The Writer’s Desk: A great cover can’t disguise poor storytelling

A review copy of a writer’s debut novel arrived in my mailbox. The cover has a pleasing aesthetic with a balance of primary colors and a promising title. Its premise sounds intriguing: A young man feels guilt over having bypassed two tragic events, 9/11 and the Asian tsunami, by convenient circumstances. A blurb from a well-respected author calls the novel “smart and insightful.” The opening line, though somewhat wordy, indicates upcoming events will be “different from the rest.”

The author constructs pleasing sentences and descriptions. A lovely poem from one of my favorite Polish poets acts as an epigraph, so the author clearly respects the craft, but 20 pages in, mired in back-story and confusing plot, I stopped reading. Instead of moving forward, the story stalls, restarts and stalls again like an engine missing a spark plug. I skimmed the rest and set this one aside.

As a writer I’m reluctant to write bad reviews of others’ books because I know how hard it is to write a novel, even a bad one, so I won’t be reviewing this book.

What went wrong with this novel?

Allegedly the tale surrounds a young man I will call George. He has a guilty conscience, yet I quickly grow confused by shifting viewpoints and gratuitous back-story. Is George our protagonist? If so, why are alternating viewpoints, written in third person by numerous characters, used throughout as a structure? If George is, in fact, our hero, alternating points of view in first person with George might work. But in this case the novelist appears to be giving several characters’ stories equal time where a lot of attention is given to a grandmother character. (Granted, I didn’t read the entire book; I only skimmed it.) Is it ultimately Granny’s story? Perhaps George is not the protagonist. Or is he the antagonist? What is going on and whose story is it? Why am I reading this?

If I need to work this hard trying to figure a book out, I don’t finish it. Good syntax aside, I found this novel unreadable because of its poor structure.

Show Don’t Tell: The excessive back-story explains too much. In order for a reader to form a deeper connection to the characters, she needs details within the story. Explaining too much tells the reader how and what to think. A reader will form a closer bond with a book where he makes up his own mind.

Rooting Qualities: In the opening pages, the reader needs to know who they’re rooting for. In a short story, a singular protagonist. In a novel, while there can be several lead characters, all of them reflect back to one chief protagonist. If George is, in fact, the principal focus, each chapter exists to support his story either by providing only salient background information or colorful action the reader what George is up against.

A Solid Structure shows the reader where the tale is going, what’s at stake, and possible resolutions. For more on structure, I recommended The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman and The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke.

Laura Moe is the author of three novels and is the queen of excessive backstory in her drafts. Maybe someday she’ll listen to her own advice.

EPIC Group writers will host a Zoom poetry reading on Thursday, April 22. See the website this Friday for details and registration.


  1. Basic advice but always helpful! (And often too easily overlooked.) I’m about 3/4 through the first rough draft of a new novel, and this post pulled me back a few steps to see the big picture afresh. I’m reevaluating my two main characters. Thank you, Laura!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Real first and last names — as well as city of residence — are required for all commenters.
This is so we can verify your identity before approving your comment.

By commenting here you agree to abide by our Code of Conduct. Please read our code at the bottom of this page before commenting.