Story flaws: Finding and fixing them—PART 1

From Rick:

What’s wrong with your story? Why are magazine editors rejecting your short stories? Are your novels getting mixed reviews (or no reviews)?

In a series of two posts I’m going to offer some suggestions for things you can look at and give some ways to go about fixing the problems.

Magazines are looking for good stories to publish, and readers want good books to read. So, what steps can you take to help ensure that the stories you tell will find an audience?

I can’t speak for magazine editors other than to say that they are readers too, and they aren’t likely to accept a story that doesn’t engage or interest them (assuming it’s the type of story the magazine would publish). Most magazine editors simply don’t have the time to tell you why they’re rejecting your story, at least not in detail. Of course, most magazines aren’t able to publish all the good stories they receive, but they’re almost certainly not going to publish weak or mediocre stories.

Fortunately, there are a number of points you can look at to help you analyze potential story problems or flaws.

Back on February 4 and February 11, 2020, I did two posts on “Key Elements of Good Storytelling.” You can find those from the Home page of the blog using the calendar to find them (or use the Search function).

In those posts I talked about grabbing the reader from the beginning, but in these next two posts, I’m going to flip things around and talk about story flaws and help you spot and correct them.

I’ll discuss the three major flaws first, then because they’re related, I’ll show how to remedy them.

FLAW #1: THE STORY FAILS TO ENGAGE THE READER

In all fairness, this is perhaps the most difficult problem for the writer to assess because I don’t know of any writer who would intentionally write a dull story. But writers don’t always recognize that what interests them might not interest someone else. It might be difficult to understand why someone would not like the Harry Potter books, but there are people who really don’t care for that type of story.

The best way (really the only way) is to find several test readers who will be honest. You don’t want people who will politely indulge you. You want honest opinions. One reader will not do, and I recommend that you find one or two readers who might not normally read your type of story so you can better assess its impact.

There is no way around this step. You simply cannot provide an unbiased evaluation of your own story, and you risk disappointment if you believe that others will automatically be interested in what interests you.

Now, you’ve probably heard advice that you should write what interests you and what pleases you and to ignore everything else. That’s not bad advice, but if you’re the only one who finds the story interesting…

FLAW #2: THE CHARACTERS FAIL TO ENGAGE THE READER

Although this is closely tied to the first point, I would argue that fascinating characters can do a lot to shore up a weak story line. At the same time, an otherwise engaging story concept could fall flat if the characters are flat. Think of some long-running TV shows. What makes/made them so long running? In some cases it might have been the stories themselves, like The Twilight Zone. But the reason the various Star Trek movies and TV shows have been running so long lies in part with the characters in them.

I have long maintained that strong and engaging characters are the most important aspect of any story. Take a mundane story concept and toss Captain Kirk, or James Bond, or Sherlock Holmes in it (and add a bit of creativity), and you’ll have a potentially far more engaging story than the same story line without an engaging or interesting character. Interesting characters will often help you write a more interesting story around them.

Therefore, when evaluating your story, ask yourself this: ARE MY CHARACTERS INTERESTING? I mean are they truly interesting—the kind of characters your reader might want to meet in person, characters that your reader cares about, characters that feel genuine and not contrived or clichés.

Ask yourself why the reader should care about the character(s). If you can’t give an immediate and clear reason, then your story could be on shaky ground from the start.

FLAW #3: STORY TAKES TOO LONG TO BECOME INTERESTING

How far into the story does the reader need to go before knowing what the story is about and what makes this story interesting? When and how often does something interesting happen?

This one is easy to evaluate on your own in part, but you have to be honest with yourself. You, the writer, know (hopefully) that the story is interesting, or at least to you it is. But are you certain a reader will feel the same way? Answer these two questions:

(a) How many pages long is the story (alternatively, what’s the total word count)?

(b) How far into the story must one go before something significant happens? By that I mean that it must be clear to the reader that what’s happening is indeed significant.

I’m not talking about a cool opening that quickly devolves into a lot of background or exposition before it moves forward. Let’s say you open the story with your main character discovering a dead body, then you proceed to go into the character’s background and how the character came upon the discovery. The discovery of the body is likely interesting to your reader, but panning away from that and going into mundane backstory or description can doom a story before it really begins.

Or worse, what if you OPEN with that backstory and description and the body isn’t discovered until many pages later? Maybe in the opening couple of pages you hint that something bad or shocking happened but don’t say what it is. Have you sufficiently enticed your reader with just that? That’s risky at best.

If you then continue to introduce more characters that will eventually become involved in the story, but still nothing else happens to move that body discovery, or the hinted at “bad” event,” along. You’re hoping your reader will be patient enough with you and will assume that you’re going to bring all these characters together. That’s a really bad assumption, especially if you’re 25 percent of the way into the novel before you let your reader know that there was indeed a murder.

It’s crucial that you recognize at what percentage of the story’s total length the main action takes off. This is especially important in an action-adventure story, but it applies to EVERY story, be it a detective, mystery, horror, romance, literary, and any other kind of story.

All of this assumes that you have a story concept that’s strong in the first place. Let’s assume you do (and your beta readers should be able to tell you that). With that assumption, and assuming you’ve now identified that your story hasn’t gotten off to a good start because of one or more of the three flaws I mentioned, how do you fix it?

With FLAW #1, you may need to reexamine your story concept. Hopefully you can fix it with some additional aspects, but be prepared for some major rewriting if you didn’t think your story line through in the beginning. This is again where you can use your beta readers. One thing you must ask them is to let you know if they find the story interesting (and make them promise to be honest).

FLAW #2 is more easily remedied. If your readers don’t find your characters interesting enough, then you must endeavor to make them interesting. Give them interesting backgrounds, flaws, quirks, recognizable voices and speech patterns. In the latter case, if you find yourself needing dialogue tags every line to tell the reader who’s speaking, then you haven’t properly differentiated your characters.

You don’t need to tell the reader everything about your characters, but the backstories you’ve created for them should help mold them and their actions. And of course, you can certainly bring out those backstories later. Just don’t dump them all at once on the reader.

FLAW #3 can often be more easily fixed by simply bringing key story elements up front and making sure that you keep things moving. In the best cases, you may just need to cut some of the fluff or move some of your backstories further into the story. In the worst cases, you’re going to need to rethink the flow of the story and may have to do some major rewriting.

A couple more hints: Make sure each chapter and each scene ending pulls the story forward in some way. At the end of each scene and chapter ask yourself this: What reason have I given for the reader to turn the page?

Next time, I’ll delve into other aspects of story craft, including writing style and voice and painting a compelling picture for the reader.

—Rick

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