7 Ways Underwriting Sabotages Your Story

underwritWhile you might think anything that tightens a story and trims the word count is good thing, it’s important to realized this does not apply to underwriting. Underwriting is the reverse of overwriting: it’s when the author is too economical with their words, and critical aspects of the story come off as foggy, lacking in logic and confusing to the reader.

You may recall I wrote about overwriting a few weeks back; if not you can read that post here. Since people could clearly relate to the overwriting problem, I thought we could finish out the subject with some tips for the underwriters in the group.

So here are 7 ways underwriting sabotages a great story.

1. Welcome to Any Town, USA:
We have all read this book. It’s the one that’s theoretically set in some exotic location, yet the setting is so underwritten it’s a generic cityscape. In some cases a writer wants to create a setting that mimics countless other places so the reader can fill in details with their own experiences. But usually underwriting a setting is detrimental to the story. The reader can’t immerse themselves in the story, see the setting clearly, and enjoy an armchair traveler experience. There is no point in setting a book in Cyprus, Madagascar or the moon if the setting is lackluster and misty.

2. How Did Waldo Get There?:
Underwriters often place characters in just the right location for something completely implausible to happen. And they don’t explain the logic behind the character’s actions. It can make events feel too convenient or forced. This type of underwriting happens all the time with spontaneous plot devices. A classic example is when characters suddenly “remember” they already own the all important save-the-day item.

3. Bobbleheads R Us:
The bobblehead effect happens when the underwriter confines all a character’s actions and physical description to the facial area. This character reads like an animated head stuck on top of a stiff and shrunken body. Worse of all, they are often standing in a field of more bobbleheaded characters. So much of a real person’s character comes from the great stuff they can do with the other 90% of their body. A character isn’t limited to a mouth in the center of a dome-like head.

4. Ping-Pong Conversations:
No one enjoys reading a spirited volley of single word sentences. For one thing it leads to an overuse of exclamation points. And it makes the reader count lines to keep track of which character delivered the last soul crushing “Whatever!” While overwritten dialogue can read too on-the-nose, so can underwritten dialogue. These are passage where every “Okay!” meets with a “Great!” response. If one character favors one word remarks that’s fine, but make sure the other parties in the conversation are picking up the slack.

5. Teleporting POV:
It’s called head-hopping and it’s a reader’s worst nightmare. Underwriters leave off all those helpful transition markers, the clues that help a reader keep track of who’s talking, thinking or doing something important in a third person POV novel. It’s nice to think every character is so perfectly written those transitions are unnecessary, but that’s not realistic.

6. Philosophy School Dropouts:
Underwriting a character’s emotions makes them seem too stoic. While we all have a stoic character we know and love, they can’t be underwritten characters. To create a great stoic takes skill! The writer must bring in a vast array of personality nuances to flesh out the character in other ways. Underwriters tend to create a cast of stoic characters all lacking the sparkle to make them lovable. Any book with more than one stoic character and not set in 300 BCE Greece (when stoics were all the rage) probably has too many stoics.

7. A Long, Long, Time Ago?:
Time advances, yet its passage is unaccounted for by underwriters. The reader has no clue how much time drifts by as they move between chapters. Hours, days and minutes don’t require a perfect reckoning (that would be overwriting), but the clock needs to move in some predictable way. By writing a basic calendar into the story, couples avoid looking like instalove rejects, and the evolution of characters and their problems feels more believable to the reader. It doesn’t take much to pass time — a remark about a deadline or the mention of the advancing seasons are options to consider. A single line starting with: “Two weeks later…” should even do the trick.

It’s hard to catch your own underwriting because you know every aspect of your story. I don’t know any hardcore underwriters, but I have read many authors who underwrite in one or more of these critical areas. I think head-hopping is the most common problem. However, I’m looking forward to seeing how many writers can identify with some of these points.

If you think of something I’ve missed, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

17 thoughts on “7 Ways Underwriting Sabotages Your Story”

    1. Hi Sue, I’m always happy to see your lovely face in the comments feed. : ) You might be surprised where underwriting turns up. It’s a challenge for some veteran authors too.

    1. Hi Sarah, It’s funny how we all fall into camps, some overwrite, some underwrite. I think the underwriters are the lucky ones, it’s so darn hard to kill those darlings.

    1. Hi Lance, It’s always nice to see some new writers commenting. : ) I’m glad you liked the post. Underwriting is a tricky problem, and it’s so hard to self-edit. Thanks for stopping by.

    1. Hi Laurie, Isn’t that the sad truth! Writers need great memories and major juggling skills. : ) I try to tackle one issue at a time and I keep track of the steps with checklists. But things will slip by, that’s why readers are so valuable.

    1. Hi Patricia!
      I think every writer struggles with time. We know our own timelines, but we don’t always find good ways to transmit that information to the reader. If you have too many time markers they interfere with the prose. Too few and you create confusion. It’s hard finding the right balance.

    1. Hi Ellie, You have good readers. Including comments like that, or asking questions, is a great way for betas to help the writer figure out what is working and what isn’t. Cutting to the chase is great, but only if the reader is along for the ride. : )

    1. Hi Sharon,
      I’ve seen a lot of bobbleheads, even in traditionally published books. It’s so strange reading passages in bobblehead. It’s like reading about a society of just big floating brains. Creepy!
      It’s good you know about your tendency to bobblehead, this way you can work extra hard to get some working limbs on those poor characters.

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