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Literature / How NOT to Write a Novel

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"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 2008 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 amusing to read. 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."

Take the quiz here!

The Trope List (in which tropes are listed):

  • 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. Another problem they mention is that this trope is a Dead Horse Trope, with them claiming entire cities could be populated with the number of abusive parents that show up in unpublished works.
  • Accidental Innuendo: "The Deafening Hug." The example text is an embrace between a pair of siblings which is described in such erotic terms that the reader can only infer Brother–Sister Incest.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). "Linearity Shrugged" is their example of how not to use it: the chronology and subject matter change after every other sentence, making the narrative impossible to follow.
  • Anachronism Stew: "Xeno's iPod" for objects that just 'appear,' "The Vegan Viking" for anachronistic attitudes and beliefs, and "Yo, Charlemagne, how dost thy big war?" for modern-sounding dialogue in a historical setting.
    • Yet the authors of this book themselves made a mistake in the examples used, "everybody knows that knights don‘t carry guns", and then going on about less immediately obvious mistakes which can still break immersion. However, historical medieval knights did in fact use guns. Not in the earlier parts of the era, of course, but by the late middle ages knights in full plate armor and early guns coexisted, and some knights (German imperial Reiters, for example) used wheel-lock pistols instead of lances at the beginning of a charge.
  • Anatomically Impossible Sex: "The Superhuman Feat" (Wherein a man performs). It is generally not a good idea to write sex scenes that move out of the domain of physical possibility.
  • Angst? What Angst?: "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 gave her a bad grade, he says he'd be willing to reconsider if she does him a favor. And then, when she assumes sex is the "favor" and tries to seduce him, he asks her to be his cat-sitter.invoked
  • Anti-Climax: "I'm Melting!" (Wherein the villain conveniently gives up).
  • Apocalyptic Log: "'And One Ring to Bind Them!' Said the Old Cowpoke" jarringly morphs into one (from some sort of Chick-Lit pastiche, no less!)
  • Artistic License: Discouraged. They are unusually adamant that any novel which makes use of some form of specialized knowledge (especially historical novels) must be an accurate depiction.
  • 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 lovingly describes some vice, but has a viewpoint character pronounce it disgusting, implicitly because the author's trying to distance themselves from their own kink. They discourage it, because no one will be fooled; if you want your work to indulge in some form of smut, you might as well be honest about it.
  • Author Filibuster: "The After-Dinner Sermon" (in which the author wields a mallet) is specifically about this, but several of the other excerpts (such as "The Educational Film" and "Voice in the Wilderness") are clearly written by an author who has A Very Important Lesson Or Opinion To Share and has decided that the best way to share it is to hector their unfortunate reader with it at every given opportunity. The authors discourage it; while they don't exactly deny the room for some kind of moral within fiction, they generally take the opinion that novels are entertainment first and foremost, and that pious sermonising or lecturing is neither very fun to read nor as successful at persuading a skeptical reader to accept a new viewpoint as these authors seem to assume.
  • Author Tract: "The Educational Film" (wherein the deck is stacked). In the example, everything the saintly 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 and humiliate 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: Discouraged in "When To Kiss And Tell" because, as Real Life will attest, it's not:
    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?
  • Card-Carrying Villain: "Inside the Mind of a Criminal" advises against characterizing antagonists as committing villainous acts purely For the Evulz.
  • Cell Phones Are Useless: Discussed in "The Padded Cell", which suggests a number of plausible ways of cutting off communication.
  • Character Shilling: Writing characters just to laugh at the protagonist's jokes or gush about how awesome they are is a big no-no.
  • 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. For bonus points, the example text is a Chekhov pastiche. They also approve the use of this trope as a Red Herring.
  • 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 they 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.
  • Comic-Book Fantasy Casting: "Channeling the E! Channel" says there's nothing wrong with basing a character on a celebrity, but directly saying "She looked like a blonde Julia Roberts" is a no-no.
  • 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.
  • Dead Horse Trope: This book is written by people who have worked for publishers, so they point out several tropes that they've seen time and time again. They do acknowledge that these tropes aren't inherently bad and they can be handled well. However, they often show up in poorly written works, leading to them being associated with bad writing. This means stories will get rejected if too many of these tropes pop up.
  • Defenestrate and Berate: Deconstructed in "Prince Charming Doesn't Deserve Me" (Wherein the bad boyfriend is more sympathetic than the protagonist). Melinda cheats on Joe and throws his clothes out on the lawn for the heinous crimes of "not wanting to help with her mother's taxes on their anniversary" and "buying her the wrong colored roses". The example paints Melinda as petty and vindictive, tormenting Joe at the slightest provocation rather than giving him his just deserts.
  • Deliberately Bad Example: Though supposedly based on real literary submissions, many of the samples provided are so outlandishly atrocious that any competent-to-good aspiring writers will find them more entertaining than informative. That said, there are plenty of tips following these samples that can be genuinely helpful even to those who already have a decent grasp of the subject.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Encouraged for historical settings; see Politically Correct History below.
  • Delusions of Eloquence: "The Crepuscular Handbag," where the example story is a dramatic rape scene turned into unintentional comedy by using all the wrong words. ("Ululating under his breath, he perused her bikini to the floor and embroiled himself in her well-endowed bust.")
    • Also used (although not discussed) in "The Long Runway", with words like "brolly", "merkin", and "pangolin" being misused.
  • 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.
  • Detective Animal: Discussed. The writers observe that unless the protagonist's cat Bartok is the one solving mysteries, Bartok should receive about as many words in the narrative as the couch he is sitting on.
  • Deus Angst Machina: invoked"Compassion Fatigue". Strongly discouraged; a character whose life is nothing but a parade of misery and misfortune is difficult to sympathize with, and Too Bleak, Stopped Caring will set in pretty quickly.
  • Deus ex Machina: "But a Meteor Could Land There, Right?"
    This particular blunder is known as deus ex machina, which is French for "Are you fucking kidding me?"
  • 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.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Discussed in one segment to explain why it's not a good idea to have a character's first appearance involve them doing something lewd unless you want them to be thought of as a pervert by the readers.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas/Evil Virtues: This said to be frequently used a cheap way to get reader sympathy or at least respect for otherwise one-dimensional, loathsome 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 Blondie and a dish of lentils won't make Hitler's character "balanced".
  • Expospeak Gag: "The Puffer Fish" notes how abusing Purple Prose can create these unintentionally.
  • 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) and "Now With 20% More Homily!" (similar, but at the end of the work). Both discouraged.
  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: "The Convention of the Invisible Men".
    Bare naked dialogue will eventually plunge the reader into a nightmarish 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".
  • Footnote Fever: Appears in the sample of "postmodernist" writing, which the book discourages because postmodernism and other gimmicky stuff is hard to do well.
  • 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.
    Remember: stupid people are no more or less phonetic than anyone else.
  • Gambit Roulette: "The Riddler" (Wherein the nefarious plot is more complex than string theory). Naturally, they discourage it, because it will make your story way too hard to follow and make your villain seem way too competent to be believable.invoked
  • Gay Best Friend: "Priscilla, Queen of the Clichés". Discouraged, as examples tend to be one-dimensional stock characters, which can seem rather patronizing and insulting.
    A lot of authors create this type of character, assuming the snappy, witty dialogue will write itself. Needless to say, this is rarely the case.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Among words you aren't advised to use just for the sake of making the writing fancier (see Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness below) is "ejaculated" in its old sense of "exclaimed".
  • Ho Yay: invoked"We're Going to Need a Bigger Closet", specifically for unintentional homoerotic subtext.
  • Humor Dissonance: invoked"A Confederacy of Shills" advises against having characters laugh uproariously at every joke during a conversation. At best, it alienates readers by, in effect, telling them when to laugh; at worst, if the jokes are truly weak, it disorients the reader the same way as would having characters cry or smash things for no reason.
  • I Just Write the Thing: Discouraged in "The Fig Leaf". The authors note that most of the time you don't have to include your Author Appeal in your work in the first place. But since they can't actually stop you from doing so, they insist that if you're going to include it, then you should at least be up front about what you're doing, since no one's going to be fooled anyway. The example demonstrates this by having an author, who clearly enjoys visiting strip clubs but equally clearly doesn't want anyone else to know this, combine a lovingly detailed description of the club and the strippers working there with a viewpoint character who sniffily declares how beneath him he finds everything as much as possible.
  • IKEA Erotica: "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.
  • Informed Attribute: The dialogue equivalent is shown in "Said the Fascinating Man" (Where the author tells you what you think of his dialogue).
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: Some of the headings parody awkward prose this way. Notable examples: "The Penis-Like Sausage" and ""Fuck You!" He Said Profanely".
  • In Medias Res: "The Waiting Room" advises that this can be used to provide chunks of exposition without delaying the plot.
  • It Began with a Twist of Fate: They note that a plot being set in motion by an arbitrary coincidence or decision is acceptable, but a plot being resolved thereby will likely frustrate and annoy readers.
  • 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!"
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: Underwrites a lot of the book. The details you provide will set up reader expectations about the plot, characters, love interests, etc. If you add too much extra detail, or direct the reader's attention to something and don't follow up, your novel will be dead no matter how good it is.
  • Like Reality, Unless Noted: This is provided as the reason why research and thorough world building are needed for historical fiction, sci-fi or fantasy.
  • Malaproper: Strongly cautioned against in "The Crepuscular Handbag" and "Are Sticks and Stones Still an Option?" (Where the author mangles common expressions). Also used for humor in other examples.
  • Mary Sue: "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). Doubly so if the author feels the need to stop the narrative just to point out the symbolism.
  • Mills and Boon Prose: "The Purple Blue Prose". Discouraged since it can make the sex scene sound too funny.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: Discouraged in "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" discourages having all the characters be of the same ethnicity. They note that unless one's novel happens to be set somewhere like rural Sweden, the reader may start to get the undesired impression that some form of ethnic cleansing has taken place.
  • Mood Whiplash: Discouraged in various forms. "'And One Ring to Bind Them!' Said the Old Cowpoke" deals with an abrupt Genre Shift with zero foreshadowing near the end of a story. "The Underpants Gnomes" is for when the writer suddenly skips to the end, the protagonist's problems having been solved off-screen. "Dear Penthouse Letters" is about the importance of setting up sex scenes properly.
  • Never Heard That One Before: "The Newborn Dinosaur." Never use jokes that everyone knows.
  • No Such Thing as Bad Publicity: Discouraged under "Voice in the Wilderness." Editors will not pick up your novel that's controversial just for the sake of being controversial.
  • No Yay: "Last Tango in Santa's Village".invoked (Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like.) If you have a non-sexualized character in your story, for the love of God, give them some sex appeal before making them hook up with someone. Otherwise, your readers will just be bored, confused, and/or disgusted with the relationship.
    "At last she saw past superficialities to understand that it was Santa, with his warm and loyal heart, who was the real man - not cobalt-eyed, washboard-abbed Blade at all! Santa Claus was always her best friend - could he be something more?"
  • Observation on Originality: In the "how-clichéd-are-your-characters" quiz, the ideal score is a balance of formula and novelty, i.e. somewhere in the middle. Too many predictable notes are boring; too many erratic beats are jarring.
  • 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). They also make passing reference to "The Second Fellatio in the Laundromat" (multiple sex scenes involving the same characters under more-or-less the same circumstances).invoked
  • Pet-Peeve Trope: While it's hard to disagree with most of the advice given, some of the tropes mentioned are more mild annoyances the authors have rather than ones you should actively avoid to not be seen as the worst writer ever, such as the Pet's Homage Name and their heavy discouragement of Post-Modernism.
  • Pet the Dog: "But He Loves His Mother". Using this to make a one-dimensional villain seem human is a bad idea; it's better to make the villain not one-dimensional and make his 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.
  • Platonic Writing, Romantic Reading: 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
  • Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: Discouraged in favor of Instant Mystery, Just Delete Scene.
  • The Plot Reaper: "Goodbye, Cruel Reader!" They discourage having Bob the Villain kick off just for narrative convenience. If this trope is going to be used, the writer needs to set up Bob's impending death so that it doesn't just come out of nowhere (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!". While it's usually done to avoid Values Dissonance, giving your 14th-century character neoliberal attitudes towards homosexuality (or neoconservative attitudes towards economics) will merely undermine your efforts to persuade readers that your story is taking place in the 14th century.
  • Postmodernism: "Hello! I Am the Author!" They recommend not trying it because it's really, really hard to do well. 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.
  • The Publishing Firm of Pun, Pun, and Wordplay: In their warning against sending in a manuscript to any agent or editor charging a fee, the authors call their unscrupulous agency "Fuxom and Snickers."
  • Purity Sue: Invoked and discussed in "Too Good to Be True", noting that it's usually an attempt to make a character sympathetic but which has overshot the mark and made them nauseatingly perfect instead. Naturally discouraged, as being in the presence of perfection tends to breed not admiration but resentment.
  • 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. Naturally, it's discouraged. The authors do acknowledge that big fancy words can have their place in writing, but they are insistent that they should be used sparingly and only when the word in question is the correct word for the idea that is being expressed.
  • Random Events Plot: Implicitly discouraged — for the section dealing with "Plot", the subtitle is "Not just a bunch of stuff that happens".
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: "Why Your Job Is Harder Than God's" explains that just because something unbelievable could happen or has happened in real life is not a pass to do so poorly in fiction, which is more scrutinized.
  • Red Herring: They encourage these ("The Red Herring on the Mantelpiece") to give a novel more depth, though they warn authors to watch out for unintentional examples (see What Happened to the Mouse?).
  • 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 glee.
  • Said Bookism:
    • "Asseverated the Man" highlights the unusual tendency for beginning writers to avoid using the unadorned word "said". 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 in the story.
    • However, the authors concede that an adverb can be helpful when it adds nuance that the dialogue alone may not convey. They comment that "'I love you, all right' he said jokingly" is worlds apart from "'I love you, all right' he said coldly." But adverbs that add no meaning ("lovingly") or are unusual and distracting ("effervescently") are best left off.
    • 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 characterization and story. The trope is discouraged because these tend to run too long and add no substance.
  • Sense Freak: "The Hothouse Plant," where sensory descriptions overwhelm the rest of the writing.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: "The Puffer Fish" and "The Crepitating Parasol" (using big words you 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 a cheat.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: "The Benign Tumor", a section of the novel that has no bearing on the rest of the story and can be completely removed without changing the plot.
  • 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 the author needs to know what details are accurate to the setting, he/she also needs to know how to make those details a natural part of the narrative instead of just dumping them in.
  • Slow-Paced Beginning: "The Waiting Room" advises that exposition and background should wait until the actual plot is kicked off, lest readers lose interest. It also advises that In Medias Res can be used to provide chunks of exposition without delaying the plot. invoked
  • 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: Overuse of this is 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 one will want to read it. The romantic version of this is also discouraged in "The Funny Valentine" (wherein the protagonist settles for less). invoked
  • Stereotype: Dealt with in various forms in "The Road to the Trash Heap is Paved with Good Intentions".invoked Also featured in "Obsession, by Calvin Klein (you know he's Jewish, right?)" (when the author is unaware that his ideé fixe is showing), in which the male narrator states that "women got no more pleasure from sex than I would from scratching a mosquito bite".
  • Stereotype Gay: Discouraged in "Priscilla, Queen of the Clichés", along with any other obvious stereotype characters.
  • The Stoic: Exaggerated in "Failing The Turing Test". See Angst? What Angst? above.
  • Straw Feminist: The excerpt of "The Fearless Exposé" stars a man who lives next door to a group of these, who berate him for keeping one of their toddlers from falling into a swimming pool, live like animals, and advise their sons to "remember to be ashamed of your penis". Use of them (and strawmen in general, for that matter) is discouraged in favor of more nuanced and three-dimensional characters, at the very least because you'll be stepping on people's political toes, and it will bring all the wrong kind of attention.
  • Stylistic Suck: The examples, which are claimed to be submissions from beginning authors, but are actually Deliberately Bad Examples that show off the misuse of the tropes they discuss.
  • 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. Obviously discouraged, while tying "Why Your Job Is Harder Than God's" to it for further discussion.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial:
    • It's fine as long as the author is doing it on purpose. Doublespeak highlights how easily this can be done by accident.
    • "The Service Interruption" talks about this being done wrong, by having the POV effectively blank out in order to maintain suspense.
  • 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: Heavily discouraged in "Words Fail Me" (where the author stops short of communication), since it defeats the purpose of literature.
  • Talking Is a Free Action: Discussed (and discouraged) in "Hello, I Must Be Going".
  • 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", since describing a character as "a young Angelina Jolie" means the reader's imagination is now off somewhere trying to picture a younger Angie instead of staying with the story.
  • 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.
  • Totally Radical/Two Decades Behind: "I, Youngster" suggests that older 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". A character whose life is nothing but pain and misery and a hero who never gets anything right will quickly turn readers off.
  • 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". They say that the belief that difficult-to-understand writing is artistic is "analogous to the belief that the warrior who dons the pelt of a lion thereby acquires its strength and cunning." (And the lion thing doesn't work either, by the way.)
  • Tyop on the Cover: "'Spellcheck' Isn't in My Dictionary" straight-up tells the author to fix all of their typos.
  • Unconventional Formatting: Not only do they advise against abnormal formatting in the writing in "Hello! I Am the Author", but they break convention with providing a proper format for submitting to publishers.
  • 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." Specifically, the authors state that any plan should always go wrong (or at least have unexpected complications) if spoken out loud; otherwise, the author has essentially written a spoiler into 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 (or, in the case of "Gibberish for Art's Sake", too baffling).
  • 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 neighbor. 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 remain unexplored). In the example, this character is 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. "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; since Most Writers Are Writers, the authors observe that "Write what you know" results in an abundance of novelists writing about authors. That said, they encourage extensive research about topics with which the author is unfamiliar, and 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 The idea the authors promote is not "Write what you know," but "Know what you write."
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: "Yo, Charlemagne, How Dost Thy Big War?" Discouraged for much of the same reasons as "The Crepitating Parasol"; it's all too easy to get incorrect, and it will break the immersion of your story.

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 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".
    • In "El Foreigner", a Spanish speaker reprimands a Korean's (supposed) Foreign-Language Tirade by saying, "Hijo de puta! Hold the tongue!" "Hijo de puta" is Spanish for "son of a whore".
    • Many "food items" with French names, if translated, are anything but. Peau de hommeblanc, for instance, means "White Man's Skin".
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In "The Court Reporter". "I'm afraid so. The author is actually going to list all the specials."
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: When discussing "monogamy", or two characters in a novel who only ever interact with each other:
    "However obsessed Annabel is with dating Ronald, she still has to go to work, deal with her family, score the painkillers to which she has been addicted since high school."
  • Call-Back: The description of "The Food Channel" is the fourth wall breaking moment from "The Court Reporter".
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Subverted. While it's a tongue-in-cheek guide to writing a bad novel, the actual purpose is to teach the writer how to avoid the obvious mistakes and (hopefully) produce a good one.
  • Good Night, Sweet Prince: Used in a completely out of context Shout-Out in one segment.
  • Have I Mentioned I Am Heterosexual Today?: The entire point of "I Am Expressing My Sexuality." They recommend against it.
  • Hypocrite: The author of the example in "The Fig Leaf" clearly enjoys visiting strip clubs but is vaguely aware that this is something that shouldn't be boasted about in polite company, so combines a lovingly detailed description of the club and the ladies working in it with the viewpoint character sniffily declaring how above it all he is in a transparent attempt to cover his tracks.
  • Hypocritical Humor: The section advising against clichés 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 in the story too directly. Such as what appears to have been an action thriller written by an ergonomics expert. invoked
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: In "The Manchurian Parallax of the Thetan Conspiracy Enigma", a murder with a frozen leg of mutton leads to a Conspiracy Kitchen Sink involving Those Wacky Nazis led by a transgender Josef Mengele plotting to destroy Winnipeg.
  • Narm: 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 Implements: A hypothetical example is discussed in which a character called Joe is terrified of raisins because his father and the parish priest did something traumatizing to him as a child with a raisin.
  • 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."
  • Overly Preprepared Gag: One segment has a detective from Belgium who's made long-winded solely so one of his monologues can end with "the Belgian waffled".
  • 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.
    • The phrase "medium-sized breasts" (or "perfect breasts" for variety.)
    • Misuse of the word "ironically"
    • Mistranslations of "Deus ex Machina".
    • 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."
  • 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.
  • Snow Clone: "Hello, I am the [example]!", "The Second [example] in the Laundromat"
  • So Bad, It's Good: Purposely invoked with the Stylistic Suck segments.
  • Sobriquet Sex Switch: After getting sex reassignment surgery, Joseph Mengele started going by "Josephine Womengele".
  • 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?
  • Unsettling Gender-Reveal: Joseph Mengele "got radical plastic surgery and began life again as Josephine Womengele".
  • You Watch Too Much X: "'The Unruly Zit' — When the author has read too much Bukowski."