I wrote this short article a few years ago for Suite101.com, but have since edited it and made it less Suite101.com-friendly and more reader-friendly.
Books are enjoyable to read. However, they are not enjoyable if they are bogged down in description or when flashbacks prevent the story from moving forward and rob the readers of their ability to emotionally connect with the characters. Sadly, some authors, especially aspiring authors, get into these habits when writing fiction. The three biggest mistakes are author imposition, overuse of flashbacks and over description.
Author imposition is when the author uses their voice to tell the story. There is a time and place for author imposition, and that is when the novel follows the life of the author, told through the author’s eyes. In stories like that, it is okay when the author imposes him or herself on the story narrative and dialogue. After all, he or she is the main character in the novel. However, when a book is completely fiction, the author needs to butt out and let the story write itself and the characters develop as they would in reality.
“I told you so,” Emily said emphatically. This sentence is a perfect example of author imposition. A reader can easily feel Emily’s emotion when reading her words, “I told you so”, on their own. The word ‘emphatically’ at the end of the sentence is the author’s way of telling how Emily felt after she just expressed herself in the sentence.
The sentence should best be written as, “I told you so,” Emily said. If a reader can’t feel Emily’s emotion based on those four words, then the author needs to go back to the drawing board. Bodily gestures and facial expressions are also excellent ways to convey a character’s emotion.
Overuse of Flashbacks in Fiction
While flashbacks can help a story move forward, too many flashbacks can actually hinder the story and character development. Readers do not need to know about every character’s life story. They don’t even want to know about the main character’s entire life story, unless the story evolves around the main character’s life. Novels that begin with a character walking down a busy street, reminiscing about childhood memories does not tell readers anything about that character.
Over Description in Fiction
Description is central to fiction, but too much of it can severely hinder the beat of the story. Try reading this sentence: The tiny, furry, brown, kittens jumped onto the big, green, cashmere sofa. This adjective rich sentence is so easy to trip over. There is no reason for most of these adjectives.
The tiny, brown kittens jumped onto the big sofa. This sentence is concise and it gives the reader a clear image of the kittens jumping onto the sofa.
Over description robs a fiction book of its vivacity and personality, so avoid it.
When writing fiction, all authors should be aware of author imposition, flashbacks and description. They should use flashbacks only if the flashbacks serve to move the story forward and should be judicious in their descriptions of characters, events, building and streets.