Hack writing is the fastest way to go from interesting story to trite and boring without really trying.
In almost all cases hack writing is a result of lazy storytelling often combined with a failure to write for the reader. How many of these have you been guilty of?
Having a character look into a mirror and describe themselves.
When telling a story from a first-person perspective, the hackiest thing you can do is use a mirror. Not just because it is cliche (which it is) or because it represents a fundamental failure of imagination (which it does) but because it just is not realistic.
When I look in the mirror (which is something I avoid doing as much as possible) I don’t consider my blue eyes with a hint of green at the centre. I do not cast my eyes over my slightly receding hairline and note, with great detail, the ever-increasing level of grey in my hair and beard. I certainly do not stop to appreciate that I have long hair and a ponytail.
What happens is: I look for as short a time as I can. Either I think, “not bad; I’ll do.” or I think, “I look scruffy. Where is my hairbrush?”
When telling a story from the first person perspective you are letting us see the world through the eyes of the character. Do you know what they cannot see? Themselves. Which is why you are struggling to put into the narrative that description you worked so hard on. That’s a good thing – because it is not relevant.
Forcing details into a story that don’t advance the plot.
This hackish technique is often what is wrong with your opening chapters. When a character first appears you give a full description, a brief summary of their life history, their blood type, and inside leg measurement.
Not only is that unrealistic (so unrealistic) but it slows the pace of the story, obscures the important details, and is really boring to read.
When I introduce two of my friends to each other I don’t give each one a full CV’s worth of background. I simply say “Jack, this is Barry. Barry, this is Jack. I think you two will get along really well because you are both champion call of duty players.” After that, I can leave them to it because my work is done.
Take, for example, The Story of Samson and Delilah. Describe Samson.
You probably said muscles and long hair. What colour was Samson’s hair? We don’t know. What about his eyes, facial hair, or the tone of his skin? We don’t know these things. We don’t know because they are not relevant to the plot.
Samson’s hair matters because that was a pretty important plot point as (spoiler warning) when Samson’s hair is cut off he became weak.
Please, for the love of all that is good about writing, don’t force details into your story that don’t need to be there. This hack writing technique is just about the fastest way to get your story rejected for being boring.
Describing everything the protagonist is wearing.
Go back to Samson for a moment. Did the Biblical author tell you about his clothes? No, of course not. That was an irrelevancy. His clothes were unremarkable. That means not worth remarking upon.
I used to own a book which I would show to other writers. This was known as “the worst book in the world” (because it was that bad). In it, the author describes the heroine, then goes into detail about her outfit. A page later she changes into another outfit and we get the full mirror treatment again.
Do you know what importance any of this had on the plot? If you said “none whatsoever,” then you were right. All that text did was serve to fill out several pages and inflate the word count.
Like every other hack technique on this list so far, this crime against writing is throwing information at us that we don’t need.
Writing a Mary Sue
A Mary Sue is a character who is just a little too perfect. If they have any flaws they are likely to be endearing or actually strengths with a touch of false modesty.
A Mary Sue in a story is someone everyone (except maybe the bad guy) loves, admires, and generally agrees with. They are a thin stand-in for the author.
Just ask TV Tropes:
The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.
There are many reasons not to include a Mary Sue (in any form, ever) but the most important one is that they are so damn boring to read.
There are a few things you can bolt onto a character to avoid Mary Sue. Things like an average background; skills and abilities appropriate to the setting; real character flaws and thus an ability to change; weaknesses they struggle to overcome; or even just some toning down of the god-mode powers.
Once again, this hack writing technique is a failure to consider the reader and it is boring as all heck.
There is nothing wrong with wish fulfilment. Many of my best ideas started off that way. Just don’t expect anyone else to read your daydreams; at least until you’ve refined them into something other people can relate to.
Female characters that are just men in dresses
This hackish for of writing happens most often when the (usually male) author just fancies using a female name but does nothing to make her gender in any way real.
I’ve talked about this at great length before. If you could change Jill to John and the character is now a male, then this was just a man in a dress character.
A female character is going to have female friends. She may experience sexism. Her attitude may be different to all the testosterone-filled characters. In short, she should be a real live human being.
When you write a female character, do me a favour and use little details to convince me this is really a female. Anything bra related probably does not count.
Show me the complexities of societal pressures that shaped your character. Show me how gender identity influences the character in the situation you are presenting. In other words, let me walk a few miles in the shoes of a female through your story.
New Powers as the Plot Demands
This is a hack technique that many otherwise good shows are guilty of. Not to mention comic book writers. Oh, superhero genre – what are you thinking?
This is basically a Deus ex Machina with funny glasses on. If as a writer you have not at least attempted to foreshadow the power and just pulled it out of your bum to get out of a corner you plotted yourself into – this is bad!
One of my favourite shows – Doctor Who – does this from time to time. Int he very first season (aired before I was born) he had no powers at all. Then he sort of gained all sorts of abilities (like telepathy, regeneration, immunities, etc.).
Take, for another example, this instance pulled from TV Tropes:
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Lupin repeatedly points out that the Patronus charm is incredibly advanced magic. He highlights that only very powerful wizards can pull it off, and that even fully qualified wizards struggle to master it. By Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, pretty much everyone in the narrative can cast a full corporeal Patronus without any trouble whatsoever, including most of the adolescent members of the DA. By the seventh book, they can also be used to send messages in the caster’s voice.
Let me put this another way – please do not do this. It is bad writing. Even when semi-justified (even by just being damn cool) it makes suspension of disbelief harder.
Let us make our writing better than that of our favourite authors.
What crimes of bad writing are you guilty of?
They say confession is good for the soul.
Have you been guilty of some hack writing before? What sort of hack writing did you engage in and how terrible was it?