Mistakes are unavoidable in life, yet this guide to common writing errors in stories (with explanations, examples and tips to avoid them) will help you develop your prose’s clarity, quality and impact.
10 common types of writing error
The following are ten areas issues often creep in. Keep reading for examples of common errors in the first five categories in part one. We’ll explore the remaining five in part two next week, including a checklist for nixing common errors.
1. SPAG (spelling, punctuation, and grammar)
Spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes are the most common writing error areas. They’re the easiest issues for eagle-eyed editors to fix (and also for reviewers or trolls to pick on). Always edit your work and invest in pro editing pre-publication.
2. Style (clarity, diction, structure, rhythm)
Issues of style include poor clarity (when meaning and inference are unclear). Incorrect diction, too, such as non-idiomatic word choice and words not having correct connotations and other diction issues. Keep reading for specific examples.
3. Form/structure (continuity, cohesion, pacing)
Common writing errors in form and structure include continuity errors (no disappearing Chekhov’s Guns unless there are reasons, please). In addition, problems with cohesion (how and where events connect) and pacing.
4. Tense (consistency, clarity)
Common tense issues in writing include tense drift (when you’re reading and suddenly you were reading a different tense – ‘were’? That should be ‘are’). Clear sequences and timelines are key.
5. POV and narration (depth, shifts, knowledge limitations)
POV and narration are closely related. Common writing issues involving both include head-hopping, depth issues that reduce impact, and disregarding fixed POV knowledge limitations, such as what a first person narrator can know about another person’s thoughts without interpretation of expressions or gestures or verbal, written or telepathic communication.
6. Repetition and redundancy (tautology, pleonasm, repetitive sentence structure)
Repetition and redundancy turn the chugging along of story’s engines into the Little Engine that Couldn’t. Tautology, pleonasm and repetitive sentence structure make rhythm, flow, and pacing more wooden.
7. Tone and voice (appropriateness, clarity, consistency)
Common tone and voice issues in writing include tone that is inappropriate to purpose, setting or context, and tone and voice that change without explanation (poor consistency).
8. Logic and argument (circular reasoning, generalization, false cause and effect)
Logic and argument shouldn’t make readers scratch their heads in bewilderment. Action and reaction, cause and effect – the foundation of understanding is logic that enables connection, the resolution of incomplete equations.
9. Dialogue (formatting, subtext, context, realism)
Common issues in dialogue writing include formatting oddities, confusing subtext or context, or dialogue that sounds unreal (e.g. ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue).
10. Description (clarity, detail, relevance, ratio)
Common errors in description writing include unclear or hazy description, overwhelming or insufficient detail, thin relevance, and pacing-diminishing imbalance between description and other elements (such as action, dialogue, in fiction writing).
Now that we’ve summed up ten broad categories of common writing mistakes, let’s jump in and look at individual examples:
Common SPAG errors: Examples and tips
SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) is an ugly acronym for the easiest to make (and sometimes inadvertently funny and thus fun for an editor) error. The dessert is hot? Fine. But wait, what are those camels doing in it?
Common SPAG errors include:
Common spelling errors
Confusing possessive pronouns with contractions
E.g., Your (the possessive) and you’re, the contraction of ‘you are’ (such as when a reader commented, ‘your [sic] a dick’). Or its (possessive) and it’s (contraction of ‘it is’) – it doesn’t help that we use apostrophes to form nouns’ possessives as well as contractions (nobody said English was easy).
Mixing up homonyms
Homonyms are words that sound the same phonetically. ‘Their’ and ‘there’ are commonly confused (because we use both so often, plus the first three letters are the same so it’s easy to automatically write the wrong one).
Other commonly confused homonyms include ‘pouring’ (the present participle for emptying, say, a jug) and ‘poring’ (reading or studying a document or artwork with intent focus).
Mixing US/UK/AU/CA English spellings
It is best to use one regional English spelling type throughout a piece of writing (except for, for example, showing a letter written by a British character in a story narrated by an American and similar cases where using both makes sense for the story due to a special case).
There are three main differences between spellings in Commonwealth countries that use UK spellings and US spellings:
a) Per the standardizations Noah Webster made, the US uses ‘o’ instead of ‘ou’ (in words such as harbor (US) and harbour (UK).
b) ‘S’ instead of ‘Z’ in words such as realize (US) and realise (UK).
c) Single ‘L’ consonants in words such as traveler, jeweler (US) vs double in the UK (traveller, jeweller).
Spelling Mnemonics and Exceptions
Other examples that trip many writers up are English’s many exceptions.
Many will remember, for example, the spelling mnemonic (memorization) phrase ‘I before E, except after C’. [Ed’s note: I learned this as a kid from a fun episode of the animated Peanuts series involving a spelling bee].
We have ‘believe’, ‘reprieve’, ‘conceive’, ‘deceive’ which fit the rule. Yet what about species, science, ancient? One simply must learn the exceptions (and look up the exceptions when in doubt). Some follow their own pattern (e.g., where ‘C’ is pronounced as a ‘sh’ sound, it is typically ‘I’ before ‘E’ still, such as ancient, efficient).
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Common punctuation errors
Some punctuation is for effect, and like the pepper and salt of language, should be used sparingly. Nobody wants an exclamation mark overdose to push up their editor’s blood pressure.Tweet This
Common types of punctuation error include:
A ‘comma splice’ is where a comma separates what should be two sentences.
For example: ‘I was anxious for the recital, I forgot to breathe.’
Another is omitting commas in lists (‘I bought chocolate eggs toothpaste and regrettably bad frozen pizza’) – because no commas are used, the reader doesn’t know whether the eggs are chocolate ones or the less exciting chicken-y kind. Commas often change the meaning of a sentence (such as in the classic, ‘A panda bear eats, shoots, and leaves’ example).
Has apostrophe placement in the phrase ‘two weeks’ notice’ ever given you trouble? You’re not alone.
Oxford International English Schools lists this bungling apostrophes as one of the most common English usage errors.
Overusing exclamation or question marks
This technically falls more under ‘style’, yet it is a common beginner’s mistake.
Good style generally considers a single exclamation mark or question mark as enough to express declamatory/excited or questioning tone.
An exception is the interrobang (written !? (US) or ?! (UK)), which combines a questioning and exclamatory effect (but is not used in formal writing).
Forgetting to open/close speech marks
This can create havoc for the reader trying to understand where speech and narration begin or end.
It’s an example of the small punctuation errors that make proofreading after copy-editing essential before publication.
Incorrect use of ellipses
Ellipses, used to express trailing off, a longer pause or inference of the unsaid, always consist of three periods only.
They may either be written with a space before and after each period (“Well . . .”) or like a three-letter word between words (“Well …”) or can be inserted as a special character with a space on either side (Alt + Ctrl + . on a Windows device in Word).
A benefit of using the special character is you won’t get ‘orphaned’ periods wrapping to the next line, as all three are treated as a combined, word-like unit (one caveat: the character-insertion approach may not show consistently the same across different software).
Other common punctuation errors include faulty use of dashes and hyphens (such as forgetting to hyphenate compound nouns and adjectives) and incorrect use of brackets. See more about hyphen and dash use via Grammarly here.
Common grammar mistakes
Grammar mistakes are often the trickiest errors to correct (but also the most fun in creating surprise comedic effects).
Common grammatical errors include:
Subject-verb agreement issues
The subject and its verb should match in number or tense. E.g., ‘The team was cringeworthy in the lackluster choreography they did to ‘My Humps’ before the match.’ (Not ‘were’, which would work with the plural subject ‘teams’.)
A common source of unintentional comedy, a dangling modifier is a phrase or clause not clearly related to the part of a sentence it modifies.
E.g., ‘Running late to watch the movie, a bird pooped all down my friend’s forehead’ (Ed’s note: This did actually happen to a friend once).
The clear subject (e.g., ‘My friend and I’, ‘we’) should be included in the sentence. One fix: ‘We were running late to watch the movie when a bird pooped all down my friend’s forehead.’
Awkward sentence structure that introduces ambiguity, such as clause sequences which create confusion about who the subject performing an action is:
‘I saw a family of geese driving down the street’.
(Unless geese are coming for Vin Diesel’s gig fast and furiously, it would be clearer as ‘Driving down the street, I saw a family of geese.’).
Run on sentences
Two or more clauses not separated by the appropriate punctuation.
Example: ‘Today was the last straw it was the day my sister ate the chocolate I had been keeping for my piano teacher.’
There should be a period and new sentence after ‘straw’ (since the previous sentence is grammatically complete).
Confusing comparatives and superlatives
For example, ‘He is the most rudest prince in all the land’ (the phrase doesn’t need ‘most’ since ‘rudest’ would imply the pinnacle of rudeness, the greatest degree of comparison).
Another: The incorrect use of a superlative form for an incomparable quality: ‘The most unique was…’.
Because ‘unique’ is an absolute quality meaning ‘one-of-a-kind’ (and thus beyond compare) the comparatives ‘most unusual’ or ‘most precious’ (or another option) would be correct to use instead.
Spelling, punctuation and grammar aren’t stable across eras, ‘Englishes’. You may have a character who did not have the privilege of much formal education, or who did but forgot and doesn’t read, or a character for whom English is not a first language, and thus ‘doesn’t English good’, for example. You may have a character who says ‘the most unique’. Sometimes we know ‘better’ than our characters, sometimes not.
The best rules to break are still the ones you know you’re breaking for reasons relating to context, character, milieu or effect.Tweet This
Tips to avoid common SPAG mistakes
To avoid common spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes:
- Run your writing through a language checker. For example, Word’s built-in editor, Grammarly or ProWritingAid. Tools won’t catch everything (and will often false-flag non-issues such as writing where you’ve deliberately used a different region’s spelling), but you’ll catch sneaky typos that snuck in.
- Edit from print copy. Many writers swear by printing out proof copies to work from. The switch from digital to physical print has benefits – there’s no ‘infinite scroll’, for one, encouraging you to scan through too hastily. It’s like seeing the text with new eyes after a break.
- Consult style and grammar guides. A good style guide such as Strunk & White’s Elements of Style or The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing is useful to have in your collection, as well as go-to spelling and other reference resources such as dictionaries and thesauruses.
- Keep a checklist of SPAG errors you make habitually. It may be incorrect comma placement, using dangling modifiers, or another error. Going through to check for a list of errors and ticking them off may help you make error-nuking a more satisfying, systematic process.
- Read widely. The more you read, the better your innate sense of good SPAG will become.
- Get feedback. Many members in Now Novel’s crit community pinpoint spelling, punctuation and grammar issues (you choose whether to ask for feedback on this category in the flow of crit submission).
Common style issues: Examples and tips
Style may seem a more nebulous category than spelling, punctuation and grammar. After all, it concerns aspects ‘rhythm and flow’, the music words make, and ‘diction’ (word choice and voice).
Yet good style makes writing that much more satisfying and impactful.
Common style issues in writing:
Low Clarity (Vague, dense or ambiguous language)
Clarity ensures readers are able to make sense of a text. Is the language used easy to understand, unambiguous in meaning? Are images clear and precise?
Example: ‘The report was prepared by the committee, and it contained several recommendations for the board to consider.’
Rewriting this with greater concision and clarity:
‘The report that the committee had prepared made several recommendations to the board.’
This eliminates issues such as pleonasm (more on this in part two next week – the word ‘recommendations’ already implies points that will be considered, making the word ‘consider’ moot). It also suggests sequence clearer in the use of past perfect to describe the preparation preceding the recommendations being made. It leads us through two related processes in clear sequence.
Common nouns such as ‘school’ or ‘mother’ should be lowercased, except when they are part of a formal title or salutatory address (e.g., Little Ships High School, or “Of course, Mother,” the vice president said to his wife …’).
Overusing adverbs or adjectives
A winding, verbose, tangled, excessive, fussy sentence can become annoying to read (if it’s every other sentence). It’s like Uncle Colm in Derry Girls – slow to get to the point. The same goes for excessive adverbs (the road to hell is paved with those, according to Stephen King).
Jargon or Niche language
If your characters need to DM the NRA to talk about the VIPs visiting the YMCA to discuss the NDAs relating to the NSSAs, your reader may tire with all the acronyms and in-group or niche-specific language. Writing should not need a user manual or exploded view.
This is a particular hazard in sci-fi and stories with strong technological aspects, where there may be a fair amount of exposition about how things work. Think about the user experience. Describe that.
Monotonous sentence structure
All long sentences, all staccato sentences – neither is ideal. Varying sentence and paragraph structure sometimes for rhythm and flow will keep your writing engaging, moving and rhythmically interesting.
Clichéd imagery and expressions
Clichés weaken style because they make voice read like a dead man’s echo more than a living, vital thing. Single tears rolling down, thunder and lightning on a suspenseful night – clichés that a reader may groan at (or relish pointing out in a review – another easy target).
Tips to avoid common style issues
How can you avoid some of the most common style issues in writing?
- Read writing aloud if unsure. The ear catches convoluted, awkward structure and phrases that make you say, ‘Huh?’
- Pick a style reference source and stick with it. For example, you might follow the Chicago Manual of Style’s guidelines on when to capitalize what. CMoS’s Q&A forums are a great source for niche style-related writing questions and answers, too.
- Be consistent. This follows on from the previous tip. If you spell your main character’s name five different ways, or they have five different nicknames that aren’t ever contextually explained, you could confuse your reader.
- Replace adverbs with verbs that do the heavy lifting. For example, instead of ‘She ran fast’, you might say ‘she hurtled’ or ‘she sprinted’. This is stronger for impact as well as connotation, each specific verb having its own more specific connotations (‘sprint’ comes from the Old Norse spretta meaning ‘to jump up’, with a sense of being startled into action).
- Keep the most impactful, expressive adjectives. For example, in, ‘He had kind, brown, slightly small eyes’ which is the most important descriptor? Many would say that which gives character – ‘kind’.
- Define or explain technical terms using similes, analogies. For example, you could say ‘Worm XG19V entered network 2B’ or you could say ‘The worm entered the bank’s (previously thought to be) most secure network with the silk-gloved stealth of an assassin.’ Specificity and generous contextualizing win.
- Draw figurative language from your story’s world. Instead of someone being ‘dead as a doornail’, what image of death would be foremost in a character’s mind in your world? Use that. Dead as the last king. Or as Cemetery Boulevard on a Sunday at midnight. Dead as Woofles who we buried under the Jacaranda when I was five.
Common form and structure issues: Examples and tips
The terms ‘form’ and ‘structure’ are often used interchangeably.
Continuity errors are structural ones. If a scene ends with a grizzly death, there’d better be contextual or explicit clarification why the deceased is fine and dandy at the start of the next chapter. Or else the reader may get annoyed by continuity errors and pick a new read.
Common formal and structural issues in stories include:
Some genres are bigger sticklers for cohesion than others.
If you’ve ever watched anime, for example, you may be surprised that a seemingly calm conversation can become a screaming match with high conflict in a matter of seconds.
Yet most narrative fiction needs cohesion. Why is cohesion in a story important? Because it helps to create a sense of unity and continuity throughout the narrative.
Cohesion refers to the way that different parts of a story are linked together, weave together a whole. Because in Chapter 1 a murder is uncovered, the gathering of evidence in Chapter 2 makes sense given what’s come before. There is cause and effect. No conflict without a cause (even if the cause is not revealed immediately, the author playing with time, concealment vs revelation).
Stories without a clear sense of cause and effect make it hard to guess the relative importance of events, what information matters more, vs less (and how each event connects to others).
Clunky proportion between elements or Acts
If it takes up to the penultimate chapter of a book for the inciting action to occur, for the story to feel like the reader is on their way, that’s an issue of proportion.
Exposition should ideally be proportional to development which should be proportional to resolution. Of course some stories start developing from the first line. Others are slow burns. Yet when the balance is off, the reader knows.
Rushed beginnings, middles or endings
Just as exposition that takes too long to get to the punchline (or rather, the next development), like a poorly structured joke, is too slow, rushed segments are also formal issues.
A sense of rush in formal structure could be due to:
- Insufficient detail or description: Have you taken the time to give the reader setting detail, specific visual imagery?
- Authorial impatience: You may be impatient to get to the end of this draft, and to get your story out into the world, but don’t let the reader see this between the lines
- All core plot with no subplots, side avenues: It could also be that the story is rigidly following a predetermined plot and could explore subplots that relate to (and deepen the themes, characters, ideas of) the main storyline [Ed’s note: I caught a misplaced bracket here the day after publication. Remember: Nobody’s perfect, we learn from mistakes].
Unrealistic, inconsistent or non-existent character development
In some genres, characters may have flat arcs (like in the Bond franchise where our James doesn’t develop much).
Yet it may read as a structural oddity if a character suddenly finds bravery, empathy or another trait out of nowhere (the story arc does not help to explain the why of the character’s change).
Just as unrealistic character development gives change without a sense of any rhyme or reason behind it, inconsistent development where characters go back and forth on what are usually stable traits (such as core values, beliefs, ideals) with no explanation may confuse readers and make arcs seem erratic or like the author’s making it up as they go along without any destination or purpose in mind.
Lack of conflict or tension
Stories need conflict and tension. Just as life does. There’s a reason Franz Kafka represents bureaucracy as a kind of hell. Hell is boring, repetitious torture with no promise of an end like in the myth of Sisyphus, rolling that boulder up a hill.Tweet This
Conflict and tension help to delineate a story’s structure. In the hero’s journey, as the final confrontation looms, the reader knows they’re nearing the end (ditto the romantic union in a feel-good romance).
Tips to avoid common form and structure errors in stories
To check that your story’s structure is satisfying and propels events forward:
- Review the length of chapters and other segments. Which is your longest, and which are your shortest segments? Does the longest need a well-placed scene-break somewhere? Or could it be split into two at a nail-biting moment to create hooks between chapters? Do the shorter chapters need any expansion, coloring in of detail, development?
- Check if cause and effect are clear. If you never outlined your story to start with, consider creating a reverse outline, a short paragraph or even sentence per chapter. This will give you a condensed view of what happens, when (and help to underline where any causes or effects may seem thin or missing). It’ll also come in handy for creating a synopsis for querying purposes.
- See where the story needs coloring in and cutting back. Sometimes we overwrite and sometimes we write too little. What isn’t colored in enough, and is there any passage with too much of a welter of detail which is slowing pace?
- Create timelines. You may wish to create a timeline of events that involve your main characters. Write a one line summary of how each changes your character as you go. What are the dynamic moments (highs, lows, turning points) of their progress?
- Try some planning. It might just be writing down where your opening scenario ends. Or else making a detailed chapter by chapter story outline. However much prewriting you do, this will help you solidify more of the scope and shape of your story upfront (even if you depart from the outline you’ve written completely by your final draft).
How do you ensure structure and form in your story stay cohesive? Share your process in the comments.
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Common tense errors: Examples and tips
If tense makes you tense, put that in the past with these tips and explanations of why tense issues in writing occur.
Types of tense issue include:
Inconsistent tense use (Tense drift)
Tense drift refers to when verbs’ tenses change unexpectedly for events context tells us are in the same timeline.
When tense drifts, the sequence of events becomes confusing. For example:
Because I had forgotten my homework I will lie to the teacher and hope I wasn’t given detention.
The whiplash between past perfect tense (had forgotten), future (I will lie) and the negative form of simple past tense (wasn’t put) is disorienting.
Events in the same timeline should use the same tense, unless other details are added from other times, such as prior events, or hypothetical or conditional situations.
Because I had forgotten my homework, I lied to the teacher in the hope I wouldn’t be given detention.
The tense in this corrected example flows thus:
- Past perfect tense used for events/conditions preceding a simple past timeline (‘Because I had forgotten…’)
- Simple past tense used for past events later than the already-happened events or prior conditions (‘I lied to the teacher…’)
- Conditional tense used for possible future events following on from the past scenario (‘I wouldn’t be given detention.’). More on conditional tenses below.
Mixing perfect tenses
Past, present, and future ‘perfect’ tense are often confusing, leading to ‘imperfect’ usage.
- Past perfect: I/you/we/they/she/he had been changing [prior to other events]
- Present perfect: I/you/we/they/she/he have/has been changing [which brings us to the present moment]
- Future perfect: I/you/we/they/she/he will have been changing [when some future event will occur]
These are all examples in the active voice and indicative mood. [Ed’s note: I strongly recommend Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing manual Steering the Craft for tense explanations, in ‘Appendix II: Forms of the Verb’. It is the best explanation of uncommon tenses I have ever come across, plus her wit is always fun.]
If you were to write ‘I have been changing when I decided to rob that bank’, the reader is likely to be confused about the sequence of events, expecting (from the present perfect at the start) a clause referring to current events (‘I have been changing, or trying to, but I’m going to rob that bank’).
The creative possibilities in the push and pull of past, present and future times and hypothetical situations makes learning the more complex tenses a very valuable exercise for unlocking creative possibilities in your storytelling.
Mixing up irregular verb forms
Irregular verbs are those verbs that you don’t just plonk ‘-ed’ on the end of and call it a day. For example, the present, past simple, and past participle forms of these irregular verbs:
- Be (In present tense, I am, you or they are, he, she, it or other gender pronoun is). Becomes were/was in past tense (I was, they were) or been (past participle)
- Do (present), did (past), done (past participle, e.g., ‘she had done her homework’)
- See (present), saw (past), seen (past participle)
Using the correct irregular verb may avoid confusing situations such as confusions between verbs and nouns.
If you were to write ‘She seed the garden’, for example, the reader might think you meant to say a character sowed seeds, was doing a bit of gardening, rather than that she saw said garden.
Context coupled with verb misuse can easily combine to dial up the confusion.
Misusing conditional tenses
Conditional tenses express hypothetical situations, possibilities or conditions (as their name implies). For example:
- Zero conditionals: Express a condition that is true for now or always, e.g., ‘If ice warms, it melts’
- Type 1 conditionals: Express a present or future condition that is real. For example, ‘If you leave the ice out, it will melt’
- Type 2 conditionals: Show a time that is now or any time, and an unreal situation: ‘If you put the ice back in the freezer now, it will not be a puddle shortly’
- Type 3 conditionals: Give an unreal past condition and a probable outcome had that condition been met. For example, ‘If you had put the ice back in the freezer like I told you, it would not have melted’
- Mixed type: Refers to a time in the past, plus an ongoing situation now. For example, ‘If I had put the ice in the freezer myself, I would have ice now’
You can see how the latter types of conditional lend themselves to admonishments, passive-aggression, in that they refer to unreal events such as wishful thinking about other outcomes had other choices been made. They create alternate timelines where we made it on time, caught that train. Therein lies a world of imagination and possibilities for storytelling.
Tips to avoid tense errors and mistakes
To keep a clear sense of sequence and condition:
- Learn and practice forming different tenses. Doing so shows there are so many ways to talk about the same sorry melted ice saga (per the examples above).
- Break sentences up into each relative, timed element. What happens when? Is the timeline clear?
- Learn regular and irregular verbs and their conjugations. Most people learn these in school, but we forget easily. Print out the ones you struggle with most and keep them at hand (or get Le Guin’s manual or another for handy reference guide).
- Unless there’s a good reason to change tenses, don’t. There are many ways to create an interesting sequence of events without time-travelling like it’s Back to the Future.
- Choose the appropriate tense. If you find you have to write a lot of ‘had had’ or similarly convoluted sentences (e.g., ‘He had had the party at McDonalds, ugh’), consider switching to a tense that uncomplicates the story’s flow (‘He had the party at McDonalds’).
- Get feedback. In a crit community, other writers will be happy to point out tense errors as they are the easier, low-hanging fruit to correct when you understand tense rules well.
Common POV and narration errors: Examples and tips
Point of view (POV) and narration are two areas it’s also easy to wrong, especially for beginners.
The core types of POV are (in order of commonality):
- Third person (narration that uses ‘he/she/they’ – third-person pronouns) – ‘It was inevitable: The scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love’ (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
- First person (narration that uses the first-person singular (more common) or plural (less) – ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’ (Dodie Smith)
- Second person (more uncommon, narration using the second-person pronoun ‘you’) – ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate.’ (Italo Calvino)
To this we add different types of POV, such as ‘limited’ (where viewpoint is limited to a character-narrator’s perspective, for example, even though the narration uses the third person).
See more on POV in our complete guide to POV. On to common errors in viewpoint and narration.
Inconsistent POV (e.g. Head-hopping)
Point of view shouldn’t change between persons (e.g., I, he, you), or viewpoint characters, if there is zero signal or reason for the change. Otherwise, the reader is likely to be confused.
Head-hopping is when a writer switches between points of view in a scene, accidentally jumping into another character’s viewpoint without a clear transition or break.
One minute we’re reading Jack’s first-person POV, then suddenly we’re getting Jill’s thoughts, and we’ve forgotten the pail of water and the hill in the way POV see-saws.
For example: ‘I can’t believe we have to fetch the water. I’m annoyed and Jill doesn’t seem too fazed. Jill is thinking about running for president and isn’t bothered at all, and wishes Jack wouldn’t be such a grumbling git.’
If we’re in Jack’s POV in first person, he wouldn’t know what Jill is thinking in this moment unless she’d told him. It’s possible we’ve ‘hopped’ to her viewpoint.
Head-hopping is confusing because it disrupts flow – we have to readjust to the fact we’re reading someone else’s point of view with no preparation for the change.
The author may know everything that happens, but if a character has a fixed viewpoint, they cannot know what another character is thinking, has experienced, without some form of communication/revelation to them.
POV grows confusing when characters have knowledge of information they shouldn’t have due to not being God-like and omniscient.
POV is DISTANT AND TELLS MORE THAN SHOWS
If you use a lot of filter phrases (e.g. ‘Jack saw that… Jack felt that…’), the narrating voice becomes more removed from the character.
We see the character like a figure on a distant screen, then, the author’s puppet, rather than seeing through the involved narrator’s eyes (such as in limited third person). This is where the reader may see the author’s hand more, Oz the wizard twitching the curtain.
‘Jack saw that the pail had a hole in it and felt that it was a futile waste of time.’ And: ‘The pail had a hole in it. How hadn’t he seen it before? Ugh, it was all a waste of time.’
The second, deeper POV gives a fuller sense of Jack’s in the moment emotions and reactions.
Deeper POV inflects narration with the character’s own outlook, vocabulary, voice. It draws on their unique persona to make even telling show character.Tweet This
Inappropriate internal monologue
Switching into a character’s thoughts is useful at emotional moments in narration.
For example, you may have a third-person narrator and wish to show their reactions to events:
She arrived late to the games evening and everyone had already gone home. Oh gosh this is so embarrassing . . .
If every other line is in inner monologue, or a character’s in-the-moment thoughts interrupt scenes all the time, adjusting between first- and third-person pronouns POV constantly may become a little dizzying.
What’s more, too much interiority (the quality of being inside someone’s head) may make the story’s progress much slower.
It is often best to balance inner monologue with forward action (and other elements that lead focus outwards into the scene, such as description).
There may be exceptions, such as if you want a very interior, neurotic narratorial voice – a character who is all ‘head’.
Tips to avoid common POV and narration errors in writing
To avoid common POV and narration errors:
- Stick with consistent POVs and signal POV changes. If your story is narrated by four first-person narrators, try using each narrator’s name as a subheading preceding their chapter (or even replace chapter titles with their names – this will make viewpoint unambiguous).
- Watch out for filter phrases. A tell-tale word is ‘that’, e.g. ‘She understood that studying law would be a slog. She saw that there were scores of harried-looking second-year students in the law library.’ Reword the narration to show through the character’s eyes more, give their reactions.
- Balance internal thoughts with external events. Don’t let your narrator’s thoughts overwhelm everything else that is interesting and going on in your world. The author can at least notice the details their character doesn’t.
- Make a list of what each character knows, and what they can’t know. It may help you to keep tally on who knows what, and who doesn’t know what the reader knows about other characters’ thoughts, views, secrets, (mis)deeds.
What are other POV or narration issues that trip you up? Tell us in the comments.
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