How Not to Write A Novel

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. "No right on red" is a rule. "Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly" is an observation.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them -- A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide is a self-help Book on Trope by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. It deals a lot with tropes (and improper use of them), and even contains some tropes itself.

The book, naturally, is about how not to write a novel. It is probably the only self-help book that you'll want to read over and over, because it's actually funny. It includes many "samples" (written by the authors, though they claim they're based on submissions they received as editors) of writing that range from "good prose, but used tropes vitally wrong" to "OhmygodIcan'tlookbutIhaveto."

Tropes used in How Not to Write A Novel include:
  • Abusive Parents: Discouraged in "A Novel Called It", with the explanation that they are simply hard to write well and hard to read about without puking. They also suggest that horror is the best genre for handling this trope well, using Carrie as an example.
  • Accidental Innuendo: "The Deafening Hug".
  • Anachronic Order: They have no problem with this trope at the level of the broader form and structure of the novel (even recommending the use of In Medias Res if the chronological opening of the story is rather slow), but provide a example of it used rather poorly in "Linearity Shrugged", in which shifts in chronology and subject matter happen after every other sentence.
  • Anachronism Stew: "Xeno's iPod" for objects that just "appear".
  • Anticlimax: "I'm Melting!"-Wherein the villain conveniently gives up.
  • As You Know: "But, Captain..." is a direct translation; "Hello, I am the Mommy!" and "Hello, I am the Medieval Knight!" are similar.
  • Audience-Alienating Premise: "Voice in the Wilderness" provides an example, in which the Holocaust is depicted as being a lie.
  • Author Appeal: "The High Colonic by Mail" advises against this, particularly if what appeals to the author is unlikely to appeal to anyone else.
  • Author Filibuster: "The After-Dinner Sermon" (In which the author wields a mallet).
  • Beige Prose: "The Minimalist" (wherein synopses take the place of writing) and "The List of Ingredients" (wherein lists substitute for description). List of Ingredients has a particularly humorous example of bland description gone bad:

There were naked actors standing around the pornography studio: three women and one man. Two other actors were having sex on a bed. There were some cameramen filming them, who had their clothes on. There was a desk in the corner with papers on it, and a bulletin board with messages.

Scenes where the bad guy is given a creepy fetish in order to establish his depravity are becoming less and less of a good idea. In a time when fetishes are becoming a must-have for the really hip, urban professional, you are likely to be stepping on the toes of many readers by using Nefaro's bondage thing as a shorthand for Evil.

This particular blunder is known as deus ex machina, which is French for "Are you fucking kidding me?"

  • Did Not Do the Research: The chapter Research and Historical Background in its entirety (except for "The Research Paper", which is about Shown Their Work taken to its logical extreme).
  • Dream Sequence: "Mr. Sandman, on Second Thought, Bring Me a Gun." Discouraged.
  • Easy Evangelism: Discouraged. "For similar reasons, characters should not make sudden about-faces in their attitudes. they should not, for instance, immediately capitulate when the protagonist 'proves' that their worldview is idiotic."
  • Emphasize Everything: "I Mean This!! It's Important!!!" Needless to say, they advise against it. See Bold Inflation below.
  • Emotionless Character: "Failing the Turing Test", in which Professor Johnson finds a college student lying naked in his bed instead of his wife... and emotionlessly asks why she's there. She pulls out a gun and says that she's going to kill him...and he simply asks why. When she says that it's because he gives her a C, he says he'd be willing to reconsider if she does him a favor. And then, when she tries to seduce him, he asks her to be his cat-sitter.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: A cheap way to get reader sympathy for the villains, illustrated in an example in which a character takes a moment off from gleefully forcing young girls into prostitution to reminisce fondly about his mother.

Adolf introduces Fascism to Germany, spreads war throughout Europe, murders millions in concentration camps -- but he's a strict vegetarian and loves his dog. Tossing in a touching scene with his German Shepherd Blondi and a dish of lentils won't make Hitler's character "balanced".

  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: "The Convention of the Invisible Men".[context?]
  • Food Porn: Discussed and discouraged in "The Food Channel".[context?]
  • For the Evulz: "Inside the Mind of a Criminal".[context?]
  • Freakier Than Fiction: "Why Your Job is Harder Than God's".[context?]
  • Genre Busting: They encourage it, with the caveat noted in Genre Shift.
  • Genre Shift: "'And One Ring to Bind Them!' Said the Old Cowpoke". They emphasize that if you want to do this, it still has to be set up with Foreshadowing and the like, or else it comes across as very similar to a Deus Ex Machina.
  • Get On With It Already: "The Waiting Room" and "The Long Runway".[context?]
  • How Do I Used Tense: "Tenses: the Past Oblivious" (confusing, seemingly random shifts in tense) and "Tenses: the Past Intolerable" (where a single tense is used for everything).
  • Humor Dissonance: Discussed in the chapter on jokes, sex and post-modernism.[context?]
  • IKEA Erotica: They even have a name along similar lines: "Assembly Instructions." One of the scenes in "The List of Ingredients" deserves a mention as well.
  • In Medias Res: Recommended in a segment as "Radical Surgery for your Novel."
  • Infinite Supplies: "Magic-onomics", which specifically addresses money.
  • I Just Write the Thing: "The Fig Leaf"[context?]
  • Just Between You and Me: "The Retirement Speech" and this quote, "Now that I have you in my power, I shall tell you my whole life story!"
  • Mary Sue/Marty Stu/Author Avatar (but not so much that last one): "I Complete Me." They do say that it's perfectly acceptable, but when your character starts exhibiting Sue-like tendencies... well, don't pick out that outfit to wear on Oprah quite yet.
    • Several of the hypothetical examples also appear to have been written by authors placing themselves into the story too directly. Such as what appears to have been an action thriller written by an ergonomics expert.
  • Meaningful Name: They discourage using names where the symbolic meaning of the name is blatantly obvious to any reader (for example, "Vivian", a character who symbolizes life, against "Morty", a character who symbolizes death).
  • Mills and Boon Prose: "The Purple Blue Prose"[context?]
  • A Minor Kidroduction: "The Long Runway".[context?]
  • Never Heard That One Before: "The Newborn Dinosaur." Never use jokes that everyone knows.[context?]
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: "And by the Way, I'm an Expert Marksman!"[context?]
  • No Yay: "Last Tango in Santa's Village".[context?]
  • Padding: "The Second Argument in the Laundromat" (using more than one scene to establish a single fact), "The Redundant Tautology" (the author repeating him or herself) and "The Skipping Record" (a character's thoughts repeating themselves).
  • Pet Homosexual: Discouraged in "Priscilla, Queen of the Clichés". Specifically, they note that many amateur writers seem to believe that once they've established that a given character is gay, the stereotypical catty, bitchy dialogue will write itself - which is, to say the least, rarely the case.
  • Pet the Dog: "But He Loves His Mother". We're told that trying to use this in order to make a one-dimensional vilain seem human is a bad idea; instead we should try to make the villain not one-dimensional and make their evilness believable.
    • They also discourage this trope in its most literal sense: "It does not work to give a character a pet to make him or her sympathetic. People are often at their least sympathetic when cooing over a bored cat."
  • The Plot Reaper: "Goodbye, Cruel Reader!" They say it's a bad idea and should only be used when absolutely necessary, and only when the writer has used Chekhov's Gun to establish a heart condition/suicidal fixation/unsafe building etc.
  • Plot Tumor: With the conveniently similar name of "The Benign Tumor".[context?]
  • Politically-Correct History: Discouraged in "The Vegan Viking".[context?]
  • Post Modernism: "Hello! I Am the Author!" They recommend not trying it because, even though someone always manages to pull it off, it's really, really hard to. This includes using:
  • Purity Sue: "Too Good to Be True"- Wherein an attempt to make the protagonist sympathetic overshoots the mark.
  • Purple Prose: "The Puffer Fish", "Mouth-Watering World-Class Prose," which reads like advertisements or blurbs, "Gibberish for Art's sake," which purposely tries to sound like the classic authors did. It also gives an example of "The Purple Blue Prose", which is a sexual version. And "The Crepitating Parasol," in which that fundamental line between "clever" and "stupid" is crossed due to using words you don't know.
  • Random Events Plot: Implicitly discouraged - for the section dealing with "Plot", the subtitle is "Not just a bunch of stuff that happens".
  • Red Herring: They encourage these to give a novel some added depth, though warn people to be careful of unintended examples (see What Happened to the Mouse?).
  • Relationship Writing Fumble: A section dealing with unintended shipping ("The Deafening Hug"), Ho Yay ("We're Going to Need a Bigger Closet"), and suggested pedophilia ("Alice in Lapland"), and the actual article deals with accidental Brother-Sister Incest shipping.
  • Said Bookism: "Asseverated the Man".[context?]
  • Scenery Porn: "Vacation Slideshow".[context?]
  • Sense Freak: "The Hothouse Plant," where sensory descriptions overwhelm the story.[context?]
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: "The Puffer Fish" and "The Crepitating Parasol" (using big words the reader doesn't know in a failed attempt to sound clever) and "The Crepuscular Handbag" (using big words you don't know in a failed attempt to sound clever).
  • Shaggy Dog Story: "The Benign Tumor", a section of the novel that is a Shaggy Dog Story and can be completely removed with no effect on the rest of the story.
  • Shaped Like Itself: "Ask yourself: 'do I know this word?' If the answer is no, then you do not know it."
  • Show, Don't Tell: Many examples allude to this concept; for example, they advise against the use of adverbs because the writer is in effect telling the reader what to think about their dialogue, rather than showing them.
  • Shown Their Work: "The Research Paper." "...But the glories of the Calvin cycle, and the further intricacies of the Krebs cycle, essential to cellular respiration, were little comfort now that..."
  • Smurfette Principle: Mentioned in "Stag Night". "Especially prevalent in science fiction; apparently many writers assume that in the future women will die out."
  • Stereotype Gay: Discouraged in "Priscilla, Queen of the Clichés".
  • Switching POV: "Grabbing the Mike: Wherein the point of view momentarily strays", "The Tennis Match: Wherein the point of view bounces back and forth", "The Democracy: Where everyone is heard from" and "The Service Interruption: Wherein the point of view suffers a temporary blackout" are examples of how not to do this. They also recommend against writing from the perspective of a background character who only exists so that they can witness some key event (unless the novel already has numerous points of view).
  • Take Our Word for It: Discouraged in "Words Fail Me" - where the author stops short of communication.[context?]
  • Textual Celebrity Resemblance: Noted as a generally bad idea in "Channeling the E! Channel".
  • This Is Reality, mentioned under Lampshade Hanging.
  • Tropes Are Tools: They concede that most tropes, in the hands of skilled writers and in the right context, can be used effectively and well. They merely point out those that have a tendency to be used badly.
  • Trope Breaker: They specifically refer to the damage done to the techno-thriller genre by the fall of Communism, and also to the invention of the cellphone.
  • Unfortunate Implications: Dealt with in various forms in "The Road to the Trash Heap is Paved with Good Intentions".[context?]
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Dealt with in "Deja Vu;" more specifically, the plan should always go wrong if spoken.
  • Vanity Publishing: Discussed, with the subsequent Protection From Editors not necessarily being a good thing.
  • Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma and Bold Inflation: "I Mean This!! It's Important!!"- "While commas, often appear, randomly in unpublished manuscripts--and there is an epidemic--of unnecessary--em-dashes, it is the exclamation mark which takes the most punishment." It also talks about Capitalizing Words The Author Thinks Are Important, and compares it to Ironic Capitalization, a combination of which is Repeatedly Used On This Very Wiki.
  • The War On Straw: "The Fearless Exposé".[context?]
  • The Watson: They encourage this to avoid the problem of people telling each other things both of them already know.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: "Oh, Don't Mind Him" - Where a character's personal problems (in the example the protagonist's brother, an alcoholic war veteran who seems to exist only to provide the protagonist with an inspirational conversation before he goes to Yale) remain unexplored. "The Gum on the Mantlepiece" is similar, a kind of unintentional Red Herring.
  • The Woobie: "Compassion Fatigue" is when this trope is done badly.[context?]
  • World of Symbolism: Strongly discouraged in a discussion of symbolism following "The Timely Epiphany":

Above all, symbols should not be obvious. While a novel cannot do without plot or characters, your novel should work perfectly well for someone who doesn't notice the symbols at all.

In-book Examples: