It’s the fear of every writer: writing a story your reader CAN put down. No writer wants to think their story is boring, but sometimes it is. Fortunately, there are only a few reasons stories are boring. Once you know what they are, you can make sure that your reader will keep reading.
1) No Stake Raisers
This is the number one reason a story is boring. A story has to have conflict. But the conflict has to escalate in each scene, or the story gets old fast. For example, if a killer with an axe is chasing a girl around in the woods, that’s a good conflict. But if all the girl ever does is run, that’s boring. We can only take her running for a few seconds before we need her to do something else. She could try to hide, get help, or set a trap.
Of course, each of her attempts will end in failure until the final one. While watching her try and fail adds to the tension, her next move should be something different from her last move. Once her first trap fails, watching her try to set the same trap again isn’t interesting, because we just saw that. She needs to think of something better that has the potential to actually work so that the ending isn’t a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile the killer gets closer and closer…
2) No Sequence
For a story to make sense, things need to happen in a certain order. This order is the only way the events can logically happen. This is known as sequence. Sometimes, in our eagerness to torture our characters, bad things keep happening to them that have nothing to do with the actual story. These characters are simply unlucky, and readers tire of unlucky characters very quickly. For example, a man moves into a haunted house PLUS he owes a lot of money to creditors. That last part is an interesting detail that does nothing to advance the story.
However, it makes sense if a man moves into a haunted house BECAUSE he’s so deep in debt he can’t afford anything else. His debt is now an important part of the story since it eliminated his safer options.
3) Realistic Dialogue
Realistic dialogue kills stories. Realistic dialogue is filled with vague ideas and hesitations. No one wants to read that. Instead, you want ‘authentic dialogue’ that matches your story.
For example, a well off woman from the Victorian era searching for a husband is going to speak very differently than a knight of the Other Realm searching for a sacred object. In both cases, it’s going to be different from how modern people really speak. Authentic dialogue matches the time and place. This draws your reader into your story instead of yanking them out.
4) Purple Prose
There’s nothing wrong with using descriptive phrases and metaphors like ‘the jaundiced light soaked the room’ or ‘her legs turned into noodles’. In fact, these types of descriptions take up about 30% of the average book.
Just make sure that your prose isn’t turning purple. Purple Prose is writing that includes far too many insignificant details and uses too many words to show them. For example:
- Emma embraced the effervescent bloom patterned bag with the fastener made from the metal alloy made of copper and zinc to her bosom and discerned where her engaged love could be.
Is very different than the much clearer version:
- Emma clutched her delicate floral bag to her chest and looked for her fiancé.
Writers use Purple Prose like a crutch to impress their readers. However, readers are impressed more by a well-written story than flowery language.
5) Telling, Not Showing
There’s an old saying in writing; show, don’t tell. But what does that actually mean? Telling is the natural way to explain a story, that’s why you ‘tell’ stories around a campfire. However, readers are more interested in having a story appeal to their senses then to their brain. It’s almost like feeling a story.
Telling a story reads like this:
- The woman lowered the sledgehammer down on the skull and smashed it.
You can see the woman, the skull, and the sledgehammer, but it only connects with people at an intellectual level. They aren’t caught up in the story because they didn’t feel anything.
- The sledgehammer slammed into the skull with a satisfying crunch, creating an explosion of bone dust and shrapnel.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling instead of showing. After all, not only is it our default, it’s just easier. Too much tell and not enough show will kill what could otherwise be a great story.
6) Textbook Writing
Almost as bad as too Purple Prose is what I call Textbook Writing. This kind of writing is all tell with very little show. It’s a favorite of writers who have done a lot of research in preparation for their novel.
If a nineteenth century man is visiting a carnival and says ‘beautiful carousel’ the next paragraph should not be an in depth description of what makes a nineteenth century carousel run. Yes, it’s beneficial for the author to know how a carousel runs if that’s a key part of the story so that he avoids anachronisms, but he certainly does not need to include every little detail that he has learned. Textbook writing is just an info dump. Cut everything except the details that are essential to your narrative.
7) Getting Caught Up in Descriptions
If you were raised on ‘the classics,’ then you probably noticed how many pages they devoted to scenery and locations. When you are just starting out writing, it’s tempting to follow their lead. After all, they are the masters. The problem is, they were masters of another time, a time when people knew very little about the world and needed all that description to see it.
In the modern age, even people who never leave their hometowns know a great deal about the world through television and the internet. If they want details on how ice-covered trees look, they can simply google it instead of needing every single icicle described. Describing one icicle in less than a paragraph is sufficient.
8) Spending Too Much Time On Things That Don’t Matter
Of course, scenery isn’t the only thing writers spend too much time describing. Many writers spend too much time developing characters that get killed off early in the story. They also show good luck charms, objects, or places we never see again. These factors, along with an interesting but ultimately irrelevant history, all make appearances in boring stories.
Every item, every scene, should be designed to move your story forward. Interesting things that don’t quite fit are boring things. Good writers know what to cut, not just what to put in.
If you enjoyed this post about writing a novel, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Plot?
- 4 Plot Pitfalls You Need to Avoid
- Map Out Your Character’s Transformation Using the 9 Enneagram “Levels of Development”
- The Four Drafts Your Novel Needs (and Why You Probably Won't Use a Single Word of Your First Draft!)