5 Common Story Problems with Simple Fixes

Our stories are often plagued with these common story problems, but if we don’t know how to fix them, we’ll never improve our writing. It’s important that you remember you don’t need to scrap your novel if you keep having the same issues over and over again. Hopefully this list will help you pinpoint what’s going on and provide ways for you to improve your novel.

Problem: Unmotivated Characters

If you’re having trouble figuring out where your story should go next, the problem could be with unmotivated characters. Characters aren’t in your novel just so you can push them around every once in a while and make them do things. They need to develop over time and keep your story going in the right direction.

Solution:

Work on your character’s wants, goals, and motivations. You need to figure out what’s driving your character if you want them to do anything. Where do they want to end up? What’s standing in their way? What’s their plan? Who will help them? Think about everything your character will need to do to resolve your novel. Focus on what they want and what motivates their actions and your characters will stop being dull and lifeless.

Problem: Boring First Chapters

A boring first chapter is dangerous because you want to captivate your audience right away. You don’t want to lose readers just because of this, but sometimes it happens.  You should give enough information to keep your readers interested, while also keeping them intrigued enough to figure out what happens next.

Solution:

Putting emotion into your scenes from the beginning will not only help set the tone, but we’ll get an immediate understanding of your world. The best advice I can give is to construct a scene that helps us best understand your character. If they’re on the run, show us that they’re being chased. If they’re sad and lonely, construct a scene that lets us feel their isolation. You don’t necessarily need to open your book with action, but you do need to introduce the conflict. Think about what your character wants and go from there. Think of your first chapter as an introduction to an essay. You don’t go right into the points immediately, but you set us up for something good.

Problem: Plot Holes

Writers worry about forgetting to include important information in their novel that’s necessary to the plot. If you’re discovering that readers often point out plot holes in your story, maybe it’s time to reevaluate how you plan your novel.

Solution:

Pre-planning or prewriting your novel often solves any plot hole problems. If you take the time to write out important scenes so you don’t forget them, your story will become stronger. However, if you’re not someone who likes to do so much planning, you can tackle plot holes during the editing phase. Take notes when you’re editing so that you can catch these plot holes and figure out where you can add necessary information. A plot hole does not always mean your novel needs loads of reworking, but it is something you need to take the time to fill in.

Problem: Poor Pacing

Poor pacing can ruin a novel, but luckily it’s something you can tackle head on before you even start writing your story. Good pacing helps add tension to your novel and helps you make sure there’s enough rising and falling action to keep your story interesting.

Solution:

Planning out your novel ahead of time also helps solve pacing problems. You can create a timeline that helps you keep track and plan out when you want certain things to happen. Read up on story arcs and try to plan out your scenes accordingly. If you’re already done with your novel and you notice poor pacing, try rearranging scenes or spreading out the action.

Problem: Info-Dumping

A very common writing problem is info-dumping. This is when you tell your readers loads of information at a time without showing them anything important. Info-dumps usually occur in first chapters of novels, but they can happen anytime during the course of your story. Info- dumps can drag down your story and bore your readers.

Solution:

Cut out long paragraphs where you explain what’s going on in your novel and show your readers instead. Avoid over explaining things that can be explained through action. Letting your audience figure things out instead is a much more satisfying reading experience and it lets your readers connect with your characters on a deeper level.

-Kris Noel

If you are writing for fun, and if you don’t want any help, please write any way that works for you. I am not trying to convert you to writing with a plan. It truly does not matter to me how you write. However, if you are struggling to finish a book that makes sense, I would love you to carry on reading.

Why should you do it?

When I used to teach Writers Write regularly, one of the first things I asked students was: How does your story end? I did this for two reasons. Firstly, as much as some people love the idea of working with meandering storylines, it has been my experience that those writers seldom finish writing a coherent book. Secondly, most people who go to workshops or sign up for courses are truly looking for help, and I’ve learned that the best way to succeed in anything in life is to have a plan. Successful people will tell you that you need to know where you’re going before you begin.

Smell the roses

This does not mean that you can’t take time to smell the roses, or explore hidden paths along the way. It simply means that you always have a lifeline and when you get lost, it will be easier for you to find your way back again. Remember that readers like destinations. They love beginnings, middles, and endings. Why do you think fans are terrified that George R.R. Martin will die before he finishes A Song of Fire and Ice? They want to know how the story ends. 

Here are seven reasons why I suggest you write your ending first.

  1. If you know who the characters are at the end of the story, you will know how much you should reveal about them at the beginning. 
  2. You will be forced out of the ‘backstory hell’ that beginner writers inhabit and into the story the reader wants to read.
  3. Hindsight is an amazing thing. We all know how different life seems when we’re looking back. We can often tell where a problem began. We think about the ‘what ifs’ with the gift of hindsight. You can use this to your advantage in fiction writing.
  4. You will have something to work towards. Instead of aimlessly writing and hoping for the muse to show you the way, you will be able to pull the characters’ strings and write the words they need to get them from the beginning through the middle to the end.
  5. Plotting from the ending backwards saves you so much time because you will leave out stuff that isn’t meant to be there. You will not have to muddle through an overwritten first draft.
  6. Writing the end forces most of us out of our comfort zones. We have to confront the reality of what we are doing. It might not be as romantic as flailing around like a helpless maiden, but if you want writing to be your profession, it’s good to make the outcome visible. This is a way to show yourself that you are serious. The end gives you a goal to work towards.
  7. The ending is as important as the beginning. Good beginnings get people to read your first book. Great endings get readers to buy your second book.

There are a handful of famous authors, like Stephen King and George R.R. Martin, who say they don’t plot. I think they just don’t realise they are those rare authors – natural born storytellers, and that plotting is instinctive for them. I have interviewed many successfully published authors and I can reveal that the majority of them do believe in plotting. They outline, in varying degrees, before they begin. And yes, most of them know what their ending will be. Why don’t you try it? What have you got to lose?

I truly hope this helps you write, and finish, your book.

by Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy 10 (Amazingly Simple) Tips to Get You Back on The Writing Track and The Author’s Promise- two things every writer should do. You could also read The Top 10 Tips for Plotting and Finishing a Book.

{Kissing Strangers AU}

It starts out with a kiss. Muse A and Muse B have never met before. They don’t know each others names or anything about the other person. But both signed up for this weird artistic film that asked them to kiss another stranger. They get a couple bucks for doing it so why the hell not?

At first it is awkward, unsure, and full of nerves. But as their lips meet…fireworks. But this isn’t real, they aren’t in love, and perhaps it is because they are sharing something so intimate with a stranger or maybe it is a natural chemistry. But either way, after it is over, the only thing either of them can think of is doing it again.

4

Since my WIP, Illuminate, is also the thesis project for my graduate program, I don’t have as much time as I’m used to for fiddling around and rewriting stuff.

The logical response? Go absolutely crazy.

Step 1: Make Character Arcs for Everyone.

The Interwebs contain lots of great information about character arcs, so in brief: In the course of a story, characters will respond to conflict on an external and internal level, and by the conclusion characters will undergo some sort of change. This creates story arcs.

Every book has at least one major arc. I personally like Doug Tennapel’s advice to split stories into three acts, each with their own arc.

Here’s how I did it.

(keep reading)

Focusing on the Middle of Your Novel

Many writers worry about developing the middle of their novel or they simply lose motivation when they start thinking about what to write about. Even if you know the beginning and end of your novel, it can be difficult to connect the two and build an exciting plot inbetween. The best way to begin tackling this issue is to understand pacing and how your novel should be structured.

The basic structure is as follows:

Stasis

This includes the introduction, the description of the everyday life of your main character, and an explanation of your world. During this time you can focus on showing your audience what your world is like and how your characters interact with it on a daily basis. You can start to set things up.

Inciting Incident

This is your protagonist’s call-to-action. What forces your character to change their usual behavior? This is when your character decides to get in the action OR they are forced to get in on the action. I’ve written a longer post about this here.

The Quest

There’s something your protagonist needs to do or there’s a journey they must embark on. This doesn’t always mean an actual physical journey; it can be an emotional one depending on your story. The point is that they must set out to learn something as a result of the inciting incident. There’s some knowledge, item, etc. they must acquire.

Surprise

There should be obstacles, problems, trouble, conflict, etc. for your protagonist. This will make up most of the middle of your novel. What stands in your character’s way? What is preventing them from finishing their quest and returning to normal?

Critical Choice

What your character has learned or how they have developed over the course of your novel is often revealed during the critical choice. They should have to choose between two paths and their choices should reveal something about them. These choices will change the course of the novel.

Climax

This is the highest point of tension in your story, when your character has to deal with the critical choice they have made. Your story generally builds up to this point.

Reversal

The reversal is a result of the critical choice and the climax. The story is lead in a new direction because of these things. The events leading up to the climax begin to cool down and something happens that helps lead to the resolution. This is usually when your protagonist reverses the situation and finds a way out of the problem (or doesn’t).

Resolution

The resolution should lead into a new stasis for your characters. This doesn’t mean that everything ends up good for your characters; it just means that things have come full circle in a way. The story arc for his particular story is closed and lessons have been learned.

Once you begin to understand the structure of a story, you can begin focusing on the middle chunks of your novel, specifically the inciting incident-reversal stages. 

Here are a few tips to prevent your novel from failing in the middle:

Read More

A lack of conflict is a common problem in the work of many beginning writers. There are a number of ways to effectively add conflict to your novel and keep your readers turning pages.

It may help for you to think about conflict as complications. One problem many writers run into when they begin to write their novels is that they have an idea about the main conflict, but it is too easily resolved. For example, maybe the story is about a woman, Andrea, whose dream is to open her own Italian restaurant, but she lacks the funding and experience to do so. Then she meets an Italian chef whose brother wants to invest in a new restaurant, and before she knows it, she has her own restaurant and an experienced chef who can teach her everything she needs to know.

Read More →

{Dreamworld AU}

Muse A and Muse B have never met before or at least not in the real world. But every as they lay to go to sleep they meet in a space where only they can be found. Every night they enter a dreamworld for just the two of them. Despite their lives on the other side of this world, they are happy and content.

However Muse A is living an unhappy life nothing seems to be going right for them. They believe that if they could just meet in the real world everything would be alright. But Muse B doesn’t believe the same, they are worried that if they meet on the outside they might shatter the safety and security this world holds. Maybe because they are scared, maybe because outside this world they aren’t as perfect as they seem. So what is better? Reality or the dream?

Novelist Drusilla Campbell answers this question by comparing a novel and its parts to weaving cloth on a loom. Imagine your plot is a red weft—the thread that runs crosswise through that cloth. The events are all the vertical threads, called the warp, that your weft runs across. A compelling plot is a weft that intersects all the warps from one end of that cloth to the other: from the inciting incident that gets your novel on its way, to the many detours and adventures your protagonists take, all the way to the very last scene.  

If you build your plot correctly so that characters are reacting to events, even surprising scenes become logical.

At the end of the novel, you should be able to tug on that red thread and see each of the preceding scenes “pull” along with it. If that happens, chances are you’ve composed a compelling plot. If you pull and nothing happens, you’ll probably need to tighten or delete the irrelevant scenes. 

Things I Learned While Writing My Goddamn Book

As I mentioned in the tags, I’ve been working on my latest project for a little under four years. I’m tentatively calling the current result a ‘first draft,’ when it’s actually just the most solid version of what has been in the works for a long time.

I’ve written at least two novels before, one of which I’m going to go back and tackle again while I take a break from this one. But this has been the hardest, and I think the most rewarding process, and hopefully the things will help other people. Those mainly are:

  • Don’t give up on what you really believe in. I’ve completely rehashed this novel at least three times. I changed huge portions of it, including backstory and character relationships, because I thought those changes made it stronger. I completely rewrote the worldbuilding. I kept trying, no matter how many times I went back to the drawing board, because the core idea was really important to me. I really believed in this story and the characters in it. I did not want to let them go, and although it took a long damn time, I was finally able to finish. Don’t give up on those stories you want to tell so badly it makes your heart hurt when you don’t. Don’t talk yourself out of it, no matter how hard it gets. You can do this.
  • Stop rewriting the goddamn beginning. I am good at two things; knowing how the story begins, and knowing how the story ends. My beginnings are killer (I say, to myself, with very little feedback on that). Problem is, once I get into the part of the story where I don’t quite know what to do, I keep running back to the beginning as if tweaking it over and over is going to somehow get me through the middle. It won’t. Don’t get trapped in the beginning. If you start writing something that might change the beginning, to run back and tweak it again. Leave yourself a note and push forward. Getting to the middling middle is the only way to get to the end. You can fix it later.
  • The middle will be a tangled mess of despair. Push on through. The middle sucks. It’s probably going to suck no matter how well you plan it. It’s going to frustrate you. Don’t let it. You need to get that story to a whole before you can go back and see how to fix it. If you hit a wall, take a break. Spin out some What Ifs, work on some notes. But don’t backtrack to the safety of the beginning, don’t doubt yourself. This is supposed to be hard. It’s going to be okay.
  • For the love of cake, let go. I wrote the last third of my book in about three weeks. Three. Weeks. After four goddamn years, I polished off a whole damn chunk of it in less than a month. I probably spent a whole damn year on the beginning alone. I definitely spent more than a few months lingering in the wasteland of the middle. 99% of this was due to not letting go and writing forward. Rewriting what I already hand down didn’t solve my problems, writing forward did. Lingering over street signs didn’t get me finished, leaving notes to look it up later did. Let it go. The only way to make progress is to write forward. If your rewriting is leaving you stuck in the same scenes for weeks, say fuck it and push on. You can always fix it later.

Push on. Keep going. Write forward. You can and will finish your goals.

Advice on Fixing Plot Holes

If you’ve finished the first draft of your novel, there are certain things you are going to check for first once you begin the editing process. You need to make sure your novel makes sense. You need to make sure your plot connects in a logical way and there are no plot holes. Having someone else read over your manuscript usually helps and they’ll be able to spot things you didn’t.

Here are a few tips for spotting and correcting plot holes:

Your story should have continuity.

Each event should connect to the next event or help tie your novel together in long-run. The order can change, but all the events need to fit together logically to form your novel. Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t have flash backs or events that happen in the future, but they need to make sense.

Characters shouldn’t suddenly know things.

Having characters know things without any logical explanation of how they learned it is a big no-no. If there’s a problem that’s been plaguing your characters for a while and then all of sudden someone knows how to solve it without any explanation, you need to rethink that situation. We need to understand and see the process that your character went through to overcome an obstacle. This also helps us see their character growth/development.

Do not write events that go against events that have happened earlier.

If you say something happened earlier and then contradict that event later, your story won’t make any sense. It’s helpful to keep track of what’s going in, especially if you’ve let your manuscript sit for a while. Remind yourself of what has happened already. You also don’t want to keep telling your audience the same information over and over again in order to ensure that they understand. Your audience is smart and they don’t need things mentioned several times.

Don’t be afraid to cut a scene if it doesn’t fit anymore.

A lot of authors get stuck on writing a scene even if it no longer suits their work. I know you might be excited about it, but you can always try reworking it or brainstorming for something different. Don’t be afraid to let go of a scene, even if you love it. Your story will change and will need some rearranging. You can’t get too attached to something.

Laziness is not an excuse for plot holes. Your readers WILL notice if something doesn’t make sense, so don’t think that people will simply overlook it. Take the time to understand your story and where it’s going.

-Kris Noel

A trapped character comes alive on the page or screen because he has to fight his way out a corner. The character has to push back against the predicament placed there by the plot—giving us conflict, intensity, and barriers we can define. The locked room is a way to interrogate your plot. 

More about The Locked Room

Our Quick Guide on writing plots that grip the reader

In these days of the 3-for-2 tables and Tesco Book Clubs, fiction has taken a step forwards into the past.

These days, plot matters. No fiction will be taken on by agents - no matter how brilliantly written, how edgily contemporary, how weighty in subject matter - unless it has a strong story line. We’ve seen stunning work rejected for this reason. This is scary for authors. Get your plot wrong, and your book has failed before you’ve even started. You simply MUST get this aspect of your novel right. Here’s how.

See also our More About Plotting guide … and do watch out for the video below.

Read More →

theshoreditchvampire said:

Hi Max, I need a bit of help. I have this character, and all he wants is to have an easy life - I've tried putting him into several different plot situations in my novel attempts, and none of them are right, because he's not interested. However, I need a plot for my story. I can't just write about this guy doing nothing all day, every day, but he won't correspond to any situation I try to put him in; yet he keeps coming back to me through various scenes. Can you advise me at all?

Hello there, writerly friend~ ♥︎

I think that a lot of people do plotting and they go about it the wrong way. If you have taken a look at my (Strange) Guide To Planning Your Novel then you probably have a feeling for what I am about to talk about, if not— then prepare yourself.

It’s time for me to give you the best piece of advice that ever came from my many years taking creative writing classes in college. My amazing professor once said something that I have coined "The Marcy Rule" (because her name was Marcy :p and everyone needs to know that she came up with this). It goes like this:

The Marcy Rule

Story rises from character, not the other way around.

What does this mean? I find that a lot of writers are under the assumption that the plot is the primary agent in a story— and that characters are secondary. And I totally get where this misunderstanding comes from. People are taught in school that events make history. People are taught to memorize events and dates as what happened in their past. This is not good, because it forgets about the driving agent(s) behind these events.

Would you say that the most important factor in history is the events that happened (plot) or the people that lived through those days (character)?

Of course it’s the people. Story rises from character, and thus is it character that drives the story forward.

Though… I think that you already know that, writerly friend. As you said in your question— you keep trying to toss your character into plots but they don’t follow along. It’s almost as though you’re forcing events into a timeline, and you find that your lead actor is not interested in going with this script. Now, let’s look at this from the point of view of that question I get all the time:

What do I do if I have a character, but no story or plot to go with them?

You see, this is problematic, because it assumes that plot is primary— and that characters are secondary. I believe this is doing your characters an injustice. Your story does not revolve around events and dates and points on a timeline— they revolve around you, and your actions and your choices and your dreams and your goals.

Take a moment (or a few) to sit down and ask yourself this question:

  • What does this character want, and what are they willing to do to get it?

Everybody wants something. There is nothing too big or too small to write a story about. Again, people get this idea in their head that every book should be an epic story of war and death and saving the world— but I can tell you that a story about a character dealing with their own personal turmoil, and their dreams of finally overcoming their depression and being able to get up in the mornings… that can be a story as good, if not better than any ‘epic.’

So. Take this with you. Ask your characters what they want, and start following them. Don’t get in the way of the story— you are not the mastermind plotting out a plan, you are the camera-crew. Your job is to tell this character’s story. So, follow them. See where their story goes.

As a final note. Remember that everyone wants to live an ‘easy’ life, but nothing worth having ever comes easily. Every choice comes with a price, every action comes with an opposite reaction. Your character can desire to live an ‘easy’ life as much as they want… but fate always tends to get in the way of such things c;

I hope this helps! if you, or any other writerly friend has any more questions, then make sure to send them my way!

Keep writing~ ♥︎

mad-hunter2185 said:

Many people think books written by teens tend to be weak structured and lack certain elements. Why is that and how do I avoid this?

This is not a problem with young writers; it’s a problem with inexperienced writers, who are also often young. It gets attached to teen writers especially, whether or not that’s fair.

Here are some links that can help you with structure:

I recommend checking out books in your genre of choice (and other genres as well) and take notes as you read. Look for:

One big thing that all novels hinge on our strong characters. Here are some links that can help you with that.

Learning the Essentials of Plotting Your Novel

I get a lot of questions about plotting, so I figured I’d write up some tips on getting started. Learning how to plot your novel can be difficult, but it’s really all about knowing what your characters want and how they’re going to get it or attempt to get it. A character with motivations and goals will help focus your plot and get you to figure out where it needs to go. Here are a few essentials when it comes to plotting your novel:

Create a plot skeleton

It helps to first jot down the key elements of the story you want to tell. Creating a plot skeleton means getting down to the bare bones of your story. What’s most important? What scenes are essential to your story? Once you figure out those key scenes and have some semblance of a beginning, middle, and an end, you’ll see your story start to come together.

Work on a timeline

If you’re having trouble figuring out when you want things to happen, try working on a timeline. What event needs to happen first in order to lead into the next big event? Your story is going to have some ups and downs, so you need to make sure your story is paced well. You don’t want action, action, action without any rest for your readers. Learning to pace your novel well is an important skill to have as a writer. I suggest reading up on story arcs.

Focus on characters

Your characters will tell the story if you let them. Focusing on the wants and needs of all your characters will help build the plot for you. It’s sometimes as easy as that. Think about what your character wants and go from there. What journey will your character be in for? What does the antagonist want? How do they stand in the way of your protagonist? Think about how one action leads to the next.

Make sure your scenes connect

When telling a story you don’t want to keep saying “and then this happens”. Then you’re just stringing together events without thinking about how they build on each either. You need to think about the “but” in your story. Something like this helps; “Amy wanted to go the school dance, but her mother doesn’t want her to go.” This explains that Amy really wants to do something, but another person is standing in her way. You can begin to think about conflict and why Amy’s mother doesn’t want her to go. You can begin to piece together a story and connect the dots.

Flesh out your story

Once you have all the big scenes figured out, you can begin to add extra detail and flesh out your novel.  Spend more time thinking about your world and the specific details of your characters. Work on scenes that will help reveal the setting and all those character details. Figure out what interactions are necessary to give your readers important information. Each scene should work to push the story to its resolution.

Let your characters resolve their problems

It’s very important that you let your characters resolve their problems on their own. If you’re developing your characters along the way, the resolution should be a result of them finally gaining the power, knowledge, strength, etc., to fix things. I know not every story will be “resolved”, but if you want your protagonist to grow in some way they need to figure out their own problems instead of relying on other factors to get them through. A good plot shows how your characters learned to overcome their obstacles on their own.

-Kris Noel

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