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Literature: How NOT to Write a Novel

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."

Examples given:

  • 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.
  • Anachronism Stew: "Xeno's iPod" for objects that just "appear".
  • 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
  • Author Appeal:
    • "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 Filibuster: "The After-Dinner Sermon" (In which the author wields a mallet).
  • 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.
  • Bondage Is Bad: "When To Kiss And Tell"
    Scenes where the bad guy is given a creepy fetish in order to establish his depravity are becoming less and less of a good idea. In a time when fetishes are becoming a must-have for the really hip, urban professional, you are likely to be stepping on the toes of many readers by using Nefaro's bondage thing as a shorthand for Evil.
  • Captain Ersatz: Alluded to after a long speech on why not to try to sell fanfic which ends with "now go back and change all the names."
  • Captain Obvious Aesop: invokedDiscouraged in "The Educational Film";
    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
  • Clueless Mystery: "The Service Interruption" advises against having sudden blackouts in the Point-of-View narrative once a scene is underway, e.g. to enforce Unspoken Plan Guarantee.
  • Complete Monster: "Inside the Mind of a Criminal" advises against characterising antagonists as committing villainous acts purely For the Evulz.invoked
  • Costume Porn: "The Joan Rivers Pre-Novel Special" and "The Sharper Image Catalog". They discourage it whenever it interferes with the plot or slows down the pace of the novel, but acknowledge that there are genres where it is practically mandatory.
  • 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.
  • Dream Sequence: "Mr. Sandman, on Second Thought, Bring Me a Gun." An attempt at pseudo-Freudian stream of consciousness narrative in the form of a bizarre dream with no obvious connection to any plot. Discouraged. invoked
  • Easy Evangelism: Discouraged.
    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.
  • Emphasize EVERYTHING: "I Mean This!! It's Important!!!" Needless to say, they advise against it. See Bold Inflation below.
  • 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.
    Adolf introduces Fascism to Germany, spreads war throughout Europe, murders millions in concentration camps — but he's a strict vegetarian and loves his dog. Tossing in a touching scene with his German Shepherd Blondi and a dish of lentils won't make Hitler's character "balanced".
  • Fanon Discontinuity: The real life variety, historical negationism, is discouraged in "The Voice in the Wilderness"; the example is a story in which the Holocaust is a lie. invoked
  • Fauxlosophic Narration: "The Overture" — Wherein the prologue is a brief guide to the meaning of life. Discouraged.
  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: "The Convention of the Invisible Men".
    Bare naked dialogue will eventually plunge the reader into a nighmarish science fiction scenario in which two brains are conversing telepathically while suspended in a lightless tank of nutrient-rich fluid. (if you are in fact writing a novel about two brains conversing telepathically while suspended in a lightless tank of nutrient-rich fluid, carry on).
  • Food Porn: Discussed and discouraged in "The Food Channel".
  • For the Evulz: "Inside the Mind of a Criminal". Generally discouraged, if the author wants to create a believable villain.
  • Freakier Than Fiction: "Why Your Job is Harder Than God's". A Contrived Coincidence can resolve a conflict in real life, but for fiction, the reader will expect the resolution to be set up within the context of the plot. As a rule, major coincidences can be used to set a plot in motion, but not to resolve it.
  • Funetik Aksent: Discouraged in "El foreigner", e.g. an Italian man saying "He's-a gotta pretty-a daughter-a". Also discouraged are Poirot Speak and You No Take Candle.
  • Gambit Roulette: "The Riddler"- Wherein the nefarious plot is more complex than string theory.
  • Genre-Busting: They encourage it, with the caveat noted in Genre Shift.
  • 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.
  • Get On With It Already: "The Waiting Room" and "The Long Runway".
  • 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
  • Meaningful Name: They discourage using names where the symbolic meaning of the name is blatantly obvious to any reader (for example, "Vivian", a character who symbolizes life, against "Mort", a character who symbolizes death). Though the biggest problem in the example is that the author points the meanings out explicitly.
  • Mills and Boon Prose: "The Purple Blue Prose"
  • 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.
  • Never Heard That One Before: "The Newborn Dinosaur." Never use jokes that everyone knows.
  • 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.
  • Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: Discouraged in favor of Instant Mystery, Just Delete Scene.
  • 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".
  • Poirot Speak: Discouraged in "El Foreigner", along with other ham-fisted means of depicting foreign accents, like Funetik Aksent and You No Take Candle.
  • 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:
  • 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.
  • Purity Sue: "Too Good to Be True"- Wherein an attempt to make The Protagonist sympathetic overshoots the mark.invoked
  • Purple Prose: "The Puffer Fish", "Mouth-Watering World-Class Prose," which reads like advertisements or blurbs, "Gibberish for Art's sake," which purposely tries to sound like the classic authors did. It also gives an example of "The Purple Blue Prose", which is a sexual version. And "The Crepitating Parasol," in which that fundamental line between "clever" and "stupid" is crossed due to suffocating the prose with obscure references and jokes.
  • Random Events Plot: Implicitly discouraged - for the section dealing with "Plot", the subtitle is "Not just a bunch of stuff that happens".
  • Red Herring: They encourage these to give a novel some added depth, though warn people to be careful of unintended examples (see What Happened to the Mouse?).
  • 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.
  • Said Bookism:
    • "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.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: "The Puffer Fish" and "The Crepitating Parasol" (using big words the reader doesn't know in a failed attempt to sound clever) and "The Crepuscular Handbag" (using big words you don't know in a failed attempt to sound clever).
    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.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: "The Benign Tumor", a section of the novel that's a Shaggy Dog Story and can be completely removed with no effect on the rest of the story.
  • 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.
  • Smurfette Principle: Mentioned in "Stag Night". "Especially prevalent in science fiction; apparently many writers assume that in the future women will die out."
  • 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.
  • Straw Feminist: The excerpt of "The Fearless Exposé" stars these.
  • Stylistic Suck: The examples, obviously.
  • 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.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry: Discouraged. Characters should not baldly announce the emotions they are experiencing (even in internal monologue, never mind dialogue), but rather these emotions should be depicted indirectly.
  • This Is Reality: Mentioned under Lampshade Hanging.
  • 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.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Discouraged in "Compassion Fatigue".
  • 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.
  • Trope Breaker: They specifically refer to the damage done to the techno-thriller genre by the fall of Communism, and also to several genres by the invention of the cellphone.
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: invokedDiscouraged in "Gibberish for Art's Sake".
  • 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.
  • Vanity Publishing: Discussed, with the subsequent Protection from Editors not necessarily being a good thing.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses:"The Crepitating Parasol." Discouraged, since it runs the risk of being considered pretentious rather than clever.
  • Wall of Blather: The front cover, with the background text being some sort of proto-Twilight Vampire Romance.
  • Wangst: Warned against in "Compassion Fatigue":invoked
    Readers can identify with a protagonist who is a geek or a failure, but when all that character does is fail and wallow, identification becomes an unwelcome burden.
  • Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma/Bold Inflation: "I Mean This!! It's Important!!"- "While commas, often appear, randomly in unpublished manuscripts—and there is an epidemic—of unnecessary—em-dashes, it is the exclamation mark which takes the most punishment." It also talks about Capitalizing Words The Author Thinks Are Important, and compares it to Ironic Capitalization, a combination of which is Repeatedly Used On This Very Wiki.
  • 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.
  • The Watson: They encourage this to avoid the problem of people telling each other things both of them already know.
  • 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.
  • The Woobie: "Compassion Fatigue" is when this trope is done badly, with a character whose misfortunes are so manifold that they seem beyond rescue.invoked
  • Why We're Bummed Communism Fell: Jokingly referenced in "The Padded Cell".
  • 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
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: "Yo, Charlemagne, how dost thy big war?"
  • You Keep Using That Word: "The Crepuscular Handbag" features a hurricane of malapropisms by the author.

In-book Examples:

  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "The ranks of the would-be novelists are filled with Holocaust deniers, men who question whether women have souls, followers of Ayn Rand..."
  • Bilingual Bonus: Several jokes in foreign languages.
    • In many of the examples, the characters offhandedly use foreign "expressions" that either make no sense in context, or even constitute commentary from the authors.
    • In addition, see an example quoted several times on this page. "deus ex machina" is not, in fact, French for "are you fucking kidding me?"
    • Folie adieu is used to refer to a sudden Tone Shift Shocking Swerve at the end, causing crippling Mood Whiplash that makes the novel unsellable. It is a pun on a folie a deux, a "madness shared by two," and translates as "Goodbye madness".
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In "The Court Reporter". "I'm afraid so. The author is actually going to list all the specials."
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Read the title— now guess what the book's about
  • Good Night, Sweet Prince: Used in a completely out of context Shout-Out in one segment.
  • 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.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: All the sub-headings of the examples have this or variations.
  • 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
  • Narm: Pretty much all of the bad writing examples are intentionally over-the-top bad, but the chunk of text on the cover takes the cake. invoked
  • Noodle Incident: The "spaying incident" that is mentioned in a few segments.
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: "I love you more than any woman that I've met on the Upper West Side in a really long time."
  • Precision F-Strike: "Deus ex Machina" is cited as a French expression which means "Are you fucking kidding me?"
  • 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 leg of mutton. It was the only clue.
    • "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.
  • Shaped Like Itself: The Sight Gag (In which there is a sight gag.)
    • "Ask yourself: 'do I know this word?' If the answer is no, then you do not know it."
  • Snow Clone: "Hello, I am the [example]!", "The Second [example] in the Laundromat"
  • Shout-Out: They occasionally make random references, some named, some unnamed. These include Harry Potter, the Underpants Gnomes, A Child Called It, HAL, Gone with the Wind, Gravity's Rainbow and so on.
  • So Bad, It's Good: Purposely invoked with the Stylistic Suck segments.
  • Stylistic Suck: Every mistake comes with an (often quite humorous) excerpt of writing.
  • Tradesnark™: On using product names in fiction (Kmart Realism): "TM?"
  • Tuckerization: Ever heard of the Marquis vin Diesel?


The Grand List of Overused Science Fiction ClichésBooks on TropeHow to Write Badly Well
Horrible HistoriesNon-Fiction LiteratureHow to Teach Physics to Your Dog

alternative title(s): How Not To Write A Novel
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