Do you ever find yourself just slogging through a story that, on the surface, you’re really jazzed about? You have a great concept with compelling characters, but for some reason you’re going through the motions, trudging towards an ending that’s somehow lost its luster? I see you over there hands in pocket, staring down at your feet pretending all “Shucks, no not me.”
But you’re lying, and you know what they say about lying. “It’s really fun unless you get caught. So don’t get caught.” Those are words to live by, my friend.
Anyways, you’re drifting down the Blue Danube on a story raft that simply doesn’t want to float. You’re taking water on from all sides. The more you struggle, the more you bail the water out, the faster the raft goes down. At the end of it all you’re left with wet britches and the burning question “Why isn’t this story working?”
There are a lot of reasons you’re story might be fizzling. Getting a spot on diagnosis, especially when you’re new to the game and haven’t really developed the editorial gaze of death to discern the fluff from the chuff (Chuff is good. Don’t know what it is, but I needed something to rhyme with fluff, so there ya go. Deal with it. Please) can be difficult.
This is where beta readers, editors, friends, and family members come in handy. The problem is, being only halfway through a story (and struggling towards the ending) is not a good time to dump your word vomit on a friend or enemy.
Self-Diagnosing your story problems is one of the best skills you can develop in your writing. To make it easy, and accelerate your learning curve (or just serve as a reminder to those of you who’ve been in the game for a long while and have simply forgotten ’cause you’re old and stuff), I’m going to lay out some of the most common ways I see stories stalling out midway through.
1) Wrong Main Character
It’s stupid how often this one crops up. We’ve all been there. You start with a good lead character, but a great sidekick. Part way through the story you realize the sidekick is way more compelling than the main character, which is an issue. Your MC doesn’t have to be the swellest gal around, but preferably she has the most at stake in the story. If not, then you might be crossing your streams.
To catch this, read through your story and figure out who the story is about. Is it really about the MC or is it actually about her best friend Suzy? Sure you might have started off the story thinking it was about the MC, but sometimes these things grow out of our control. You start off telling Story A, digress into the scummy boulevards of Story B, and then find yourself in the cardboard city of hobos that is Story C.
You can do a couple things at this point. Change to a new MC and start over, or tweak your MC to make her unmistakably the protag. Neither is an easy fix, but if you make the right correction, you’ll find the story flows much better and more naturally. And after all, whether inside the bathroom or out, isn’t better flow what we’re all looking for?
2) Wrong Point of View (POV)
I struggle with this one a lot. It’s my nemesis.
Here’s why: I love writing in First Person. It’s my bag. Ostensibly it plays to a lot of my strengths as a writer.
Here’s the problem: First Person doesn’t really work in a big sprawling story with multiple POV’s. You can maybe maybe maybe have two First Person characters alternating chapters, but you have to work damn hard to distinguish your character voice otherwise they start blending into each other. Most people, unfortunately, don’t have the chops to pull this off (I might be one of them. Shh, don’t tell anyone).
Often what happens is I’ll dive into a story in First Person, because that’s my default. I’ll get a good chunk of the way through and realize I’ve chosen the wrong character to chronicle through First Person. Whoops.
If it’s a big story with diverse cast I’ll usually alternate chapters between characters using 3rd person limited while returning more often than not to that First Person POV MC. If you’ve chosen your characters wisely, and structured the story appropriately, you’ll get to the end of the story and your Gordion knot of interweaving stories will have untangled itself. If not, you’ll get to the end and not only will that knot still be fully intact, but now it’s covered in sticky honey.
How to fix this?
Uh… There’s not always an obvious solution. It’ll take some fiddling with your story bits to figure out what’ll work best. Also, unfortunately, what worked best to fix your last story might not be worth beans on this story. So there’s always that. Good luck.
3) Wrong POV Character
Most of the time your Main Character (within a scene) will also be your POV character. It’s a good rule of thumb that, regardless of the scene, we want to be in the mind of the character who stands to lose the most. This is a moot point in stories that simply stay behind the lens of a single character throughout the story, but you should be conscientious of how this will limit your storytelling.
For instance, Watson (in the Sherlock Holmes’s books) is our POV character, but Sherlock is the Main Character. Everything we see and learn about Sherlock is through Watson’s eyes. This works really well for Sir Doylie, but might not work for you and your tale.
Ask yourself, is my POV character the Main Character? If the answer is no, you better have a darned good reason for it. If you find yourself struggling to come up with even half-assed justifications, then the fix is simple: make your MC your POV character.
4) Wrong Structure
This is one that is tripping me up on the story I’m working on right now. To give you some background on the project, it’s a collection of three novella’s forming an overarching narrative called Augment. The individual novella’s link together loosely, but it’s not until you reach the end of the last novella that you really see how they all fit together. That last novella, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, is the one giving me fits, and rightfully so. It’s the one that has to neatly wrap up all the loose ends, connect dots that the reader didn’t even know needed to be connected, and offer a satisfying conclusion not only to it’s story, but to the two preceding stories as well.
In short, it’s pulling more than it’s fair share of weight. Which, if done correctly, will be cool. But, if done incorrectly (which is likely what will happen considering how unwieldy a little bitch it is) it will leave the reader incredibly unsatisfied.
I don’t want to leave ya’ll unsatisfied, so I’ve been tooling over this story for a week or so trying to figure out why it’s not quite coming together and finally I realized that I’m telling the story with the wrong structure.
Here’s what I mean by that. I’ve been working so hard to wrap up all the loose strands, that I lost focus on the individual story taking place in The Watchmaker’s Daughter. Instead of being a standalone story about a mother losing her daughter, I sped through the emotional bits from a pulled out bird’s-eye-view, and robbed the story of all its emotional impact.
This is a problem. Fortunately it can be fixed.
Learning that the structure of your story is flawed sucks, but it’s better than wallowing in the muck of “Why?”
How do we fix a broken structure? You go back to the beginning and relay the foundation. For The Watchmaker’s Daughter I’ve reoutlined the story based off what I now know about it. Fitting in the emotional landmarks that the first version lacked and cutting out the parts that skim over the pain.
This is one of my least favorite sorts of fixes to make, because it amounts to a lot of work and throwing away many already written words. But hey, we write until the story is right.
NOTE TO NEW WRITERS!
Listen up. I’ve outlined some of the ways your story might be going off track, but ignore all of this advice until you’ve actually finished your first draft. As a new writer it is more important to take the editor cap off and simply write to completion. Everybody hits the 1/3 mark in their story and thinks “This is absolutely horrible.”
That’s normal. You have to get comfortable in that zone and learn how to push past it. If you stop mid-way through a first draft to go back and fix it, you’re unlikely ever to actually finish it. So, finish that first draft no matter how horrendous it is, then go back and tweak and revise, but not a moment sooner.
NOTE TO ADVANCED WRITERS!
You should also finish that first draft before going back and implementing the tweaks I’ve laid out. Why? For the same reasons I gave the new writers. Nobody, regardless of skill, is immune to the stalling out point. I don’t care if it’s your first short story or thirtieth novel, finish that first draft before going putting the editor cap back on.
Stop arguing, just do it.
Here’s a picture of a cat to make it all better.