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Common Pitfalls for Beginning Fiction Writers


This handout discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.

Contributors:Dana Bisignani
Last Edited: 2010-04-21 08:15:05

Many of the issues with which beginning poets struggle will also apply to beginning fiction writers. However, students writing fiction will also struggle with some craft issues specific to their genre.

Beginning fiction writers tend to:

Summary vs. Scene

Beginning fiction writers will still be learning how to differentiate scene from summary and when to use each. Their stories may not yet have clear distinctions between one scene and the next, or their story may be one long summary. It is often helpful to reinforce the differences between summary and scene during the tutorial, especially if the student’s story has a great deal of summary.

Scene: takes place in real-time, like a movie, usually contains dialogue between characters, and should be used for important interactions and events.

Sample Scene:

She was quiet as he drove her home. He parked by the curb in front of the yellow house with its overgrown lawn. She reached into her purse and pulled out a white envelope and handed it to him.
“Read it later,” she said.
The car door squeaked as she got out.

Summary: moves quickly, giving the reader important highlights or reminders, and is used for background information. Bits of summary often occur within scenes.

Sample Summary:

He remembered the letter she’d written him last summer. She’d given it to him on their last date after he’d driven her home. She’d said she never wanted to see him again. He still had the letter tucked under his shirts in a drawer.

A written scene is like a scene in a movie: we watch everything that happens to the character(s) as the action unfolds. Summary is more like watching a character talking to you on the screen about something that already happened to him/her: this would get boring if it went on for too long.

Telling vs. Showing

Most of us have heard the old adage “show, don't tell.” In order to become involved in a piece of prose, a reader must be able to see, hear, taste, touch and smell things throughout the story. Is the setting painted clearly and vividly? Are characters described well? Showing is especially important when writing scenes.

Here are some ways to help students concentrate on showing.

Getting the Scope of the Story Under Control

Many beginning fiction writers have read more novels than short stories. While novels have hundreds of pages to lay out setting, character, and action, a short story may have only twenty pages (or less for an introductory workshop). If you notice that a student’s story lacks action in the first few pages or seems to be dragging, s/he may be struggling with scope.

Here are ways to steer the writer in the right direction.

Fixing Stereotypical Characters

A student may or may not be aware that s/he has employed a stereotypical character. If they’re not aware, point it out to them and work from there. Stereotypes may appear in issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, even a character’s occupation or interests.

Remind the student that stereotypes are predictable, and readers would rather connect to a character that seems more real, flaws and all.

Here are some ways to help the student flesh out a stereotyped character.

Reining in Overly Dramatic Plots

Most beginning fiction writers worry about plot. Will it be entertaining and hold the reader’s interest? Will it be exciting enough? However, plot often evolves from strong characters, not shocking events. If a student’s story contains exploding cars or houses, car wrecks, or multiple deaths, they may have an overblown plot.

Here are a few tactics to help them out.


Most beginning fiction writers will need to work on showing vs. telling, scope, character development, and plot progression. Encourage them to read as many short stories as they can for models, and remind them to keep it real in order to keep the reader involved.

For more suggestions on working with beginning poets and fiction writers, view the accompanying PowerPoint presentation “Working with Creative Writers.”

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