There’s a wealth of advice in the writing world about improving your story. How to write realistic characters, gripping conflict, dynamic plot. There are endless ways to keep readers hooked until the very last page.
It’s plainly time for a change of pace.
(Warning: heavy sarcasm ahead.)
(You may find nuggets of wisdom poking out in bold here and there, but only read them if you want to improve your storytelling.)
1. End a Scene Without Anything Going Wrong
Picture this: It’s the middle of your book. Two of the main characters are dangling their feet off the edge of a towering building, gazing into the sunburned sky as the sun slips beyond the horizon. The plot has pushed them mercilessly, and the characters are just catching their breath. There on the roof, one of them shares a personal feeling that he’s never confessed to anyone. It’s a tender moment; heart-warming, vulnerable.
And the chapter ends.
Fipp. The pages slam shut with a gust of papery air as the reader snaps the book closed.
Because the reader found a “good place to stop,” which is another way of saying, “A valid reason to put your book away and never read it again.”
Unless you are actually following these steps and legitimately trying to ruin your story, it’s your job as a writer to push one of those characters off of the roof. Otherwise, if you end a scene and nothing goes wrong by the last page, you have successfully ruined your story.
Yes, good stories have special moments, just like that sunset example, but never end a scene there. Expert writers know that, before the scene ends, something terrible needs to happen. Either one of those characters needs to fall off the edge, or one of them needs to reveal a shocking secret that stuns both their friend and the reader, changing the trajectory of the plot (“What do you mean, you killed her?!”).
Therefore, if you don’t want to keep your reader hooked, never end the scene just after something terrible happens. That would force the reader to turn the page and keep reading.
2. Write a Lot of Backstory
Backstory is just like your actual story—except it’s the part that nobody wants to read! Inserting backstory in your story is like telling your reader, “Hey, I know this story is about what’s happening now, so I’m going to tell you all about what happened then instead.”
The key to a terrible backstory is to use flashback scenes to tell the history of every character. Twist back the clocks and dwell in the past, even though that’s not what your book is about. Because only good stories imply the character’s past with clever dialogue, meaningful actions, or pithy streams-of-consciousness.
Poor backstory works even better when recounting the history of a dead character. After all, nothing kills suspense like knowing the guy’s fate before it happens. Describe in detail what happened to this dead character as if it were a part of your actual story, and readers will abandon your book in record numbers. Plus, this technique immediately quenches every burning question the reader had about that character, shattering the mystery and breaking the tension.
Yes, there are times when backstory is effective (Stranger Things demonstrates this masterfully), but it only works when it is treated as a subplot. Like a Christopher Nolan film, if your backstory is a subplot that meshes with the main narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, then your story can be driven forward by what happened in the past. You can cut back and forth between the main plot and the backstory plot, like any subplot.
3. Include Morally Perfect Characters
Another effective way to mutilate an otherwise fine story is to wave giant crimson flags over certain characters and shout, “These are the good guys!”
Morally perfect characters are as appealing as toothpaste cupcakes.
This wonderfully horrid mistake is most often applied to the mentor character. So if you want to destroy your story, create an impeccable mentor. Literally everything this mentor does and says should be kind, wise, gentle, and flawless. Don’t give them quirks and weaknesses. They should never make a mistake, never say something foolish or flawed. Even better, include their backstory about “once, long ago,” when they made a mistake—and imply that they’ve never done anything wrong since.
To make this step especially destructive, absolutely never apply the advice, “Heroes are flawed people who make noble choices,” to your story.
4. Linger on Pointless Descriptions
To confuse, lose, and abuse your reader, spend lots of time describing everything in your scene. Is there a bookshelf in the corner? How is the room decorated? Is the clock ticking? Is the bird chirping? How exactly is the character’s hair styled today—patiently detail its appearance like an article in a stylist magazine. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the story you’re writing, but it is distracting and annoying—essential ingredients for a ruined story.
Conversely, meaningful descriptions draw the reader’s attention to what matters in the story. Like a masterful oil painting, good scenes have a focal point, an area that catches your eye and captures the essence of the scene. Good stories don’t avoid description—instead, they use it like a magnet to lead the reader on, creating expectations, emotions, suspense, mystery.
Which means the key to a bad story is drawing attention to literally everything with no meaning or purpose. While good stories set the scene with important details that give the reader a sense of time and place, bad stories splash detail all over the page, using flowery words for their own sake. Nothing interrupts the emotion like a whole page of poetry in the middle of a suspenseful moment.
5. Switch Points of View at Random
That’s right, don’t stay in one character’s head for the duration of a scene—describe the hero’s thoughts in one paragraph and the villain’s thoughts in the next.
Jumping back and forth between perspectives will remind your reader of a good game of dodgeball—where the reader is the ball.
It’s so tempting as an author. While writing a scene, you know exactly what the villain is thinking, so you just blurt out and say it, spilling all the secrets and utterly confusing the reader. Few techniques are as effective as this one at annoying readers and turning away editors. (One book that somehow got away with this horrid mistake is The Land of Stories.)
On the other hand, the technique many authors use to successfully tell their story is called third person limited. It means that they tell the story from the point of view of one character, using pronouns like she said, she thought, and she did, never disclosing information that the character doesn’t experience or know personally.
So to completely wreck the suspension of disbelief, share a multitude of details that the hero can’t possibly know—all while jumping from head to head mid-scene. You would think this creates suspense, switching to the villain’s mind, but instead, it makes the reader feel like a confused telepath, hearing everybody’s thoughts at the same time.
If you want to create suspense in a good way, which of course we aren’t discussing here, only switch perspectives when starting a brand-new scene or chapter—and stay in that character’s head for the duration of the scene. This way the reader will never feel confused; they will enjoy hearing the story from different points of view as the tension builds.