Three Things That Can Sink Your Novel

by James Scott Bell

We had quite a deluge recently in L.A. The good news is we’re out of drought conditions. The bad news is that mudslides and traffic accidents had their predictable increases. Also, a 40-foot sinkhole on a major street opened like the jaws of a subterranean monster, swallowing two vehicles. As reported on local news Channel 5:

A mother and her teen daughter had to be rescued and taken to the hospital Monday night after their Nissan, along with a pickup truck, fell inside the sinkhole.

The passengers in the pickup were able to escape their vehicle uninjured, but the truck landed on top of the Nissan, trapping the woman and the teen.

It took first responders with the Los Angeles Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire and Ventura Fire about an hour to pull the mother and daughter from the sinkhole in a dangerous rescue operation.

“It was a dynamic rescue,” LAFD Cpt. Erik Scott said. “The cars were shifting, moving. Firefighters did an outstanding job with the calculated rescue. We lowered ladders and ultimately did what we call a high angle rope rescue where we had our big aerial ladder truck, lower a firefighter on a rope, secure a harness, lift those people to safety.”

Here’s what that looked like (click to enlarge):

Thank God no one was seriously injured. And since I can’t turn off my metaphor machine, I found myself thinking about another kind of sinkhole—fiction blunders that can bring the reading experience to a dead stop. Such as:

The Tiresome Lead

A quirky, even interesting, Lead character can quickly wear out his welcome if he goes unchallenged by a little thing I like to call plot. Unless that character faces some trouble, and soon, I’m not likely to wait around. (Sorry fans of A Confederacy of Dunces, but I tried three times to get into this book, and the over-quirked and obnoxious Lead who just roams around whining and jabbering sank me every time.)

Think about another annoying Lead—Scarlett O’Hara. When we first meet her, she’s sitting on her porch flirting with the Tarleton twins. A couple pages of this and we’re almost ready to move on, until…a disturbance. The first sign of trouble for Scarlett—Ashley is going to marry Melanie! That leads to her plan to corner Ashley at the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, which becomes an argument, which leads Ashley storming out, thence to Scarlett throwing a china bowl at the fireplace…at which the voice of Rhett Butler comes from the sofa, “This is too much.”

Three pages later, Charles Hamilton tells her the war has started, and in his clumsy way asks her to marry him. To spite Ashley, she says yes. Hoo boy, is she ever going to have trouble now.

JSB Sinkhole Avoidance Technique #1: Give a disturbance on the opening page, even a subtle one, to shake the Lead out of her placid existence. Then start to pile on the troubles.

The Distant Doorway

It is not until the Lead is forced into the confrontation of Act 2 that full engagement is realized and the main plot begins. Dorothy has immediate trouble with Miss Gulch, who takes Toto away. But it’s not until the twister dumps her in Oz that the story proper begins.

JSB Sinkhole Avoidance Technique #2: Push your Lead through the Doorway of No Return (what some call Plot Point 1) no later than 1/5 into the book (the 1/4 mark is more applicable to screenplays). In GWTW the war breaks out at the 20% mark. (I’m amused at how Margaret Mitchell keeps things moving. The first chapter after passing through the Doorway of No Return begins: Within two weeks Scarlett had become a wife, and within two months more she was a widow. So much for Charles! Let’s move on to Rhett.)

Stakes Less Than Death

I’ve written here before about death stakes. Unless the conflict is a life-and-death struggle, the plot will not engage as it should.

Now, there are three kinds of death. Physical (an obvious one for thrillers), professional, and psychological. Your novel needs one of these as primary. The others can be added below the surface.

For example, Harry Bosch faces all three at one time or another in the Michael Connelly series. I would argue that the primary in most of the books is psychological. For Bosch, his employment as a cop is often on the line (professional) but he is obsessed with cold cases and seemingly “unimportant” victims. “Everybody counts or nobody counts,” he tells a police psychologist in The Last Coyote. “That’s it. It means I bust my ass to make a case whether it’s a prostitute or the mayor’s wife. That’s my rule.” Why? Because his mother, a prostitute, was murdered when he was eleven, and the case went unsolved. To keep from dying inside (psychological death) Bosch gives his all to the forgotten victims.

JSB Sinkhole Avoidance Technique #3: Brainstorm all three types of death for your Lead. Not all may apply, but it’s a good exercise. For example, in a cozy mystery professional (or vocational) death for the sleuth is usually the primary. Miss Marple is faced with a seemingly intractable mystery. Usually there’s not someone out trying to kill her (though maybe that was in a book or two, I don’t know). You, perhaps, might find it a nice way to up the stakes in your cozy.

Avoiding speed bumps, potholes, and sinkholes is part of our craft. And if I may offer a commercial to help in this regard, consider 27 Fiction Writing Blunders – And How Not To Make Them and Plotman to the Rescue: A Troubleshooting Guide to Fixing Your Toughest Plot Problems. I’m here to help.

Any other sinkholes you spot in fiction?

And please drive safe, especially in the rain.

36 thoughts on “Three Things That Can Sink Your Novel

  1. I agree with you on of A Confederacy of Dunces: I found it terrifying – some good writing in service of… THAT. I barely made it to the end of Chapter 1 by pushing myself.

    Another sinkhole seems to be putting pieces in at random or because they’re interesting – and never connecting them. I like to think that even though I write long novels, nothing is thrown in unless it’s going to affect the plot six ways from Sunday. And drive a character wild.

    Real life can be slow, but books can’t afford that: they’re supposed to be the good stuff, with the dross zip-lined. If someone is making pancakes, there better be something wrong with them. Don’t give readers words they can skip and skim!

    The stakes in books for adults have to be worth the time you’re asking of them – and long books take a lot. Nothing less than forcing them to examine what they hold holy.

  2. As I read this post I was thinking about a manuscript myself & a friend just finished in rough draft form, and one of the revision corrections is going to be the very issue of the Lead not being challenged enough in the opening (and some other scenes). We will need to evaluate the death stakes for the character in revision.

    In other work, I’ve just pulled out of the drawer a solo manuscript I drafted 10 years ago and am re-reading to begin making revisions–one of the things I’m noticing in my writing is that I tend to enter the story too early. Maybe I’ll learn intuitively how to avoid that in future manuscripts but it seems like sometimes you just have to write those scenes anyway, even if they are not the ultimate start of your book.

    I am also noticing in the re-read that I don’t use enough dialogue in places and there is a distinct difference in pacing when you read a scene with well thought out dialogue and a scene that is too passive. So these re-reads for revision are a good learning experience.

    • All good points, BK. The entering too early problem is quite common. I have advised many writers over the years to do the Chapter 2 Switcheroo– just make chapter 2 your new chapter 1. Any exposition from chapter 1 you want to include can be woven in later. It really works wonders.

      I’ve also seen and therefore advocate (heck, wrote a book about it) that dialogue is the fastest way to improve any manuscript.

  3. Scary story, Jim. Glad no one was seriously hurt. CA has four seasons: earthquakes, drought, wildfires, and sinkholes.

    Thanks for discussing the three types of death–professional, physical, and psychological. If the stakes aren’t significant enough, the reader doesn’t care. I quickly get bored with a character whose biggest worry is a broken fingernail…unless she breaks it trying to claw her way out of a sinkhole.

  4. I suppose opening with a car falling into a sinkhole is a reasonable exception to the “Don’t open with the weather” rule. Having lived in the canyons near Los Angeles for a few decades, fires and the resulting mudslides were always an issue. Living in Florida for a few more decades, sinkholes were commonplace.
    This post helps revive my confidence that my current WIP lacks a homicide for my cop to solve, but he’s dealing with his personal deaths. Let’s hope my readers will accept a mystery without a dead body.

  5. Stories with no characters that I engage with, relate to, or pull for…
    If I’ve read a good ways into the story and find I don’t care what happens to the protagonist(s) I’ve learned to cut my losses and exit. (“Confederacy…” was a perfect example of this)
    Many stories with a cast of generally disagreeable characters are popular but they are a sinkhole for me.

    • That is one giant sinkhole, Tom. Totally agree with you. One can start with a disagreeable character, then artfully get the readers engaged in hope of their redemption. See, eg, Scrooge, Scarlett O’Hara.

  6. Sound advice, Jim, and very timely for my wip.

    As for A Confederacy of Dunces, you’re right. I finished it. (That’s not a boast – that’s a regret.) Every review I read convinced me I’d love it. The lead is everything you say, and worse.

  7. I’m glad that sinkhole story had a happy ending, Jim. Those yawning pits are terrifying. It does make a good metaphor for problems with fiction. As usual, you offer very useful advice. Excellent point about professional or “vocational” death often being the primary for cozies. I agree, though I see psychological at work in modern ones, especially if a friend or innocent needs to be cleared of the murder(s). The risk of physical death is usually saved in modern cozies for the reveal/confrontation with the murderer at the climax.

    Speaking of endings additional sinkhole I see at times is the too-sudden, rushed ending, without the validation/denouement. This can depend on the genre, but as a reader I like to briefly be with the hero in the new or restored world, and not just have it implied.

    I did make it through “A Confederacy of Dunces,” having to read it for an advance creative writing class I took in collage at twenty at the instructor’s insistence. It was a quick read because I had to get through it. Little happened.

  8. Frightening experience for that mother and child. Glad they weren’t seriously hurt.

    Like Alicia mentioned, it drives me crazy when strands are left dangling. If it was important enough to draw the reader’s attention to it, the author best follow through, even if it’s used as misdirection or a red herring. The only exception that springs to mind is if the author leaves one breadcrumb that’ll explode in the next book.

    • I agree, Sue, as long as it’s only a crumb and not a big slice of plot bread. I once read the first book of a two book series, which ended right in the middle of the plot. I found out later it was really one big book, but the publisher thought they could bait and switch people into buying two books that way. Bad move!

  9. What a terrifying story about the sinkhole in California. So glad everyone survived. I will no longer make jokes about the potholes in Memphis being big enough to swallow an automobile.

    Thanks for the reminder about the three kinds of death stakes. My question: can an author take this too far? I recently finished a novel in which the protagonist experienced all three types of death: physical abuse, psychological trauma, and professional death. However, I think the author missed the lecture on subtlety in fiction because there was no nuance. Just 400 pages of one-dimensional, socio-political opinion hammering away through the plight of the main character.

    To stick with your metaphor, Jim, is it possible for an author to think he/she is creating a hurdle for the character to clear when they’re actually creating a sinkhole for the reader to fall into?

    • Great question, Kay. I do think it’s best when one form of death is primary, and the others used to add, as you put it, “subtle” depth.

      And yes, any hurdle/trouble that is larded on can be too much. I advocate overwriting those moments in the first draft. You can always tone it down in revision.

  10. Maybe not a sinkhole, but a pothole: absence or drought of speaker attributions. Eliminating unnecessary attributions is encouraged, but when I have to start going back and counting every other line of dialogue to decipher who is speaking, I am pulled out of the suspension of disbelief and am beginning to “talk” to the author.

  11. There’s a few so-called sink holes getting on my nerves these days. Too much banter and explanation. I guess I’m into reading about how the leads react to circumstance rather than the author taking too much time explaining the background, character thoughts or feelings.

  12. CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES is literary fiction of its period. Whining, navel gazing, and making life choices so stupid a small child can see the disastrous outcome IS the plot. And people wondered why English-major Me chose popular fiction over that boring dross.

    Sinkholes of character and plot are a good 25% of what I write about on my blog. Nothing like a really bad author choice in the current book I’m reading to spur the content of my weekly blog. I hit a new sinkhole I’ve never had before in a science fiction novel I read a few nights ago. This from an author I highly recommend. The tour de force of world building is so ridiculously complex with so many characters, alien races, and galactic politics that even I couldn’t keep most of it in my head, and I can hold the nuances of a Henry James novel or a massive series in this over-educated noggin. The really sad thing is I didn’t even care for any of these characters or the outcome by the end of the novel.

      • No, that’s just high-end standard world building in both fantasy and science fiction. Few can equal Tolkien with his education and linguistic abilities, of course. I have read that a majority of George RR Martin’s world building isn’t remotely original. He just used it as stage dressing for his complex plot and characters.

        This author wrote this novel originally in chapter segments for her Patreon members so the author was reacting to the reader questions and interests. The many races and characters wasn’t so overwhelming and complex for these readers, and the author and readers discussed everything. The author’s biggest mistake is that much of the ridiculous complexity was left in when the novel was published. So, essentially, world building by committee and glazed eyes for regular readers.

  13. As usual, JSB–actually, as always–you offer solidly real-world advice here. So true, something must happen, and fast. Something that jolts the main character in some way. But I would add that flogging a book like A Confederacy of Dunces for failing to do this doesn’t make much sense, anymore than trying it three times. What I am curious about, though, is the resurgence of interest in this book. It suggests that a certain cadre of readers flatter themselves by identifying with the protagonist’s problems and dithering. Does this reflect the growing obsession with the smallest aspects of self? Hmm.

  14. I made it all the way to Page 2 of “Dunces,” skimmed Page 3, and flipped towards the back for any epiphanies. I saw none. My take: Anyone who disrespects his own creation that much has very low self-esteem and probably needed help. I returned the book in minutes, since I was still in the library parking lot.

    Among variations on the above novelistic pitfalls, I’d list novice nicety, a harbinger of boredom, as revealed in conflict-free words like wonderful, beautiful, sweet. Sequels can be a trap per se, since the stakes often fail to live up to those of Book 1. Infallible characters (“Mary Sues”) create no tension, since you know they will conquer any villain just as swiftly as they conquered partial differential equations in Chapter 1 and astrophysics in Chapter 2.

    Inconsistent characters are another reader-stopper. Or the “Great Secret,” alluded to early on, but of no consequence when revealed, since it has no influence on the outcome. “Prophecies” are a way to steal your own thunder; readers will jolly well know that your Birnam Wood will mosey to your Dunsinane without fail.

  15. Excellent words of wisdom, as usual, Jim! I just read a fantasy book where the first 1/3rd was the heroine training to use her powers. Her powers are evil. She is conflicted. Seven or eight chapters of this, not really knowing why she has to train in these or how she knows it’s evil when these powers have never been used for anything else. The next 2/3rds of the book actually explained everything the first third left out. I only kept reading because my friends assured me it got better. It was a good lesson, though–don’t spend so long establishing the WHY.

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