Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 2, 2022

3 Common Traps That Can Hurt Your Story (And How to Avoid Them)

by James Preston

Let’s go. Let’s take a walk, you and I. Let’s visit a haunted house in the world we love, the theme park that we make called Storyland.

Come with me. We’ll use real-life examples, poking gentle fun at some people who have fallen victim to the spooks. And to be fair, I’ll use some of my own gaffes as examples.

There are three rooms in our haunted house, and three parts to this walk:

  • Devil in the Details
  • Hide the Gun
  • and Bumps in the Write.

C’mon, the door’s opening. It’s dark in there. Don’t make me go in there alone.

Devil in the Details

Have you ever been to the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland? There’s a painting of a young woman walking with a parasol, and when the floor drops it shows that she’s on a tightrope over a pit of alligators.

Details can be like that. You think you have it figured out until you see the hungry reptiles. “Look at those choppers!” (What movie is that from? Hint: it’s about a writer.)

Research is your friend.

More research is better, until it’s not. Let me give you an example.

Once upon a time, my wife was reading a romance novel and she started laughing. “The heroine just rode her horse from her home in Pasadena down to the beach and it only took twenty minutes!”

Okay, if you live around Southern California, you know that’s not really possible. My guess is the author did some research, looked at a map and estimated the distance, thinking it could easily happen. It’s a small part of the story, so no big deal, right? Like the plastic skeleton that drops down next to you in the haunted house.

Here’s another reptilian Devil from a romance novel: The heroine’s honey works in the space program, for Nassau, er, NASA. Yep, “Nassau in the Bahamas.” Cue the skeleton. 

Side note: these novels are, on purpose, quite old. I’m not picking on these writers. Well, maybe a little.

To show that I’m fair I’ll tell “the beer story” on myself. Most of the scars have healed.

Anyway, after my first Surf City Mystery came out, I got a letter. A fan letter! Yowza! Hot Dog!

I’m hopping around, bouncing off the ceiling because this guy loves the book. Then I get to the end where he says, “But, James, you have a character peel the label off of a bottle of Corona beer.” (I think, “Well, so? “) “It’s not possible,” he writes. “Corona labels are painted on.”

My next scream was me jumping when the holographic ghost sat down next to me.

A Pet Peeve

One more detail because it’s a pet peeve of mine and it turns up all the time.

The super spy hero swims up to the beach and peels off his wet suit to reveal a tuxedo, complete with carnation. Nope. It’s called a wet suit because you get wet. A dry suit — completely different — does not allow water in.

Details like this stand out to the reader. They’re bad because they cast doubt on the rest of the book.

Hide the Gun 

When you are facing the dreaded “What happens now?” don’t make it too easy. Decide what happens next, and then make it harder. Put something in between where you are and where you want to be.

Spoiler Alert

If you haven’t seen the amazing movie, The Godfather yet, you should go see it immediately.

In The Godfather the bad guys try to kill Don Corleone, so his son Michael decides to kill them at a meeting. One of his men hides a gun at the restaurant where the meeting is to take place. Michael goes into the Men’s Room to get it and can’t find it!

Now what?

At last he finds it. Whew! Then, instead of shooting them, back at the table he sits down and continues the conversation.

What?! He doesn’t shoot immediately. Has he lost his nerve? Now what’s wrong?

"Hide the Gun" means don’t make it too straightforward.

Does he kill them? Do they sleep with the fishes? Wouldn’t you like to know? Hiding the gun makes the story way more interesting than Michael simply walking in, picking it up, and blowing their brains out.

Bumps in the Write

Above all, you want your audience to keep reading. A “bump” is anything that slows them down.

The prime offending speed bump is confusing dialog and cases where the reader has to stop and think or, worse yet, go back to figure out who’s speaking. This is sloppy, but an easy mistake to make (and to fix).

From my own House of Horrors, here is a recent instance in which the holographic ghost not only climbed into the car, she also sat on my lap.

A beta reader loved my new book and then said, “but there were places where I had to go back to figure out who was speaking.” Boo! Here comes a zombie to sit with the ghost.

When a reader has to stop and figure out who’s speaking, you know they’ve hit that bump called “sloppy writing.”

Watch out for this, even when there are only two speakers, especially if the dialog goes on to more than one page. And always, always remember that you know these characters. You know who’s speaking so your brain fills it in. Look for this bump when you edit.

Do these things matter? You bet they do because they are “bumps in your writing” These bumps are what make your reader stop in confusion instead of turning the page. 

Don’t Be Afraid

Here’s how to fix those traps, or at least make them less painful. 

Study your craft.

You’re already doing that by reading this blog. Writers In the Storm essays are a gold mine of good advice. Conventions and classes can help, too — but remember your job is to write. Balance convention/class/study time with actual pounding the keyboard.

Remember, we’re all in this together.

The folks that run Writers in the Storm and contributors like me are at your side as the floor drops and the alligators are revealed. Whatever problems you encounter we have probably been there, too.

Get beta readers.

Find readers and learn how to handle their comments. Listen to what they have to say.

Read this great article for the why and how of beta readers.

In the haunted house, the scary figures are really there to entertain you. Your early readers are — or certainly should be — on your side. If it’s all possible get at least one reader who is not familiar with the work. In my case, with the confusing dialog, the first readers knew the books and knew who was speaking. A new reader didn’t. 

Final Thoughts

Remember when I said, “Come with me?” I meant it. We’re all in this together. 

I’ll close by adding a word to your vocabulary. When a young friend was guiding me through a challenging computer game called Halo, he’d say, “James, look behind you!” That was almost always followed by, “Too late!”

In gamer terms he was my Sherpa, like Tenzing with Sir Edmund Hillary. It’s called Sherpa-ing.

And that’s what Writers in the Storm does. We Sherpa new writers and each other as we make our way through the haunted house called writing fiction.

Watch the details. Hide the gun. Avoid the bumps. 

Bonus task: Find a gamer and ask them if they’ve Sherpa’d anybody lately. They’ll be impressed.

Now that I’ve revealed some of my mistakes, how about you? Wanna share them with us down in the comments? Have any of your readers called you out on any of your details? C’mon, there are new writers out there who will read your comment and learn from your mistakes.

* * * * * *

About James

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley. 

Find out more about James at his website.


Top Photo by Eleanor Brooke on Unsplash

45 comments on “3 Common Traps That Can Hurt Your Story (And How to Avoid Them)”

  1. I have to say how much I enjoyed this, James. For one, the way you wrote it is very readable, and I read every word. I especially liked the Hide the Gun part. It's the area I've struggled with the most. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you, Ane. My goal -- and I've talked at length about this with the fine folks that run Writers in the Storm -- is to keep you reading. I'm glad you liked it. I struggle with Hide the Gun, too. I think I'm so interested in what happens next that I want to get there fast. I've decided it's ok to add complications in the second draft. I'm glad the essay helped.
      Now get back to work. Type faster!

    1. Thanks, Terry! That's right about endurance athletes and I hadn't thought of it. Now I suspect there are more categories of sherpas out there than I realized.

  2. Had to google 'Tenzing,' not because I didn't know who he was, but because I wasn't sure I had the spelling right in MY mind.

    That's research: if you're not SURE, be sure to check. SOMETHING in your mind is trying to warn you.

    1. Yes! That's a great point, Alicia. Revising my current WIP, (called Remains To Be Seen and I should have the galleys any day now. End of commercial. We now return you to your regular program.) I had a quote from "The Magnificent Seven" that I attributed to Yul Brenner, but that little voice you mentioned nagged at me, so I checked. Nope. James Coburn.

  3. Great reminders in this post. Before self-publishing my debut novel,The Winter Loon,I corrected the time line in one chapter without realizing it changed a historical fact from the 1930s in an earlier chapter. My editor also didn't notice, but one of my early readers caught it. I was mortified and corrected the mistake right away. I still have a box of the original books with the error sitting in my garage.

    1. Ouch! Lori, I guess the only positive spin is that you did find the error and corrected it. Timeline is something that comes up and bites me every now and then. The last time I went through my ms I jotted "Timeline" in the margin every time I found a reference. Then I went back and made a list of those notes. And I caught a mistake. I will definitely do that again.

    1. LOL Thanks, Sara. And BOO! Yes, I wanted to keep it as painless as possible, even though there were a few scares involved. I'm glad you liked it and hope it helps with your current WIP.

  4. This was so well written, I took extra time to just enjoy your writing!

    I have two stories about mistakes in books.

    One from my own: I'd done some research and had access to perhaps too much not exactly public information in the area of law enforcement. I gave the book to a pro to read and he told me that I couldn't say THAT. Apparently it was not a commonly known fact and we don't want the bad guys to know. Good point. I changed it before it went to print.

    One from a well known author who I won't name because I can't remember. My husband and I used to run an airplane maintenance facility. Our kids were homeschooled and we all carpooled to work together each day. My son found a cool audiobook that he wanted us to listen to. We're driving to work, and this author starts talking about flying. Okay, this man has never been near a small plane in his life, and clearly didn't do any research. It was *bad*. My husband popped the CD out of the deck and handed it to my son. "If he got it that wrong, you don't want to waste your time on the rest of the book!" LWA has a class on "Flying Write" to help authors avoid this mistake. But that event has really stuck with me to remind me to do my research on anything I don't know... because it is too easy to get it wrong. (I still find it shocking that no one who edited that book or beta read it had ever been near a small plane either...)

    1. Oh, Lisa, those are great stories!
      Here's one of mine.
      Famous writer, basically invented the technothriller, no longer living (but his books go on).
      I'm reading about a character named "Rand" and when I turn the page to a new chapter I'm reading about a guy named "Rend." I thought, "How could I miss a new character? Did I doze off and lose track?"
      Nope. Later he went back to being "Rand." Can you spell "Ouch!"
      In his novel Ringworld, the brilliant sf writer Larry Niven has a character traveling East to race the sunset. In later editions he fixed it so the earth rotated in the right direction. Look for a first paperback edition of Ringworld. it's worth money.
      What is this web site that has flying information? Sounds useful.
      Thanks for joining us!

  5. Thanks for this entertaining and informative post. I'd never considered "drop the gun" before but it makes sense. Yes we want to barrel on through to the action and go full bore all the way. Sometimes it's nice to have a will they or won't they tension builder.

    And speaking of guns, one of my pet peeves is having a character load a clip into their 9mm Glock. It's a magazine, not a clip. Not many guns use clips anymore.

    1. That one makes me nutty too, Brenda. It's right up there with thinking the "AR" in AR15 stands for "assault rifle." It's ArmaLite, people. Stop watching TV and do your research. I grew up with military people and they were twitchy about things like that.

      1. Research is half the fun, and makes for an interesting search history and bookmarks.

        I will admit rather shamelessly that I often don't name cities like NY, Chicago, Dublin, Berlin simply because even with research, streets, landmarks, and other odds and ends are so easy to get wrong. Vague can work in my favor sometimes and I'm not afraid to use it.

        1. Brenda, you are so right! I have to be careful about getting sucked into research and never quitting.
          There's an anecdote about James Michener working on his novel Texas and I believe he read several hundred -- yes hundred -- books. Whew! Thanks for commenting.

  6. Keep in mind that some words have changed meaning over the years. I once wrote, "She slipped into her thongs and headed for the door." Thongs have morphed into flip-flops and thongs . . . well, you know.

    1. Yes! Good comment, Sally! The language changes all the time. I remember when people would say, "What time do you have?" because watches & clocks could be slightly different. No more. Everybody has satellite time, specific to your location and corrected for relativity.
      For my mother, a tall man was a "high pockets" or a "moon fixer." The list could go on.
      "Thongs" is great! I hadn't thought of thongs like that, er, I mean, uh, I think I'll quit now.
      Thanks again.

    1. Absolutely right, V. M. Just look at the examples people have been sending in. I think I hit a nerve.
      Thanks for joining the conversation. Glad you liked the post!

  7. When researching a city, one must do more than use wikipedia, too.

    I remember a book where the writer's story chose the wrong building to be the significant landmark. Also, the writer used another building with a name that has hotel in it, but that hotel was converted to apartments years ago. And, the neighborhood where the main character lived, just no.

    But, like a good reader, I never said anything to the writer.

    1. I agree that more than Wikipedia has to be used. All sorts of searches have to be done. I guess that's why I seldom name a city. Most all of them have things in common without going into specifics. High rent area, high crime area, financial district, arts and theater district, suburbs, shopping district, etc. etc.
      And yes, I let things slide also. Maybe it's because as writers we understand.

      1. Brenda, you have pointed out a tough decision. In my case, the Huntington Beach I write about is almost the real thing, but there are a few differences. For example, years ago there was a bar on Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street called Cagney's. It fell to the new renovation, but in my stories it's still there. Someday I'll do an essay for my web page where I list all of these changes.
        In the Introduction to Joyland (a first-rate thriller, BTW), Stephen King says that carnival experts will note that he has made up some of the slang. He says, "That's why they call it fiction."
        Thanks for making me think of it.

        1. Exactly. It's fiction. I do recall a diner from years ago that resembled one of the cars from an old Silver Bullet or Zephyr train or an extended Airstream trailer. I don't even remember the name. We just called it the Aluminum Room. I don't even know if it still exists.
          It's something that would fit into just about any midsize city. And who knows, I might use it one day.
          That's fun too. Plucking things out of memory and plopping them down where we need them, fictional town or not.

  8. A total no-excuse mistake: I changed the last name of one of my main characters from the first book to the second. Didn't realize it until three years later.

    1. Don't feel bad, Amy. I was reading a hardback first edition by a famous author with a character named "Rand." In the next chapter I met a man named "Rend." I thought, "How on earth did I miss this guy?!" The next chapter he turned back into Rend. I don't recall the title, but the writer was Tom Clancy.
      And this leads to another issue we face: when to quit. Quitting in the sure knowledge that as soon as the book's in print someone will find an error.
      My advice: Go with gut feel. I know of no other way.
      Thanks for sharing!

      1. I agree. There's a meme that makes the rounds periodically: "The best way to find errors in your book is to open to any random page right after the book is published." And this despite the endless rounds of proofreading...

        1. Yes! I think that's a law of nature. However, with modern print-on-demand, errors can be fixed. Of course, that can be a never-ending process. When are you really done? There are stories that daVinci carried the Mona Lisa around with him for years, working on it till he got it just right. In his case, it was worth it. In mine, well, not so much.

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