As the CEO of a book coaching company with 30 book coaches serving hundreds of writers, I see a lot of stories, and I can very quickly identify the holes and weaknesses in them. This is not some kind of weird magic; it’s a simple case of pattern recognition. The truth is that while every writer is unique and every project is unique, the mistakes that writers make are actually quite similar. If I am doing a rejection audit to determine why a novel keeps getting rejected, for example, I can guarantee that I will see a pattern of these kinds of mistakes.
You can become a smarter writer by looking for these patterns in your own work. By referring to a checklist of the common things that go wrong in most narratives, you can quickly assess your own narrative and work to shore it up.
The most common problems are as follows:
Info Dumping. Info dumping – and its close relative, No. 2, below – are the most common problems in any narrative that is not working. If your work has chunks of text where you are telling us what happened instead of showing the narrative unfold, if it feels like you are giving a lecture on a topic rather than telling a story, odds are good you have an info dump that needs to be broken up. Weave the material into the text, or back up and write a scene that shows us the information you have dumped on us.
Emotion Not on the Page. A novel lets the reader into the character’s head, so if the writer doesn’t let us in, we’re going to feel cheated. We always want to know what they’re thinking, what a moment means to them, what they believe, and how their perceptions change. This is what “show, don’t tell” means and this is the reason we come to fiction. So the writer can’t be stingy. The superpower of a novel is the ability to let us into someone else’s head so we can see how other people think and feel, and why they make the choices they make. In order to exercise this superpower, the writer has to show us those thoughts and feelings. They can’t assume that when Fred’s girlfriend walks out on him, we know that Fred is sad. If the writer doesn’t show us what Fred is thinking and feeling, we might, in fact, think that Fred is secretly elated. The writer doesn’t have to come right out and say, “Fred was sad.” They can show Fred slumping down on the couch and burying his head in his hands. Or they can show Fred downing a quart of Cherry Garcia ice cream. But if they just say, “Maria slammed the door and was gone,” and say nothing about Fred’s state of mind, they’ve missed a juicy opportunity to hook us.
Too Much Plot. Story is about change. We need to see motion, action, movement. First the guy was X, now he is Y. The change can be super subtle – for example, a small change in the way that person sees the world – or it can be monumental, but something must change. It’s useful to remember that people don’t often change without being pushed, so a force of opposition should be clear and present in the story. It doesn’t have to be big and dramatic, but it does need to push the character toward change. Without change, all you have on the page is plot, or things that happen and don’t add up to a story. This plot problem is closely related to No. 4, below.
No Point. One of the things that can stop a novel dead in its tracks is writing that doesn’t reflect a point or theme. Without a theme or a point or a central idea, fiction can easily become nothing more than a series of things that happened – what I call the “and then” problem: and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened. It’s hard for the reader to care in a story like that; it feels too much like the chaos of real life and not enough like a shaped and crafted story designed to make a point. Did the character’s view of the world change? Did their view of themselves change? Did they learn something new about coming of age, having children, starting a business, falling in love, losing love? Each chapter must do something particular to make the point.
No Narrative Drive. The main thing that keeps readers turning pages is the curiosity to find out what happens next. If there is a problem to be solved, a challenge to overcome, a decision to be made, or an action that must be taken – and it is clear and well defined – we can’t help but want to know how it resolves. We keep reading to see if the characters will do what we think we might do. We keep reading to see how they get out of tight spots, how they make sense of things that don’t make sense, what they do in situations that scare us or intrigue us or challenge the way we think of the world. These questions are what create narrative drive. Make sure each chapter is asking questions and then answering them, so the reader has something to wonder about.
Story Not Starting in the Right Place. This issue is a corollary of No. 5, but bears mentioning because it is such a frequent problem. If the beginning of the story is slow and flat and dull – if there is no narrative drive right from the start – the story may well be starting too soon or too late. Look three or four or five chapters in to see if the story picks up momentum, and then consider a new place to start.
Can you identify any of these common problems in your own WIP? What patterns have you noticed in your work?