I'm attending CraftFest, part of the ThrillerFest conference put on by ITW this weekend in New York. This morning I sat in on a talk given by bestselling thriller writer Joseph Finder, the topic of which was "The Six Biggest Mistakes Even Bestselling Writers Make."
It's been a long time since I was in school, so my note-taking skills have atrophied...But here's what Finder discussed.
MISTAKE #1: The Passive Hero
- Too many thrillers have heroes who don't act; they remain passive while events take place around them.
- The hero must advance the plot; s/he must take action.
- The hero can't simply investigate what's going on -- he must do something about it.
MISTAKE #2: The Long Setup
- The story takes too long to get moving.
- Authors shouldn't just dump story on the reader; they should reveal it through action.
- Too many books start with a good opening, but then slow down to a crawl.
- One way to avoid this is to start the story as late as possible. If necessary, you can then go back and fill in details later on.
MISTAKE #3: The Weak Second Act
- Too many books bog down in the middle, degenerating into repetitive conflict and simply regurgitating the same plot points over and over. The characters aren't progressing and changing.
- The conflict of a plot must progress and escalate; the plot points must change and vary throughout the narrative.
- This escalation of conflict, as well as variance of conflict, will not only keep the reader's interest, but help to develop and reveal character as well.
- The introduction of subplots will also help keep the second act moving.
- Whenever things start to get dull, remember: REVERSE, REVEAL, SURPRISE.
- Every scene must advance the plot.
MISTAKE #4: Predictability
- Authors should never underestimate their readers, most of whom have read a lot of books and seen even more movies and TV shows.
- Readers know the tropes and cliches of the genre. If the story is predictable, they'll see where it's going a long way off and get bored.
- The key is to surprise them. Veer off from the expected course.
- If the obvious development is to take the plot in a certain direction, consider taking it in a different direction instead.
- One way to avoid this trap is not to over-outline. Be spontaneous in your writing. Allow the characters and the plot to surprise you.
MISTAKE #5: The Lousy Ending
- Too many books send the reader off on a sour note by finishing with a lousy ending.
- A great ending is second only to a great beginning in importance.
- The ending should not consist of explaining everything that happened before or tying up all the loose ends.
- You should explain as little as possible; let the reader figure out the smaller details on his/her own.
- Great endings off have symmetry to the beginning.
- Twists can be good, but they must be earned. They must be set up earlier in the book and prepared for.
- When you finish the book, get out of there ASAP. Don't draw things out.
MISTAKE #6: Showing Off
- Too many writers make the mistake of: "I've done the research; I'm going to cram it all in there."
- You should tell the reader the minimum they need in order to understand the plot; just the tip of the iceberg.
- Pare it down, leaving only the juiciest nuggets behind.
- Too much info will only slow down the story.
BONUS MISTAKE #1: Overly Explicit Dialogue
- People don't narrate a story when they speak; they don't dump details and information.
- People speak elliptically. Watch out for expository dialogue.
BONUS MISTAKE #2: All Plot, No People
- The story won't matter if we don't care about the characters.
- On its own, the plot is abstract; it requires the characters to make it real and make it matter to the reader.
- Also, the stakes of the plot must matter to the characters in order for us to care as readers.
BONUS MISTAKE #3: Action Is Boring
- Unlike in film where action scenes can be exciting, in books they too often are boring.
- What is interesting to the reader is how the characters react to the action and how they interact with each other.
- There should also be variety in your scenes; don't follow an action scene with another action scene and another action scene. Vary the pace, vary the types of scenes, slow down and speed up in order to give the reader a break and keep them interested.
BONUS MISTAKE #4: Backstory Dump
- Don't make the mistake of dumping the characters' backstory on the reader all at once. It will bring your plot to a halt and bore the reader.
- Reveal the backstory slowly, in pieces, as necessary.
- Drop references in here and there; include mentions in dialogue; intersperse little details throughout the plot.
- There is always a trade-off of CHARACTER vs. PACE.
- It's importance to find the balance of revealing enough about the characters in order to make them interesting and make the reader care about them, versus the need to keep the plot moving.
It was a very interesting talk. I hope you find this shorthand version useful.