How do you stop your writing being lazy?

Monday morning, second cup of coffee, a cool, sunny day, and marmalade on toast. Brilliant.

I realised recently that one of the  most common criticisms I level at books, movies, or TV shows is that the plot has got 'lazy' - or, more specifically, that it's 'lazy writing.' It sounds like quite a flippant phrase, and it's wonderfully undefined as well, but it's something that annoys me more than any other issue.

Lazy dog is lazy. Or possibly dead...

What do I mean by lazy?

One of the reasons people get invested in fiction is our amazing ability to empathise with characters and situations that aren't real. We care as if they really were real, and that's the magic. Behind all this is the fact that the situations have to be built up realistically, with cause and effect, motive, choices, emotions, etc. You can't ask readers to care about someone if the character has only been in a single scene, and readers have been given no more reason to care than 'well, you just should.'

It's replacing world-building and good writing with assumptions and 'skip to the end' mentality. You want this death scene to be so dramatic? You can't just decide it is - there has to be work put in first.

The BBC's Merlin was guilty of this in its first episode. Yes, it's a cheesy, family series, and it's not exactly trying to push boundaries, but still ...  wanting characters to have a particular relationship, and so just inserting this fact, is too obviously false to be enjoyable. Merlin, the lovable scamp / clumsy hero, moves to Camelot and enters the tutelage of Gaius, the court physician / general clever clogs / father figure.

Wait, what? Father figure he only just met? Well, yes. And also no. The point is, the writers want Gaius to be a father figure, but they've no time to show that relationship being built up. So, it's just inserted, and that, my friends, is lazy. Within the first episode we had Gaius exclaiming 'Merlin! You never cease to amaze me!' and acting with the stern humour of ... well, a father. But it's forced.

Trying to explain away relationships is just as annoying as using magic machines or catch-all technology to get out of loop holes in plots. The assumption of emotions without supplying the basis for them, so you can reap the rewards of those relationships, is bad writing.

How do you stop plots being lazy, then?

  • Don't start with where you want to end and work backwards. Father-figure relationships, or reluctant heroes, or genuine friends, have to develop at a pace.
  • Don't get caught up and rush forwards to what you think is the best bit, the big reveal, the coup. Stand back and try to stay objective.
  • Cut the cheese. Read your dialogue. Would people really ever talk like that? Would you? If the answer is no, you're using speech to reveal what the action should.
  • Introduce new characters slowly. Let them appear, then drop out again. Have rumours, reports, whispers, etc. Sirius Black in Harry Potter only actually appears right at the end, but by then we know everything we need to. That's good build up. 
There's no be-all and end-all list. Lazy writing, for me, is writing, or scripting, or plotting, that takes no time to earn the things it wants - the shock revelation, the twists, the close friendships that matter. As I said, it assumes. 

Don't assume, then. Get others to read your work. Make sure they feel like everything progresses naturally. Are there any leaps in logic, leaps in characters' views of others? Slow it down. Take the time. Do the work. Don't be lazy.


  1. You just criticised Merlin! Deleting your blog from my reader...

    Heh heh, OK I won't be that extreme but I LOVE Merlin! I know the plotting isn't great but the acting is (I'm easily pleased with acting - the fact that the Merlin actor is putting on an English accent the whole time and sounds like he is actually English satisfies me!)

    I also love the fact that it's fast-paced to a ludicrous extent - that kind of naffness is part of its charm. We play the 'spot the blue-screen' game when watching. And try to say the phrase 'young warlock' the split second before the dragon does. It's like drinking games without the alcohol. Rocking!

  2. Ha, I've actually watched a few more episodes, and it is good fun. Nothing against Merlin! Just needed an example, and that one struck me. It happens sometimes in Doctor Who as well, and most other series / movies. The point at which the fast pace overtakes the writing. I didn't know Merlin's accent was put on. Impressive!

    1. Yeah, he's Irish. It's really weird if you see the actor talking as himself. "That's not your voice!"

  3. I'm so glad you mentioned Merlin! It took a while for me to get into it, precisely because of the way some relationships felt extremely rushed. I've watched a few more episodes because I love Anthony Headd andColin Morgan, though I miss his Irish accent :)He was great on Catherine Tate's Christmas Show 2007