So your story 'doesn't work'. You've worried it to death. You've cut stuff out. You've put it back in again. Now you're wondering for the nth time if that comma in line three should really have been a semi-colon or a full stop.
Isn't it time to junk the whole wretched tale and start again?
No. Your story might still be rescued, faults and all. Here are eleven sneaky ways. ('Sneaky' because they're quick fixes and don't pretend to be complete writing strategies.)
I'll start with a typical story 'fault', listed in no particular order, then suggest a remedy or two.
1. You have too many scene shifts or 'jump cuts'.
A proven way to ramp up your story's pace is to shift quickly between episodes. End one scene on a note of rising tension then cut to a different scene entirely. Close that scene on a question, mystery or hint of imminent conflict.
Then shift back to the previous scene.
It's a great technique. Problem is, the story becomes a ping-pong match. And the reader drops the ball...
Solution? Make sure you indicate clearly whose scene we're in, at all times.
For example, maybe you use a different 'narrative voice' according to the character the scene depicts. Not just in dialogue but also in exposition and description.
One character's scene might favour terse anglo-saxon words, short sentences and blunt rhythms. Another character's episode is rich in Latinate terms, long sentences and melodic cadences.Or maybe you dateline each scene eg: 'Jane Doe. Nashville, 26 June, 1976'.
Or – and this is a clever idea – you might take a trivial phrase or motif from scene one and echo it at the start of scene two.
'... the lizard stared at him with beady eyes.'/'He couldn't escape them. The eyes were everywhere...'
Don't use that ploy of rhetorical repetition too often because the reader will catch on. But at times it can bail you out of trouble and make a scene transition 'seem' seamless, when it's not.
2. You open with an information dump.
In these days of short attention spans you can't risk an 'information dump', a long passage of scene-setting description. Especially at the start. The reader cries “Get on with the story!”
Content yourself with conveying just one key fact at the outset.
'He lived in Little Puttenham, the navel of England. Nothing much had happened there since Royalists stole a Puritan's pig in 1642. The villagers still gossiped about it.'Now move on. You can weave in the rest of the (non)history of that village later.
3. Your plot has drifted out of sync.
If your character grew up in central Boston, s/he couldn't have been educated at the same time in Vermont. But you only realize that after you've written 10,000 words.
Don't do a total rewrite. Just go back and add some transitional lines:
'The family's move from Boston to Vermont happened like a dream. She remembered only fragments of it. One blink and there were trees. She'd never had a garden before.'You can use the same ploy to tidy up all kinds of (small) anomalies. Have a character allude to them, agree they're odd, confess they can't remember all the details, then move on.
The reader will go along with that. Otherwise, they'll cry “Hey ho, a plot hole!”
4. You have an absurd coincidence.
Remarkable coincidences happen all the time in life but the reader won't forgive you if they occur in your story. It's a cheat. But suppose a big coincidence is necessary to your plot?
Again, have a character remark on its absurdity before the reader does.
'Maybe it was just coincidence that I bumped into Margaret again at Heathrow airport, twenty years after we'd divorced. But was it coincidence that we'd booked adjacent seats on the self-same flight? No. I call it destiny.'Now the reader will accept its implausibility.
5. Somebody acts out of character.
Maybe for plot purposes you need to have your principal character – a whip-hard chief executive – panic then run, disastrously, when she has to address a shareholders' meeting. Absurd! It's grossly out of character.
The reader just won't understand unless... you insert a prior scene that explains it.
Perhaps thirty years ago, as a child, she'd also run off the stage when acting in a school play. Why? Some freak thing about the auditorium – who knows what? - had triggered a trauma. It went right back to babyhood. Now that meeting room had triggered it again.
If your character must suddenly act out of character, drop in an early cameo incident that makes sense of their odd behaviour.
6. You have too many named characters.
Your reader can focus their attention on only two or three named characters per chapter. Unlike you, they don't have the benefit of a cast list to distinguish Jim from Joel and Anne from Alice. They'll give up.
A. Give all your named characters names that start with different letters. And...
B. Name only those characters who appear continually in the story or who must otherwise be memorable. Blur out the bit players. Identify them by labels.
So 'Joe Dale, manager of the deli store' becomes 'the deli store manager'.He can still play a colourful role but, being nameless, he won't upstage your main players.
7. Your main characters are thin or sterotypical.
Perhaps one of your key characters must – for the purposes of the plot – be an icon of decency, good sense and integrity. (Think of Atticus in To Kill A Mocking Bird.) That's fine if it's the way another character perceives them.
'I knew grandma Martha would have the answer. She was a saint. When I was a child, she solved all my problems. She still did.'But if the author portrays a character that way, we're drifting into a land of fable. Saints are unbelievable. Give them a human flaw.
'Martha closed the door with a heavy sigh. It was always nice to chat with her grand-daughter but – oh, she could be so exhausting! Martha reached for her bottle of bourbon. No ice. It had always helped her when the family became tiresome. It still did.'Now we can believe in the saintly grandma.
The same applies to a rogue. Nobody, other than a criminal lunatic, is wholly bad. Make sure your dyed-in-the-wool villain passionately loves their dog or horse.
8. Your pace is too fast.
Padding has its uses. Suppose your police officer protagonist has just gone through an ordeal. He's had to tell a mother her child has been found dead. His nerves are frayed. As soon as he walks into the police station he's hit with another murder case.
It's too much. For him and the reader.
Drop in a scene of padding to separate those high-tension incidents. For example, a landscape description that authenticates the setting. A long passage of quiet reflection as he drives to the police station. Or a shift into a different sub-plot entirely.
9. Your pace is too slow.
It's easy to become long-winded, in a quest to pack in every detail. But little details (except in detective fiction, where they might hide clues) are superfluous. Cut them.
You don't need 1000 words to explain how a character traveled from New York to Miami. You can do it in a line or two.
'Teeth brushed, ticket checked, bag packed – no, she hadn't forgotten Tommy's birthday gift – and she was on the plane to Miami.10. Your dialogue is confusing.
Florida was humid.'
It's a great idea to draft a scene, initially, as a play script. Just dialogue. With its tit-for-tat exchanges, dialogue has conflict and vitality built in.
But a tit-for-tat exchange is still a playscript. It won't work as a story. You need to add tags or other descriptors to show us who's saying what to whom – plus constant reminders of the context.
Otherwise, it's just voices in a vacuum.
If a single passage of dialogue goes on for more than three lines, it risks turning into a monologue. Break it up. Intersperse it with speaker labels, dialogue beats (inconsequential actions that indicate who's speaking) or a speakers' private thoughts, maybe set in italics.
'She chewed gloomily on a breadstick.' / The waiter refilled her glass.' / 'Not much of a menu, she thought.'Now we know we're in a restaurant. And who's speaking/thinking. The monologue has also acquired life and texture.
11. Your style is too flat.
The simplest way to liven up a monotonous style is to adjust the sentence and paragraph lengths. Short/long. Something betwixt and between. Then start again. Simple? Yes. But folk just don't do it, and the result is a dirge.
What about language?
It's a truism that fancy words get in the way of an all-action plot. Who needs to be distracted by wit or poetry when the mob bursts into the hero's bedroom? Plain short words are best for moments of action. They let the events speak for themselves.
The same goes for stories that are bizarre or outrageous in themselves. Use simple prose. That way, the words don't get in the way.
'Fine language' should be reserved for tranquil scenes, thoughts or descriptions. Shouldn't it?
True, and yet... language that's as flat a bank statement in every scene, and regardless of what's happening in the scene, will send readers to sleep.
Set yourself a challenge to use at least one original metaphor, simile or stylistic flourish on every page.
'He looked at me smugly' becomes 'He looked at me, as smug as a toad on a tombstone.'Don't overdue the prose poetry or you'll sound like Annie Proulx. But a few grace notes here and there will give your style vitality. And jerk the reader awake.
'The water sparkled under the sun' becomes 'the sun-deckled water.'
'He jumped at me and I moved quickly' becomes 'He lunged. I fled.' And so on.
Needless to say, a story can 'fail' in a thousand other ways.
Perhaps the plot idea just isn't interesting.
Or it's a cliché. (How often have we chanced upon the Embarrassing Funeral, where the deceased turns out to have had six wives, each unknown to the other? Or a homicidal clown? Or the victim of a car crash who wanders around dazed, not realizing he's a ghost? And so on.)
Or the structure is like a bag of potatoes? Each potato might be good but the bag is shapeless.
And so forth.
Sometimes, there is no remedy but to cut our losses and start again. But take heart. Your problem should rarely be that bad. Just see what happens when you apply one or more of the ideas above. Does your draft come alive?
If so, you've rescued your story!
What experiences have you had with 'failed' stories that you rescued with a simple trick or two? What advice can you give to other writers who are wrestling with a story that somehow won't come together? Please share your thoughts in a comment below. Every comment gets a fast reply.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is a top-rated Amazon novelist and tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed and gain a big 10,000 word ebook - 15 Wily Ways to Write Better Stories - in his free 14-part course at Writers' Village:
Posted by John Yeoman. Posted In : The Writing Craft