Writers can be stuck in Revision Land 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.