they dislike. If it becomes apparent straight off that your character is the reincarnation of the Gibson girl², you need to rethink her. If your character sounds like he's aiming up to be another Cloud³, back away—fast. (Note: I would love it if Cloud fans would not flame me.) Annoying
characters do not a good story make. Here is a humble list of things that hold the potential of creating an annoying character:
Stupidity (note: I'm not talking about naivety here)
Arrogance—no one likes that "I can rule the world" attitude
Either too bitter, or
Bitter for no reason
Prejudice against those of another race, class, gender or religion⁴
Helplessness (in cases of extremes, such as the damsel in distress)
Unnecessary malice—unless you're trying to write a macabre thriller, avoid overly violent characters
I am in no way saying that you cannot have an interesting character if they have these qualities. What I am saying is that it can turn readers off. How many people that you hate do you hang out with?
Part 5: Potpourri—
Here your beloved Sam shall cover what material was not already noted—tell you what needs to be told without any obvious organizational patterns. Let my spontaneity throw you into another dimension.
—Enter Rod Serling⁵ stage left—
An ending obvious is a reader lost. That's what Ma used to say, anyway. Look, if the ending is so blatantly obvious from the get-go, then the reader isn't going to be interested. How many stories have you sat through when you knew the skinny on the…enddy?
You were once a reader. Consider what you've noticed throughout your reading career. Do you find certain plot points to be interesting? Do you enjoy that passage of dialogue you just wrote? Do you think that joke was funny? Would you get that line if you didn't already know the meaning? Basically—put yourself in the shoes of a reader and consider what you would want if you were them. It's nothing complicated—it just takes a little bit of foresight.
Avoid confusing beginnings. No, I'm not talking about a beginning that draws the reader in for more. I'm talking about when the reader has no idea what's going on—"Why is that guy holding a spoon? What's with the talking goatee? Why are there monkeys in the catacombs?" It's these kinds of questions that lead to confusion, and therefore a lack of interest. When you as a writer take it too far, you scare off a lot of people.
Do not, under any circumstances, take a main plot idea from another writer. Look, I get it. Not every idea can be original. There are plenty of stories that are alike. But
when it becomes apparent that the beginning of your story is just like another story, you offend the masses. Haven't you ever experienced the indignation of—"They stole that from such-and-such!" It doesn't matter how great the story is after that, a stolen beginning will chase them all away.
Did she just tell him to eff his effing effer of an effing pig-effer—eff? Hey, no, I get it. The f-word is kind of fun. It can express extreme emphasis—when my characters are so mad that they can't take it anymore, they might use the word themselves. But using endless vulgarity offends a lot of people. If you want a large audience of intelligent people, pull that finger away from the red button—the one that launches the f-bomb.
I did not buy this book to read lukewarm porn. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was perusing the bargain bucket of Barnes and Nobles when I came across a book with a particularly interesting cover. It was cheap. I had money. I bought the book. When I took it home and cracked those pages for the first time—ah, the smell of a new book—I discovered that the first page was about sex. Then the second, third, fourth—next thing I knew, ten pages had passed and the main character was just starting to climax. Look. Most people want to read a decent story without blushing. Unless you are writing smut for smut's sake, lay off on the graphic orgasms.
¹High Fantasy is a term I either came up with or came across. I don't remember. But it's basically when your character comes from a clan of elves (or a race much like them), uses a sacred and ancient art that is like magic but isn't called magic, has a magical weapon that was passed down from some relative with a funny name, has a magic beast of some sort (like a dragon or a unicorn…or a chupacabra), and has some sort of old mentor.
²The Gibson Girl was the popular notion of what a woman should be like—and the idea came around during the Victorian period. The Gibson Girl was wholesome, well-mannered, proper, respectable, intelligent, and dedicated to her family. She was the prologue to the flapper. If you're not smiling at that, you're not nearly nerdy enough to know me.
³Cloud is annoying—I hate him. He was emo before emo was mainstream. He just bothers me.
⁴Basic note: In cases where your story deals with the issue of prejudice, that point is moot. Don't worry about it.
⁵Rod Serling is amazing. If you didn't get who he is, you're not my friend anymore. ):