Writing Fixes: Story on Life Support

Writers can be stuck in Revision Ldownloadand for many drafts, each improving but never quite correcting structural problems. It’s disappointing to throw so much energy into a story or novel, only to deduce the structural problems may be beyond repair.

Writing Tip for Today: What’s a writer to do when, after several revisions, a story just doesn’t work? Here are some ideas:

Go Read, Watch Movies, Study Story

The first thing I do if a story seems structurally too weak to stand on its own is to look to published stories, novels or even movies that contain strong story elements.Read the best material you can find and also study genre work if that’s where your story fits. Movies can help writers develop their sense of cinematic storytelling. But you won’t read or watch for pleasure. This time, take note of where, when and how long different elements occur. For instance, how much text or film unfolds before the main inciting incident happens? How much description/narrative (in terms of paragraphs or seconds) is there before action comes up? How do books and movies transition from “feel good” moments back to tension? Where is the ultimate (climax) moment? All these things can be useful in helping writers learn how effective stories progress. Write down what you observe in terms of number of sentences or paragraphs or chapters. This will help you learn the rhythm of story.

Go Write Something New

The second way I tackle a weak story structure is to apply what I learn from book or film to a new story. By the time I figure out that it’s broken, I’m usually sick of the first story anyway. A writer with only one story to tell won’t last long in today’s publishing arena. So get out idea number two and even if you’re not an outliner, plot your protagonist’s course in general terms from beginning to middle to end. You can think of these as Act I, II, and III or as a board game where each scene moves your character closer or farther away from the goal. And do have a clear goal–most new writers won’t be able to tell a good story unless the character wants something desperately, from the onset.

Go with the What Ifs

Finally, go back to the broken story and brainstorm what ifs. By now you should have a little distance from it, and will be able to try on a bunch of different ideas to make the story work. If you begin by defining the character’s main goal, then add worthy obstacles and high stakes, it should be much easier to imagine your character struggling and ultimately overcoming the obstacles in order to gain the goal. It won’t matter whether this prize is the handsome prince or the universe will be saved–the story part should be more solid than before. You may still have lots of revisions, but at least your broken story will be fixed.

Your Turn: What is the hardest part of storytelling for you? How do you deal with structural problems in stories?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

5 comments on “Writing Fixes: Story on Life Support

  1. Good suggestions, Linda! Thanks.

    My strongest suit in writing novels came with the characters – developing them and letting them take the story into unexpected (to me!) places. Plotting for me is plodding! I have a terrible time with that, which eventually brought me back to writing poetry. 🙂 But many members of our Christian Poets & Writers group on Facebook enjoy writing fiction and could use some help as you consistently give. So, I’ll highlight the post on the Christian Poets & Writers blog – http://www.christianpoetsandwriters.com

    • Mary,
      I’m more of a fiction “pantster” myself but I’ve had to learn to pay attention to the overall story before I get too invested. Thanks for the highlight.
      Keep Writing,

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  3. I don’t struggle with structural problems because I’m an obsessed story planner. In advance I make sure I write key scenes for each milestone/turning point I must hit. Sometimes I pants my way between milestones, but that doesn’t affect the overall structure. Interesting that you mention movies. When I first learned structure I’d yell out “First Plot Point!” or “All is Lost Moment!” during movies and crime TV shows. It got so bad that my husband now recognizes these points without me saying a word. It’s now a fun little game of ours, to see who can find the milestones first. I even let him win sometimes. 😉

    • Sue,
      How fun to let the hubster win sometimes! I sometimes show film clips to illustrate plotting and points and such. Good instincts for you but others aren’t as milestone-obsessed and it ends up causing headaches. Thanks for weighing in!
      Keep Writing,

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