For this next set, I thought I’d try to focus on some rookie mistakes that go a little bit deeper than some of the surface issues I’ve had in parts 1 through 3. This is a long post, because these are trickier issues. But make no mistake, these are still rookie mistakes, and will still torpedo your book as surely as adverb abuse will. The only difference is that the torpedo is lurking deeper underwater. It’ll be harder to see coming, harder to avoid, and if you let it hit you, a lot harder to fix than a surface issue like adverb abuse.
28. Insufficient world building. It’s not enough just to think of something cool to do with the world of your story, but then leave everything else the same as how we have it here on earth. It won’t feel right to readers—and thus, it won’t be believable—because in fact it won’t be right.
No. You have to do the what-if thought experiment, and do it all the way. You have to fully think through the ramifications of your particular cool thing on the entire rest of the story’s world. For example, you could say “I’ll set this story on a world with no continents, just millions of small islands scattered around.” Ok, that’s kind of cool, in a Wizard of Earthsea sort of way. But you can’t stop there, and imagine that this world is dominated by a small number of broad cultural groups like we have on earth. Here on earth, you can broadly group the world into Western culture (Europe, North America), Latin America (Mexico, Central and South America), the Far East (China, Japan, et cetera), Africa, the Middle East, and India. There are outliers, sure, but pretty much everybody fits into one of those groups. Does that make sense, on a planet with millions of small islands but no large land masses? Probably not. Such a world won’t be likely to have the dominant language and cultural clusters that Earth has, and if you start positing that it does, readers are going to start questioning the logic of your world. As they should, because it doesn’t hold up. Technology, material culture, social norms, language development, legal systems, and basically anything else you care to name that defines how our culture works, would end up being different on an island planet. You have to think through all that stuff in order to give your readers a believable setting.
You’ll notice that the really successful writers of fantasy and sci-fi (genres that trade in world building), give us examples of exhaustive world building. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age is a great example, with a what-if of “what if we had advanced nanotechnology?” China Mieville’s The City and the City is a great example of thinking through the question “what if two antagonistic cultures were forced to share the same space?” Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees explores the idea of “what if a human culture were allowed to develop without gravity?” Study works like these or comparable ones in your own sub-genre. They work because the authors did their homework up front. They figured out the worlds of the stories before figuring out the stories themselves.
If you make this rookie mistake, then I bear you bad news: Chances are you’ll have to start over. Chances are, when you do the thought experiment, you’ll discover that your entire storyline doesn’t work anymore.
29. Being obvious. If readers can easily see what’s coming, they’ll be bored. The feeling of drama, and the degree of a reader’s interest and engagement with a story, correlates exactly with the degree to which they are uncertain about what’s going to happen next. You know this. You probably do this yourself when you read a book: you play the “out-think the writer” game. We love it when we have an idea about what’s going to happen, but not when we’re dead certain that we’re right. And especially not when our dead certain guess turns out to be right.
If we get that feeling of knowing exactly where this book is going to go—usually because the rookie writer has made the clues too obvious, has used a setup that’s too cliché, or whatever—then we feel a little disappointed. We feel like the book isn’t going to deliver us the entertainment we wanted, in the form of fun puzzles to solve, fun surprises to encounter, et cetera. The writer has given us puzzles that are trivial to solve, and has tipped us off far too blatantly about what the supposed surprises are going to be.