Tuesday, August 25, 2020

What Doesn’t Work? Learning from the Mistakes of Even the (gasp!) Greats

By Bonnie Randall

Part of The How They Do It Series 

JH: Some authors are bestsellers in spite of gaffs in their writing, not because of them. Bonnie Randall share a few things to avoid--even if a Big Name Author does it. 

Stephen King said “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write” and it’s true. Writers collect ribbons of prose, excellent syntax, and well-executed transitions like precious stones in a jar, for once you’re a writer you can never be ‘just’ a reader again. Your eye becomes keenly honed for what works.

It’s also honed for what stinks.

Right now I am reading a novel by someone pretty prolific and very famous, and what I enjoy about their work is the mastery of pacing and plotting.

What I cringe at, though, are the following bullets which have now landed on the Make Sure You Didn’t Do This list I employ after every first draft I write. Here they are:

1. Unnecessary Sarcasm

Witty dialogue is a good thing. It snaps and crackles and makes readers grin and possibly like your character(s). But when every conversation is just more jocular jousting, the wheels come off quickly.

In this particular novel, the protagonist is so witty so often that the dialogue actually drags, and I sit there tapping my toes waiting for him to get to the damn point—and wondering why he has to act like such a sarcastic dick to everyone he meets…some for the very first time. It pulls me completely out of the story, and all I can think is “Here we go again, is showing me just how doggone funny he is.”

Moral of The Cautionary Tale: So you’re funny. Splendid. Pepper is a potent spice. But, just like too much funny, too much pepper kills any other flavor that might be in your soup. Or in your story. Use it sparingly, selectively, and cunningly. 

(Here's more on Talking on Empty: The Perils of Empty Dialogue) 

2. Pointless Relationships

The protagonist in this novel is a single parent to a six year old who hates him.


Oh, you’re waiting for more? Sorry—that’s it. In fact the protagonist literally shrugs after one encounter where the kid has been a particularly noxious little toadstool and says “What are ya gonna do?”

Well, pal, if you don’t care, why should I?

I’ve dissected this relationship six ways from Sunday, and what I’ve decided is that the Editor must have believed it added depth to the character.

*more crickets*

Here’s a newsflash: that’s not character development. It’s lazy tell not show. Now, if this relationship caused the protagonist significant distress which then propelled him into action that impacted the plot it would have earned its keep in the story. As it stands, though, no clear purpose is served other than to tell me this guy is a single dad with a shitty kid on top of his high-voltage career—and because his interactions with the kid don’t do anything other than that, those scenes also pull me out of the story.

Moral of The Cautionary Tale: When a relationship has strife, don’t add it in just to manufacture conflict. All conflict must serve the plot—or reflect a theme, or change the character on his internal journey in some meaningful way.

In other words, don’t just say “Well what are ya gonna do?” and leave it at that. Difficult relationships can be story gold…if you do the work. 

(Here's more on Don’t Make This Common Characterization Mistake)

3. ‘The Great Love of His Life’ aka ‘The One Who Got Away’

We’re in trope territory now, so to be clear: tropes are not bad. Just about every novel out there is trope-y to some degree. Tropes go bad, though, when there’s nothing propping them up that allows the reader to invest in them. In other words, telling me that the protagonist in this story had The Great Love of His Life when he was a teen, and that she was also The One Who Got Away doesn’t cut it.

Show me how and why this impacted him. What was it about her? About him? About the circumstances within which they fell in love? He was clearly vulnerable with her once…why? Make me feel it. Otherwise, when she shows up (and she does) and he has the heart flutters (and he does) I won’t just not buy it—I also won’t care.

Moral of The Cautionary Tale: I need to know: how did this relationship fundamentally change a character so profoundly that their bond and attachment remained intact long after their love was gone? Is it difficult to do? Yes—it can be. (And I am not being a smart-aleck here when I say read Nicholas Sparks to see how it’s done exceedingly well). But it is so worth it, because it pulls the reader into that relationship, giving them a vicarious love affair that will have them rooting, hard, for the HEA. 

(Here's more on Revealing a Character's Past Without Falling Into Backstory)

Now: Thoughts? Reflections? Have you read a book or books—even by one of the greats—and wondered how certain plot devices, dialogue, or situations remained even after the keen eye of the editor(s)?

Beyond that—Happy headed-into-Fall, y’all!


Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

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Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”


  1. Sasha Anderson8/27/2020 5:01 AM

    "It’s lazy tell not show." I think I'm a bit confused here. How do we know it's telling if we can't see the actual text of the book? Is 'telling' synonymous with 'lazy writing'? And does that include 'laziness' in terms of concept, plot, character et cetera, rather than just word choice? Thanks!

    1. It’s ‘telling’ because not once does the reader get to experience what he feels, or how it has impacted him. He just tells us that she’s the one he never got over. Accepting that at face value doesn’t constitute investment in the relationship

    2. Sasha Anderson8/29/2020 3:36 AM

      Sorry, I should have been clearer - I was referring to section 2, about the kid :)

  2. You have me rethinking my current short story - thanks.

  3. Ugh! My editor told me one of the relationships in my novel wasn’t working...and now I understand why—it really doesn’t push the story line forward at all. And it appears I’ve done the “Lost Love” one too! Better to catch it before I query though. Thank you.