We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. "No right on red" is a rule. "Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly" is an observation.
How NOT to Write a Novel is a self-help Book on Trope by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. It deals a lot with tropes (and improper use of them), and even contains some tropes itself.The book, naturally, is about how not to write a novel. It is probably the only self-help book that you'll want to read over and over, because it's actually funny. It includes many "samples" (written by the authors, though they claim they're based on submissions they received as editors) of writing that range from "good prose, but used tropes vitally wrong" to "OhgodIcan'tlookbutIhaveto."
Abusive Parents: Discouraged in "A Novel Called It", with the explanation that they are simply hard to write well and hard to read about without puking. They also suggest that horror is the best genre for handling this trope well, using Carrie as an example.
Accidental Innuendo: "The Deafening Hug" features a scene with a brother and sister hugging. The brother describes his sister in such unintentionally erotic terms, that the reader can only infer incestuous subtext.invoked
Anachronic Order: They have no problem with this trope at the level of the broader form and structure of the novel (even recommending the use of In Medias Res if the chronological opening of the story is rather slow), but provide a example of it used rather poorly in "Linearity Shrugged", in which shifts in chronology and subject matter happen after every other sentence, making the story impossible to follow.
Anatomically Impossible Sex: Examined. Writing sex scenes that move out of the domain of physical possibility are generally not a good idea.
Anti-Climax: "I'm Melting!"-Wherein the villain conveniently gives up.
Apocalyptic Log: "'And One Ring to Bind Them!' Said the Old Cowpoke" morphs into one.
Artistic License: Not in favour of it. They are unusually adamant that any novel which makes use of some form of specialized knowledge (especially historical novels) must be accurate.
As You Know: "But, Captain..." is a direct translation; "Hello, I am the Mommy!" and "Hello, I am the Medieval Knight!" are similar, with exposition about the characters and the setting clumsily inserted into dialogue, often as a case of Shown Their Work.
Audience-Alienating Premise: "Voice in the Wilderness" provides an example, where the story paints a sympathetic picture of an SS officer desperately trying to save the inmates in his concentration camp from disease and starvation (while the Allies have invented the holocaust as a piece of perfidious propaganda). Whether the author sincerely holds widely-reviled beliefs, or is simply seeking attention, the book strongly discourages airing such views in public.invoked
"The High Colonic by Mail" advises against this, particularly if what appeals to the author is unlikely to appeal to anyone else.
"The Fig Leaf", where the author is clearly indulging in a vice but, vaguely self-aware about it, is trying to make themselves seem above it. Discouraged in that it doesn't work and usually makes them look like a bit of a hypocrite to boot.
Author Tract: "The Educational Film" (wherein the deck is stacked). In the example, everything the hippie protagonist encounters is somehow an example of corporate greed, and everyone she meets is someone opposed to her beliefs who goes out of their way to bully, humiliate and make things difficult for her.
Beige Prose: "The Minimalist" (wherein synopses take the place of writing) and "The List of Ingredients" (wherein lists substitute for description). List of Ingredients has a particularly humorous example of bland description gone bad:
There were naked actors standing around the pornography studio: three women and one man. Two other actors were having sex on a bed. There were some cameramen filming them, who had their clothes on. There was a desk in the corner with papers on it, and a bulletin board with messages.
Sometimes an unpublished author will stake out a position that is shared by everyone else in the world and defend it as if he stood embattled and alone. As he stridently argues with what he seems to think of as a recalcitrant audience that it is bad to be unkind to animals, the reader balks and eventually rebels. Yes, you have a point — but why are you shouting at us?
Cell Phones Are Useless: Discussed in "The Padded Cell", which suggests a number of plausible ways of cutting off communication.
Chekhov's Gun: "The Gum on the Mantelpiece" uses a version of Chekhov's law: if there is gum on the mantelpiece in the first chapter, it must go on something by the last chapter. Also mentions "The Red Herring on the Mantelpiece." For bonus points, the example text for the "gum on the mantelpiece" is a Chekhov pastiche.
Chromosome Casting: They note a particularly extreme version of the male form of this trope, called "The Stag Night", in which not only the main characters but apparently every person in a novel's fictional universe appears to be male . They also note that it's curiously common in Science Fiction.
Cliché Storm: "Breeding Contempt" advises against using too many hackneyed turns of phrase. While they usually became clichés for a reason (they are vivid and evocative), and they are sometimes so commonplace that the have entered the common vocabulary (e.g. "drop dead gorgeous"), relying too much on them will make an author's writing seem unimaginative.invoked
Crapsack World: "The Diane Arbus Retrospective". They discourage the excessive application of this trope where everybody you meet is a miserable degenerate.
Creator Breakdown: Invoked in "Revenge Is a Dish Best Served in Public"- Where the author has failed to move on. The passage featured is quite blatantly the author taking revenge on his ex-girlfriend after an acrimonious breakup.
Description in the Mirror: "What Color Am I?"—Where the character must be in front of a mirror to know what she looks like. They discourage it, naturally.
Deus Angst Machina: "Compassion Fatigue". Strongly discouraged: a character whose life is nothing but a parade of misery and misfortune is difficult to sympathize with.
Deus ex Machina: "But a Meteor Could Land There, Right?" The following description is even mentioned (in part) in a page quote for Deus Ex Machina.
This particular blunder is known as deus ex machina, which is French for "Are you fucking kidding me?"
The Dog Was the Mastermind: A literal example - the writers observe that unless the protagonist's cat is the one solving the murder mysteries the entire time, the cat should receive about as much attention in the narrative as the couch they are sitting on.
Do Not Do This Cool Thing: "The Fig Leaf" mentions how some authors will describe a titillating scene in salacious detail, then apologise for it by having the protagonist express their distaste. The book recommends against this, and suggests that if exploitative scenes are to be shown, the author should embrace sleaziness wholeheartedly.
For similar reasons, characters should not make sudden about-faces in their attitudes. They should not, for instance, immediately capitulate when the protagonist "proves" that their worldview is idiotic.
Emotionless Character: "Failing the Turing Test", in which Professor Johnson finds a college student lying naked in his bed instead of his wife... and emotionlessly asks why she's there. She pulls out a gun and says that she's going to kill him...and he simply asks why. When she says that it's because he gives her a C, he says he'd be willing to reconsider if she does him a favor. And then, when she tries to seduce him, he asks her to be his cat-sitter.
Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Argued to be a cheap way to get reader sympathy for the villains, illustrated in an example in which a character takes a moment off from gleefully forcing young girls into prostitution to reminisce fondly about his mother.
Genre Shift: "'And One Ring to Bind Them!' Said the Old Cowpoke". They emphasize that if you want to do this, it still has to be set up with Foreshadowing and the like, or else it comes across as very similar to a Deus ex Machina.
Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Discussed in "Prince Charming Doesn't Deserve Me"; in particular, they recommend at the very least having the protagonist's significant other cheat first, as what the protagonist does after that "doesn't feel like cheating". Otherwise, well, the protagonist can still be unfaithful, but will then be in the wrong and must be acknowledged to be such.
Gratuitous Animal Sidekick: Discouraged. "It does not work to give a character a pet to make him or her sympathetic. People are often at their least sympathetic when cooing over a bored cat."
How Do I Used Tense?: "Tenses: the Past Oblivious" (confusing, seemingly random shifts in tense) and "Tenses: the Past Intolerable" (where a single tense is used for everything).
Ho Yay: invoked"We're Going to Need a Bigger Closet", specifically for unintentional homoerotic subtext.
Humor Dissonance: Discussed in the chapter on jokes, sex and post-modernism.invoked
IKEA Erotica: They even have a name along similar lines: "Assembly Instructions." One of the scenes in "The List of Ingredients" deserves a mention as well.
Improbable Age: Noted under "Magic-onomics", pointing out that it is perfectly fine to explain where a character's wealth comes from by giving them a backstory in which they were a partner in a law firm - but not if the character is twenty-five.
I Just Write the Thing: "The Fig Leaf". Discouraged, in that it rarely works and just makes the author look a bit hypocritical. The advice given in that particular case, but which can probably be applied to other examples of the trope, is that if you must include your Author Appeal in the work then at least be honest and up front about what you're doing.
Just Between You and Me: "The Retirement Speech" and this quote, "Now that I have you in my power, I shall tell you my whole life story!"
Like Reality Unless Noted: Is given as the reason why research and thorough world building are needed for historical fiction, scifi or fantasy.
Mary Sue/Marty Stu/Author Avatar (but not so much that last one): "I Complete Me." They do say that it's perfectly acceptable, but when your character starts exhibiting Sue-like tendencies... well, don't pick out that outfit to wear on Oprah quite yet.invoked
A Minor Kidroduction: "The Long Runway". Describing the main character's childhood is often only an excuse to put off getting to any actual plot.
Monochrome Casting: "The Country Club". They note that unless one's novel happens to be set in rural Sweden, the reader may start to get the undesired impression that some form of ethnic cleansing has taken place.
No Yay: "Last Tango in Santa's Village".invoked Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like.
Padding: "The Second Argument in the Laundromat" (using more than one scene to establish a single fact), "The Redundant Tautology" (the author repeating him or herself) and "The Skipping Record" (a character's thoughts repeating themselves).invoked
Pet Homosexual: Discouraged in "Priscilla, Queen of the Clichés". Specifically, they note that many amateur writers seem to believe that once they've established that a given character is gay, the stereotypical catty, bitchy dialogue will write itself - which is, to say the least, rarely the case.
Pet the Dog: "But He Loves His Mother". We're told that trying to use this in order to make a one-dimensional villain seem human is a bad idea; instead we should try to make the villain not one-dimensional and make their evilness believable.
Pet's Homage Name: They discourage using the trope, noting that if your novel's protagonist must have a cat, do not name it after a composer (such as Bartok), after a writer (Hemingway), after an ancient Greek (Socrates) or after a person that reflects the character's political leanings (Trotsky), among several other examples.
The Plot Reaper: "Goodbye, Cruel Reader!" They say it's a bad idea and should only be used when absolutely necessary, and only when the writer has used Chekhov's Gun to establish a heart condition/suicidal fixation/unsafe building etc.
Plot Tumor: With the conveniently similar name of "The Benign Tumor".
Politically Correct History: Discouraged in "The Vegan Viking" and, to a lesser extent, in "Hello, I Am the Medieval Knight!". Characters with progressive attitudes towards gender, sexuality and race will look out of place in a historical setting.
Post Modernism: "Hello! I Am the Author!" They recommend not trying it because, even though some people manage to pull it off, it's really, really hard to. This includes using:
Author Avatar (at least when the author is actually a character in their own novel)
Protagonist-Centered Morality: "Prince Charming Doesn't Deserve Me" is closely related to this: The main character cheats on her husband and throws him out of the house for what would be, objectively speaking, very minor flaws.
Relationship Writing Fumble: A section dealing with unintended shipping ("The Deafening Hug"), Ho Yay ("We're Going to Need a Bigger Closet"), and suggested pedophilia ("Alice in Lapland"), and the actual article deals with accidental Brother-Sister Incest shipping.invoked
Romantic False Lead: Discussed in "Prince Charming Doesn't Deserve Me": They don't recommend against the trope per se, but they do caution against making the False Lead too Unintentionally Sympathetic or the protagonist too Unintentionally Unsympathetic in the process. They also recommend that the nice-but-dull variation can be traded in for a better model, but only if the protagonist shows an appropriate amount of remorse rather than vindictive glee.
"Asseverated the Man" highlights the unusual tendency for beginning writers to avoid using the unadorned word "said" at all times, when experienced authors know that it is in fact an "invisible word" like "the", "a" or "it". Using flowery synonyms as speech indicators or using too many adverbs will only draw attention to the writing and break the reader's immersion.
There's a wonderful example in the text on the front cover: '"This is silly!" she scoffed glibly.'
Scenery Porn: "Vacation Slideshow" features endless descriptions of exotic landscapes, with no bearing on characterisation and story. The trope is discouraged if it goes on for too long and does not add any substance.
Sense Freak: "The Hothouse Plant," where sensory descriptions overwhelm the story.
Generally, saying 'edifice' instead of 'building' doesn't tell your reader anything more about the building; it tells your reader that you know the word edifice.
Sexy Discretion Shot: Discussed in "The Hays Code"; they point out that if the genre you're writing in (such as a steamy 'sexploitation' romance novel, for example) is one where the reader expects to see sexy fun times then coyly using this trope is a bit of cheat.
Show, Don't Tell: Many examples allude to this concept; for example, they advise against the use of adverbs when reporting speech because the writer is in effect telling the reader what to think about their dialogue, rather than showing them.
Shown Their Work: "The Research Paper." "...But the glories of the Calvin cycle, and the further intricacies of the Krebs cycle, essential to cellular respiration, were little comfort now that...". While research is good, the author should not show off to the extent of confusing most readers.
Squick/Nausea Fuel: Discouraged in "The Unruly Zit" (with a sly Take That at Charles Bukowski). They say it's fine if individual scenes in a novel that are meant to be disgusting and horrible are described appropriately, but if everything in the novel is described as such then no reader will want to read it. invoked
Stereotype Gay: Discouraged in "Priscilla, Queen of the Clichés", along with any other obvious stereotype characters.
Suddenly Always Knew That: "And by the Way, I'm an Expert Marksman!", in which the protagonist, when forced to dive through a long tunnel, suddenly reveals that he grew up with oyster divers in the South Seas.
Suspiciously Specific Denial: Its fine as long as the author is doing it on purpose. Doublespeak highlights how easily this is done by accident.
Switching P.O.V.: "Grabbing the Mike: Wherein the point of view momentarily strays", "The Tennis Match: Wherein the point of view bounces back and forth", "The Democracy: Where everyone is heard from" and "The Service Interruption: Wherein the point of view suffers a temporary blackout" are examples of how not to do this (in a word, "inconsistently"). They also recommend against writing from the perspective of a background character who only exists so that they can witness some key event (unless the novel already has numerous points of view).
Take Our Word for It: Discouraged in "Words Fail Me" (where the author stops short of communication.)
Terrible Interviewees Montage: Discouraged in the Second Argument At The Laundromat, stating that while this works well on film where three scenes pass in 30 seconds, it becomes a repetitive drag on paper.
Textual Celebrity Resemblance: Noted as a generally bad idea in "Channeling the E! Channel". If a comparison needs to be made, the author should still not refrain from describing the character.
Totally Radical: "I, Youngster" suggests that authors do their research and apply common sense when writing a young, hip character, and not make clichéd assumptions about youth culture. They also suggest the practical alternative of writing a novel about young people at a time when the author themselves was of that age, for purposes of accuracy and realism.
Tropes Are Tools: They concede that most tropes, in the hands of skilled writers and in the right context, can be used effectively and well. They merely point out those that have a tendency to be used badly. In the introduction, they also note this in the context of the numerous other self-help books about creative writing already available, and how their book differs from these:
Nobody can fail to notice that for every "rule" of writing these books present, novels can be found in which it has been broken with great success... We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. "No right on red" is a rule. "Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly" is an observation.
Unfortunate Implications: Dealt with in various forms in "The Road to the Trash Heap is Paved with Good Intentions".invoked
Unintentionally Sympathetic/Unintentionally Unsympathetic: Discussed and discouraged in "Prince Charming Doesn't Deserve Me"; in the example provided, the author clearly intends the protagonist's boyfriend to be unsympathetic, but only gives him minor flaws, whereas the supposedly sympathetic protagonist would immediately be recognized by anyone sane as an unreasonable, selfish harpy.invoked
Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Dealt with in "Deja Vu;" more specifically, the plan should always go wrong if spoken, otherwise the author has essentially spoiled their own story.
The War on Straw: "The Fearless Exposé" features a Straw Feminist neighbour. Also crops up in the example for "The Educational Film", wherein everyone the hippie protagonist meets isn't just opposed to her beliefs, but is a cruel bully who goes out of their way to humiliate and attack the innocent, angelic protagonist.
What Happened to the Mouse?: "Oh, Don't Mind Him" - Where a character's personal problems (in the example the protagonist's brother, an alcoholic war veteran who seems to exist only to provide the protagonist with an inspirational conversation before he goes to Yale) remain unexplored. "The Gum on the Mantlepiece" is similar, a kind of unintentional Red Herring.
World of Symbolism: Strongly discouraged in a discussion of symbolism following "The Timely Epiphany":
Above all, symbols should not be obvious. While a novel cannot do without plot or characters, your novel should work perfectly well for someone who doesn't notice the symbols at all.
Write What You Know: Unusually for a guide to creative writing these tropes are averted (with the caveat that they encourage extensive research about topics with which the author is unfamiliar), but they also note that unskilled writers who stray too far from writing about the sorts of people they know end up basing their characters on stock characters and archetypes which may unintentionally offend (such as the Magical Negro or Camp Gay). invoked
Hypocritical Humor: The section advising against cliches ends with the line, "And in your heart of hearts, you know this is true." And then there's the gem, "This point is worth repeating: don't reiterate." See also Stylistic Suck below.
Little Professor Dialog: The example of Sock Puppet has a group of plucky kid detectives speaking in the same voice as the narration.
Mary Sue: Several of the hypothetical examples appear to have been written by authors placing themselves into the story too directly. Such as what appears to have been an action thriller written by an ergonomics expert. invoked
Running Gag: In an Alice and Bob sort of way, they use several characters multiple times: Chip; Jack and Synthya; Leonard Cohen; Joe and Melinda, the evil Nefaro, Santa... there are many, occasionally unrelated. In addition to those, we have the phrase "medium-sized breasts" (or "perfect breasts" for variety), misuse of the word "ironically," mistranslations of "Deus ex Machina," and several other small jokes that you wouldn't get if you started reading a random segment. There are also many, many one-off Call Backs and Call Forwards.
And the eternal battle for ergo-hydraulics.
At least two people in the samples own cats named Bartok.
"The Second [insert incident here] at the Laundromat."
Nefarious plots and doings surrounding an optometrist.
The third date and all things associated with it (anniversaries, wine, etc.).
Serious Business: A lot of the excerpts have their authors attempt to create a lot of drama out of seemingly non-dramatic scenarios. Such as the eternal battle for ergo-hydraulics, a love affair based on a mutual love of toggles, and a lot of funny business surrounding an optometrist.