5 Common Mistakes that Will KILL Your Novel

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Our Novel. Rest in Peace….
Image via Debbie Johansson WANA Commons

Yesterday, we discussed the often confused Man verses Self by using the movie FlightAll good Men versus Self stories still have an outside antagonist that generates the story problem in need of resolution by Act III. No outside antagonist? No story problem? Then the novel quickly devolves into pages of navel-gazing.

Literary Fiction Doesn’t Give us a Pass from Plotting

Look to all the top literary fiction and all of them have an outside antagonist that generates tension, conflict and change. The only difference in literary fiction is that the character arc usually takes a higher precedence than the plot arc.

The plot and story problems are there, but they’re purpose is to force internal change.

Some Examples…

In Brave New World, protagonist Bernard Marx doesn’t fit the mold he was engineered to fill. The society around him lacks meaning and he travels to the reservations (of the “uncivilized” American Indians) for answers. There is a lot of push-back from the society he’s questioning, namely The Director of Hatcheries, and that generates the tension and stakes.

In Catch 22 protagonist Yossarian is creative in his efforts to save his tail from dying in war. The problem? The antagonist, Colonel Cathart, keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly in order to complete their service.

Even literary fiction involves some outside force that is causing the contemplation, depression, rebellion, etc. Whether it is the decline of the aristocracy and rise of the middle class as in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or implosion of society, and humans-turned-cannibals in Cormac McCarthy’s Pultizer-winning The Road, we must always have an outside pressure and antagonists to drive the story momentum.

Though I will say Proust is from another time (not to mention absurdly self-indulgent), and modern audiences would probably want to pelt him with Angry Birds.

The Case of Commercial Fiction

Most of us, however, write commercial fiction. Thus, the antagonist tends to be a little less on the existential side. Here are five main problems that I regularly see in new writing, regarding the antagonist(s).

#1 No Core Antagonist (No BBT)—This will create, what I call, “the soap opera effect.” Since there is no core story problem, no Big Boss Troublemaker, each scene is just melodrama. Since there is no clear BBT to be defeated, there’s no way to ratchet the tension.

#2 Antagonist is a Caricature—Always remember that the bad guy is the good guy in his own story. One of the best examples of this is in the movie Law Abiding Citizen. The antagonist is a husband whose wife and daughter were brutally raped then butchered and he was left for dead. A flawed justice system basically gave one of the killers a slap on the wrist and now this grieving husband and father wants revenge/justice. It is really hard not to root for “the bad guy” in this movie because we so empathize.

Antagonists who just want to kill or rule the world get boring quickly. Leave the mustache-twirlers to the cartoons.

#3 Antagonist is Weak—The goal of your antagonist should always present BIG stakes for the protagonist. If the goals aren’t strong enough, your story will suffer. What will it cost your protagonist if he/she fails? This is one of the reasons novels based off diaries of something that’s already happened can be weak.

Yes, but they hold the key to her mother’s killer.

All right, but that killer (or people willing to cover the killer’s identity at any cost) better still be alive and the protagonist must be in imminent danger. The diary better be the key to saving her skin and there needs to be more than just a journal. There need to be antagonists standing in her way. When events and bad stuff are in the past? No stakes. Curiosity alone is lousy fuel for stories.

#4 Not Enough Scene Antagonists—Your story needs a core antagonist, yes. But most of the conflict will actually come from allies, love interests and threshold guardians. In Finding Nemo, Darla the Fish-Killer (the BBT) creates the story problem, the abduction of Nemo. She also provides the stakes because she’s known for shaking her fish to death. BUT, we only see her a couple times in the movie. Dori, the fish with memory issues, provides a lion’s share of the conflict that ups the tension, delays the mission and forces Marlin (a control-freak) to change and learn to trust. For more on this, here’s my post.

#5 No Scene Antagonist—Every scene must have an antagonist (dramatic tension). If we have a scene where two characters are simply talking about a third? Info dump, not fiction. Refer to David Mamet’s Letter to the Writers of The Unit:


What are your questions, thoughts? Who are some of the best antagonists? Why did you love them? What made them multi-dimensional? What problems are you having?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!


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  1. Thanks so much for the fab reminders, Kristen! I’ve copied and pasted a couple of these into my OneNote writing tips file. Very timely while I’m creating a new BBT.

    Hope your editing is going well! (Last I checked, you had 96 pages to go…). 😀

    • TLJeffcoat on March 19, 2013 at 9:20 am
    • Reply

    Beautiful. Thank you once again for posting writer tips on something I’m actually struggling with. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make my BBT a little less evil and more about the reader understanding why he is such a psychotic prick. While I was reading this, a light bulb came on. You just saved me… again!

  2. I just finished reading Clive Cussler’s novel, Atlantis in which the BBT wants to destroy the world be destabilizing it and causing the poles to shift.Good read.

  3. Thank you for the fantastic tips and reminders, Kristen! The BBT is something I’m really struggling with right now (among other things 🙂 ). These are going into my writing tips file ASAP!

  4. I hate it when you post about the BBT because it’s so utterly inconvenient. I should just avoid reading your blog, but dang it, I know you’re right, and I’d rather be good than finished. *sigh* #amediting.. Again.

  5. Great tips! Having strong antagonists is vital, even when they’re non-human. Got a snowstorm? Make it a big snowstorm, going to take out the power and trap the characters. (Hmm… that could lead to all sorts of OTHER antagonistic relationships!)

  6. Thanks for explaining the scene antagonist! I like that concept a lot.

  7. For the first time ever, this kind of post makes sense to me and also does not make me go “I’m not listening; I’m not listening; I don’t get it so I’m not listening!”— my other books were considered more “literary” – and I suppose they do have some kind of plot and la-tee-dah and all that, but I wrote them not thinking of that – I just wrote them. But with this latest book, I wanted to try to write something more “plotty” even if i I did it as I usually do – vomit it out and then see what I have and go from there. I wanted to write something more “commercial” than “literary” — it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my writing life — in the writing part of it, that is, not the business of writing, which is a whole nuther thang (promo, self promo, ugh). I tore this book apart, pieced it back together, deleted whole chapters, eyed it from upside down and inside out; I angsted, I railed, I screamed, I tore out my hair, I wanted to give up — but, the end result seems to be a book with a plot and a bit of subplot and my editor says with more commercial appeal than my other books, Well dang me! I learned a lot while writing this book so it was worth all the horror, the horror, the HORROR! *laugh*

    Yes, this makes sense to me now – even if it still gives me a bit of a headache 😀

  8. I’m afraid I’m being schooled here. :-;

    I like the commercial pointers.

    I love Proust, so I might be from the wrong time, and I’m not sure I understand the antagonist in the same way. I also love David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King where one might be confused into thinking that government or bureaucracy is the antagonist, but really, it is boredom which is really the protagonist in disguise, making the book an internal psychological thriller. I wish I had a tenth of the talent of either of those two.

    Interested: what is the antagonist in Hamlet? The MC himself, right?

    1. Those who killed the father and seek to take over the kingdom (Claudius). His mother is in bed with the enemy. Hamlet is a revenge story to bring justice. His uncle has killed the king and seeks to take the throne, and his dead brother’s wife. Clear story goal. Clear villain. Clear antagonist.

      1. I’m thinking about antagonist on a different level, but I understand your point of view, and after all, the post is geared to commercial fiction.

        1. But great writing has LAYERS of antagonists. Sort of like fine art. Look closely and one color is really countless blended together seamlessly. That’s why Shakespeare was so brilliant–and mind you his plays were written to entertain the unwashed, illiterate masses. His plots and antagonists entertained the uneducated, but also spoke countless volumes to those with higher education who could catch the nuance and depth. Stringing together fancy words and nebulous navel-gazing only PhDs understand doesn’t make it better.

          Every Shakespeare play we now study in universities was once considered “commercial fiction” ;).

          1. Epiphany as I was reading through the comments and then getting back to my book. I would nominate “Shrek” as a multi-layered movie, appealing to nearly everyone watching

          2. Children’s movies are some of the most brilliant writing out there. Has to entertain two completely different age groups simultaneously. Finding Nemo is simply brilliant. The Incredibles, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life. So many good examples. Also good examples of true comedic writing. Can’t use sex, toilet humor or profanity to be funny.

          3. The animation is getting me to watch it on CABLE TV first and I continue watching if I like the storyline. PIXAR would be worth buying from Disney. I cannot draw (on paper or on digital), but the purchase would give me the best animators working for me. Too bad I do not have all the money in world, it would be instant success.

        2. When it comes to Hamlet, I would also argue that the MC is the main antagonists and everyone/thing else are just scene/sub(?)antagonists. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of Hamlet, it is his lack of action that ultimately leads to the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes.

  9. The Finding Nemo example is great, because there’s a real world “at-stake” but his father never knows this, only the audience does, while every scene the father is in has it’s own antagonist that pushes things forward. It’s a great reminder and visual for when I’m writing my scenes and trying to up the stakes!

  10. I always have trouble with my antagonists, so I appreciate your posts on this. I always manage to do the “character against herself” thing, and now I understand that I need to externalize that conflict in some way. Thank you!

  11. I can come up with an overall story antagonist. It’s the every scene antagonist that gets in my way especially during plotting and first draft. I know the books I read and re-read have “something happening” every page. Unrealistically of course but if I wanted sheer realism I’d be reading science studies.

  12. Great advice! I’ve been working through my story trying to make sure there’s an antagonist in every scene.

  13. Nice! I really hadn’t thought about a scene antagonist before – but that’s a great point, so thanks for bringing it up 🙂

    • SweetSong on March 19, 2013 at 10:42 am
    • Reply

    I get what you’re saying about caricature antagonists, but at the same time, it seems like too many villains today have swung too far to the opposite end of the spectrum. Sometimes evil is evil, and honestly, sometimes I find a caricature to be a refreshing change from the billion shades of grey that storytellers try to sell us these days.

    1. Just because you have a great villain, doesn’t mean he’s a caricature. Villains should have depth, Ie. Joker in The Dark Knight or Buffalo Bill and Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs. One-dimensional characters are boring for the most part. But then again, people watched Jersey Shores *shrugs* so no accounting for the tastes of audiences. There is a spot for everything I imagine.

  14. Thanks for the tips! Most of these I was able to check off as things I’ve avoided with my novel, but I need to look at some of the scenes where my two protagonists are just talking, rather than fighting the BBTor one of the recurring scene protagonists, and make sure there’s sufficient tension between the two of them to keep it interesting.

    • Diana Stevan on March 19, 2013 at 10:56 am
    • Reply

    I’m at the moment going through my novel one more time. This post is timely as I need to up the stakes, and heighten my antogonist/protagonist conflicts. Thanks, Kristen.

  15. One of my new favortie movie’s is ‘Wreck it Ralph’ from Disney. I felt that this movie was a really good example after reading your blog because the bad guy wants to be the good guy in this movie, so yes, he is fighting himself or the idea of himself as the bad guy. He wants to change that by getting a medal to prove he can be worthy of praise too. Of course, Disney has another, more typical bad guy that Ralph has to face, but the story of a bad guy not wanting to be a bad guy was wonderful! Just my two cents

  16. Great post! Conflict is definitely my weak point, and a good antagonist definitely makes any story worth reading! Thanks, I’ll keep these hints handy!

  17. What is commercial fiction? Something you write to sell? It’s certainly not the only reason a writer writes…

    1. Um, okay. Yeah I want to write a book no one buys. Of course we want to sell books (well, unless we happen to be independently wealthy, I suppose). How else can we quit the day job and do what we love full time? We can eat rainbows and happy thoughts, LOL. Commercial fiction is generally appealing to a wider audience. Literary fiction wins awards, but often doesn’t make a lot of money. But literary fiction like “The Road” and “Winter’s Bone” can have commercial appeal. Just because something is “commercial” doesn’t mean it’s junk. But most modern readers will much prefer Game of Thrones over Proust.

      BUT I will add that if money is the motivation? Bad plan. We need to love writing and value our craft/art.

      1. Most readers prefer simple plots and simple characters along with 8th grade language, so if you want to make a living, that is certainly the way to go, but there are other, equally valuable reasons to write other than paying the mortgage, even accounting for limited audiences. It’s not so bad to write for limited audiences if your first concern is not the money.

      2. I’ll agree with that last statement, Kristen. I don’t write to sell…it’s a nice bonus. Oh…love your blog btw.

        1. So far, I have written novels nobody has bought. I plan on writing more. If an editor decides to buy it, it will be a bonus because I write to please me and I hope an editor liked it. It is the problem of the publishing house if they did not get their money back. I liked what I wrote or why would I send it to be published with payment.

  18. I wish I had read your last 2 posts before publishing my first book, lol. I’ve already started your tips here for my second. It’s completely different, and I gotta tell ya, a lot more fun to write! 😀 Thanks for the clarifying suggestions! 😀

  19. Pick me! Pick me! I’d love to send you a copy of my book. Although it’s a memoir, I think what you said here applies.

  20. P.S. I’m going to reblog this post on my blog.

  21. Reblogged this on Susanna Hartigan and commented:
    Great advice for writers!

  22. I especially am thankful for the warning about info dumping. Thanks!

  23. I love the Finding Nemo example! I’ve been struggling with how to add more of that into my own novels – conflicts between the conflicting desires of otherwise “good” characters.
    If you have further examples of ‘raising the stakes’ without constant bloodshed and pitched battles (since most of my characters aren’t quite that active!) that would be helpful…

  24. Excellent post! Very helpful! Thank you!!

  25. This post lit a lightbulb. I’ve had a story percolating for years — great setting, interesting protagonist with a serious internal problem. But I couldn’t lock the plot down satisfactorily enough to start writing. Turns out, the external antagonist is missing. Now I have something to think about.

    • J. F. Smith on March 19, 2013 at 12:59 pm
    • Reply

    Yes, the Finding Nemo example is really great. The audience always likes feeling smarter than the characters involved.

  26. Kristin, your blog post came at the perfect time, as I’ve been overhauling my novel, and your suggestions are a huge help! Your advice has been a boon to my rewrites; keep up your excellebt posts!

  27. I have just applied your theory to my own novel. It really helps to keep on asking ourselves these questions as we right. I am on your advice, reading Bob Mayer’s book “Write it forward” I am picking up loads of craft tips and learning so much. He advises that you know when something is wrong yourself. Which is so true, I know which of my chapters are weak but we often shy away from fixing these problems. I also know the strong ones and they have all the qualities you listed. I am off for a major refix … send food/care package/help if I do not emerge in the next 48 hrs or beyond. Great post thanks for sharing Kristen

  28. My preference for conflict is internal since I write stories for and about gay kids, but when I do write antagonists, I tend to do so in stories that are purposefully satirical and humorous, so the bad guy (along with the good guys) is a caricature.

  29. Great advice– this will certainly help me make sure my current revision has plenty of suspense and tension.

    • Carley Moore on March 19, 2013 at 3:01 pm
    • Reply

    Very interesting, indeed. Thanks for the tips.

  30. Just re-read Catcher in the Rye to understand this better. His BBT? every fake he meets, I think.

  31. This is an excellent post. I really like your point about having an antagonist for each scene. It’s so true, you don’t just want a scene to give you information, you want a scene to entertain you and give you information — but in a way that you hardly notice it.

  32. Great post. I am having so much trouble figuring out my main bad guy. Other than that, I think I did a good job with scene antagonists. This is a clear way of thinking of my WIP. Thanks for this post.

  33. I am getting ready to read the E-newsletter from the blog sent yesterday. I had to drive my parents on an errand a couple of hours away, but I was treated to Four Seasons restaurant for lunch, a Filipino restaurant. This “info” is worth highlighting and to copy and to store in an MS Word Document with a file name “Info on How to Write Novels”. Yahoo might cancel my E-mail account for not verifying so no need in keeping it in a folder.

  34. Eureka! I may be on the right track…

  35. Afraid I don’t understand the discussion of ‘commercial’ writing as if it were some ‘lesser’ form of the art. Good writing is good writing. Period.

    Enjoying your posts on antagonists, I have always found a great antagonist a joy to read and yet often sadly undervalued by many writers.

    As I write fantasy, one of my ongoing concerns is never being certain my BBT is really deep enough, and frankly, frightening enough, for the task before her/him. You give me hope am achieving my goal.


    1. I don’t think it’s lesser. Shakespeare was commercial fiction. It’s is different, though, with different goals and that has to be acknowledged.

  36. Thank you so much for this! Keeping this in mind will make writing much easier, and it’s a great place to start when helping friends with their books. Please keep up the good work! <3

  37. Excellent post, and great reminders (especially the info dumping)! Makes me take a second look at some of my scenes…

  38. Wonderful tips. I needed the reminders.

  39. Hi Kristen. I agree with your points and was particularly interested in your views on novels written based on diaries. Do you think it’s a time-based problem: because everything has already happened, the possibilities for different outcomes are somehow more limited? And how does this relate to a story like ‘The House at Riverton’ (Kate Morton, and a book I’ve just read) where the protagonist is looking back at events over her life and revealing the answer to a mystery as she goes? (You might not have read it, but it has elements of the journal-based novel about it). Would love to hear your thoughts!

  40. Exactly what I needed. Answers my email I sent on this topic. Thanks for posting!

  41. Thank you for posting this. I’m in the middle of editing my first novel. I know I need to add more conflict and it’s always good to be reminded that conflict drives the story.

  42. So what you’re saying is: You need to give your audience a reason to stick around and you need to ensure youy do it in every single chapter. Am I correct?

  43. Great critique idea! I’m in, and btw, I love your blog…

    1. Thank you :D.

  44. I’d like some more clarification point #5 – surely some scenes can legitimately be just the character alone? So then who is the scene antagonist? Is that themselves?

    1. There is a difference between scenes and sequels. The scene is forward action in the story and sequel is processing and making a plan. A good book to help you understand this is Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure.

      1. But what if the character is alone for a long period? Like Robinson Crusoe or something? Unless he invents someone to talk to like the Tom Hanks character had that football head on Castaway 🙂 or maybe Crusoe talked to God? I can’t remember how it went, it’s donkeys years since I read it.

        1. you don’t have to have a “person” as an antagonist… Mother Nature can provide some very powerful conflict with or without our (human) help, as can any number of other possibilities. We just have to be open to them.

        2. Your character can talk to technology. The Vatican could have the technology claimed by NSA and the Pentagon but was blamed on the Russian Communists, to listen to anyone in the world. If you grew up with the 60s and 70s TV shows, you might remember the episodes were filled with the implication that we were all being listened to like the old Mission Impossible TV shows and the scenes from Get Smart with the “cone of silence” since the first episode – to be able to talk without anyone beyond those outside the cone would know what was said in private. I guess; the antagonist would be the fear of technology if it existed.

    • Virginia on March 20, 2013 at 3:43 pm
    • Reply

    I based my debut book Season of Joy (Nov 2012) on CARS, a Pixar movie. 😀

    1. CARS and CARS 2, I really like the two movies. I love the way they captured the American interstate and some background scenes almost looked real. It makes me want to learn and to draw on computer. Although the new tablet PCs with the new software additions maybe someday, I can still learn how to draw digitally, fingerpaint on a touch pad screen.

  45. Thanks for the insightful post! Is there a 1:1 ratio rule for scene antagonists? Or is it conceivable that you could have antagonists outnumbering your protagonist without creating too much havoc?
    Thanks again!

    1. Many characters will just take on the “antagonist” role in a scene. Han Solo was a great antagonist, but he was, in the end, an ally. Just make sure when your protagonist has a goal for the scene, someone is in opposition to that goal.

  46. How annoying for you to point this out! But thank you, this is really good information for me. My novel is about a girl struggling with loss so in a way the loss is the antagonist. Does the antagonist have to be a person?

  47. “Always remember that the bad guy is the good guy in his own story.” You have been watching that DC Comics Animation of the Justice League with Lex Luthor president in another world.

    I agree with you to keep the reader reading, but I like adding the “info dump”. I learned it at the last Ozarks Romance Authors meeting in Springfield, Missouri that I attended before moving back to my birth country of the Philippines. Dusty Richards, a western author, has written numerous western novels. It was that day during the middle of his teaching that the green light came on and I knew that I could write novels beyond a 2000 words short story. I learned how to “info dump”. To a reader it may seem unimportant, but to me it got me to write the novel to THE END. Adding dialogue of needing to see a relative before driving home after an Eve of the New Year party helped me write the 50,000 words novel. Dusty made me realize that I was not adding to the word count, but I was adding to the story, which I needed to visualize in completing the novel. I had to satisfy me – first, or I could not finish it. It stayed a novella without an ending.

  48. Best antagonist: Azula from Avatar the Last Airbender. So multi dimensional, strong, a genious and with a sad destiny.

  49. Great advice. When I first started writing the villain was my most difficult character to write, sort of an afterthought. Now I know how important a believable and developed antagonist is! Sub-antagonist too! How many Laurel and Hardy types have we seen portrayed as the bad guys? There’s hardly ever just one enemy in our real lives so there shouldn’t be in our fiction!

  50. Very interesting post – especially the difference between melodrama and Core Antagonist. I adore layers, completely agree that every character is their own hero, but now perhaps feel that by my wanting the reader to see everything from every character’s perspective, I’ve perhaps watered down the stakes.

    Would greatly appreciate a keen eye on this, and a fresh perspective!

    1. You don’t want too many POVs. We can’t care equally about everyone.

      1. I agree – it is a fine line, isn’t it? To have just enough information for a clear picture/emotional attachment with each character without drowning the reader in what they ate in 2nd grade, on Tuesdays…

        I admire and at times emulate screen writers, who are masters at giving actors (in the script) literally a one word character summary, i.e. “buttoned up”, then nothing but dialogue, with perhaps “exchanges glance” to go on. And it’s all that’s needed pinpoint the character in the mind of the reader (in this case the actor).
        It’s a great writing exercise for all fiction writers.

  51. It is sometimes difficult to not make a cookie cutter antagonist. Nothing’s new under the sun, but we must think creatively! 🙂 Dramatically (not melodramatically). lol

  52. Oh boy. I’m going to need to take a look at each of my scenes when I finish my rough draft…. Is it alright for a scene antagonist to be the protagonist? If she’s got anger issues and during the scene she has to either control herself or screw something up monumentally, does that count? Or is it the same a the main antagonist being the protagonist?

  53. This post has been a huge help. Someone recently critiqued my work & noted the use of melodrama in my first and third chapters and I’ve scratched my head wondering. Thanks so much for sharing these tips.

  54. This post was a good help. It is nice to know that creating a strong leading character is important. Makes sense too, those are the characters I tend to favor.

  55. Interesting post, thank you! I’m off to spend some more time here…

    • Erika Green on May 8, 2013 at 11:41 am
    • Reply

    I’m sure I’ve made every one of these mistakes, usually all in the same piece. Correcting them — now there’s the hard part.

  56. Never heard of a “scene antagonist” before–DUH! That’s what I’ve been missing in my longer works. Thanks so much for posting that piece.

  57. Yes all that’s food for thought! I’m starting a new novel after publishing two in the last year so I’ll keep all that in mind.

    • schillingklaus on May 27, 2015 at 3:15 pm
    • Reply

    I love readiung info-dumps, and I won’t be deterred from writing them by any of the vulgar diatribes of the show-don’t-tell maffia.

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