Big Story Problems

Here’s a post at Writers Helping Writers: How to Fix Big Story Problems. This topic is fine, I suppose, in principle.

Here are the big problems the post points to — click through to read the brief comments about each of these —

–Not enough conflict

–Low stakes

–Passive characters

–Low tension

–Emotion is not on the page

–Lack of character growth

–Characters too perfect

–Motivation unclear

–Characters too happy

–Lack of relationship friction

–Plot too predictable

–Reader disengaged … … …

Did anybody pause at that last item? Because it annoys me that the topic of the post suddenly changed from “problems with the story” to “results of problems with the story.” Personally, I find it really annoying when the author of a post changes the subject without noticing. I’m like, Do not produce a list of items and change the subject partway through the list. Re-read your post before you hit publish and make sure the post is coherent. “Coherent” means that the whole post is about one topic OR that you handle the change in topic in some smooth way. The above list is not coherent.

Also, I think that list can be chunked up a good deal, plus I want to add big problems that leap to mind, but that are not on the original list.

–Not enough conflict, lack of relationship friction, low stakes, low tension.

–Characters too passive, too perfect, too happy, too unchanging, too petty, too selfish, too self-absorbed, too mean, too stupid.

–Emotion is not on the page, motivation unclear.

–Plot too predictable, plot driven by character stupidity, plot driven by characters who won’t talk to each other.

Boring prose, boring characters, boring dialogue.

As you can see, I think the linked post left out two BIG categories of problems: character stupidity and boringness of the writing. I mean, I also included character unpleasantness, but I fully realize that some readers like reading about petty, selfish, self-absorbed, mean characters, for some reason.

In contrast, I don’t think it’s very common for readers to be thrilled by character stupidity. Any reader who notices that the protagonist is dumb as a box of rocks is probably going to be annoyed by that. Having other characters act as though the stupid protagonist is smart will be even more annoying once the reader notices that the protagonist is in fact dumb as a box of rocks. If the protagonist fails to realize something extremely obvious in order to drive the plot, and the reader can plainly see this extremely obvious thing, then that’s a problem. I’m thinking of Anne Bishop’s Invisible Ring here, which is the single book that leaps to my mind most forcefully when extreme character stupidity comes up. I had other problems with this story as well, but if I were creating a top (bottom?) ten list for Extreme Protagonist Stupidity, this book would be on that list, and probably pretty near the top (or bottom, whichever).

Boringness (what is the word for that? Surely there is a word for that? Do I mean ‘insipidity,’ maybe?) of the prose is also a major reason a story can fail, and this is so obvious that I’m not sure why nothing like this made it into the original post. When people say “wooden” or “flat,” then they mean “boring,” probably.

There’s no great solution to this except one. I have seen books with flat, boring dialogue and barely serviceable prose succeed just fine because of the storytelling. That’s probably the only quality that can rescue a book where the prose itself is not just plain, not just serviceable, but actually flat.

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10 thoughts on “Big Story Problems”

  1. I recently read a YA novel, 6 More Months of June. I love genre fiction bc the plot is predictable but an authors writing can make a book sparkle, and that happened in this book. It’s all in the language.

  2. I think ‘flat’ prose is something else again, at least when it’s me labeling it as such. It’s a combination of lack of variability in the prose and in the scenes … hmm… example everyone should know: LotR, LeGuin compared the writing to a rocking chair, tension -> relax/safety, tension ->relaxation/safety. What I call flat is missing that variability in scenes, and they all read the same tension, so even if the writer is aiming for tense they come off as flat. And the prose can be descriptive. trying to be lively, but … not quite right and so it all falls flat, and often as trying too hard.

    There are some writers who can keep the tension ratcheting up, and keep me glued to the book and I haven’t taken them apart. It’s too hard because they grab me when I try and I forget to analyze. It’s a lot easier to look at a work and ask: why isn’t that working?

    I haven’t thought much about this and may come back after I think about it some more.

  3. BTW, The Teen, looking over my shoulder suggests “ennui” for a better term than ‘boring’ or ‘insipid’.

  4. I wonder how difficult it is to actually apply any of the stuff (‘character too stupid’ seems easy to avoid but ‘character/prose too boring’ may be harder). I also wonder how/why stupid characters come to be. I assume a similar way as characters who don’t communicate– some combo of aspirations to ‘realism’ and laziness in terms of plot formation, maybe. I say this, but plotting is very hard for me. Probably because I’m just a pantser and feel like surely plotting requires outlines. Maybe they too fear outlines– I mean, I can make them but then I feel I’m ‘done’. Anyway, maybe they feel miscommunication is ‘natural’ and ‘character-driven’ and so avoids the need for an outline. The character being stupid also greatly simplifies the situation so you don’t have to create extra work for yourself as the writer. Maybe that’s unkind.

    Anyway, those are the worst– miscommunication and characters being stupid. I hate getting angry at books. This is especially annoying because I see it in books I’m already interested in, whereas boring prose/characters and even passive characters are easy to avoid… more or less, or at least if you have an action heavy plot and a badass character, it’s easy to feel sanguine they don’t always face all problems head on. It’s been a while since I read non-actiony books to the point where I have forgotten what it’s like to depend on characters doing… ‘stuff’ without the world ending around them and pushing the plot.

    I will volunteer that selfish/mean characters can be charming or have exceptions for certain people (this especially works in darker romance). Most readers want to read about those exceptions, I believe. Or selfish characters growing, that’s popular too. I actually don’t think unsympathetic characters are super popular, though it’s a vocal fan subculture. The other exception is probably super hot villain types. Being attractive trumps many ugly qualities. I also think selfishness often gets by because people want to relate to the characters they read and people are selfish. As long as excuses are available in the narrative about how the others ‘deserved’ it. I personally get more eye-rolly when characters are too self-righteous.

    I dunno. Most even good, enjoyable writers can’t do genuinely good, ethical people in a believable way. A *lot* of times, the ethics are… hmm… difficult to argue with (because the alternative is unacceptable or unaccessible) and yet also just insufferable. Like you get moral dilemmas and usually the hero will be like, all about saving lives and it’s impossible to wish innocents dead so surely they are right. I love, love your Tuyo books because the dilemmas are more about behavior and making choices beyond dead or alive. If that makes sense. :)

  5. So, I thought about it some more and dredged up a couple samples to demonstrate what I call flat prose, vs not (yeah, I could have used one of Rachel’s books, but I didn’t – seemed rude even if I’m being favorable.) Maybe, Reena, it will help a little with identifying it? I hope the formatting comes through properly.

    Here’s a random bit of prose from a book I tried and rejected for flat prose:

    DANE PUSHED HAIR from his eyes and yanked up yet another weed. Neat rows of vegetables, flowers, and herbs stretched across the field. He inspected the leek in front of him. It wasn’t as large as it should be, this late in the season. Tunebells chimed softly, swaying in the wind. Their precious flowers needed to be harvested for oils. He still hated taking the delicate cups and leaving the stalks naked.

    Tunebell scent reminded him of his mother. Her eyes, her laughter. He moved to the next plant, pushing her image away. Weeding was tedious, but it gave him a chance to feel the wind on his face. (opening of Ch 2 of Sorrowfish)

    It’s the start of the second chapter. I think the problem with it is the sentence structure. They’re all too similar. Subject, verb, sometimes an object. There’s also little to no flow of thought from one sentence to another and a general impression of blandness.

    Random bit from a book where I had problems with the writing (my review included : ‘where were the editors?’ as it was professionally published)) but I was engaged despite that.

    Every land has a place where evil congregates. Like a gaping wound, it reeks of spiritual rot, a stench that calls to those of similar faithlessness and disorder.

    In Eldoria, this place was the Ashen Ravine.

    The deep rift in terrain had been caused centuries earlier, when Nerezeth retreated underground with night and all its occupants in tow. The land sutured, but it didn’t fully heal. So, nature and magic came together, forming a mystical forest to cover the wound.

    Large, brambly trees grew almost overnight—their thorn-tipped branches and roots warped and knotted, as if they couldn’t decide which direction to grow, for they fed off both the night from below, and the day from above. The trunks, black as pitch, stooped like withered old men yet had the illusion of eternal youth with leaves that never faded or changed when spring surrendered to summer, and summer to fall. (opening of Ch 2 of Stain)

    Much stronger language, more vivid everything, sentence structure more varied. No character present, but the place described comes off as vivid as a character.

    I’ve decided the stupid character problem often comes down to how intelligent the author is. They may not be as brilliant as their character, but they have to be able to come up with the actual unexpected solution for their character – just not in five minutes.

    From listening to writers discuss their processes for over twenty years I think outlining has nothing to do with plotting – at least not necessarily, unless you’re the sort of writer who needs to outline. Some pantsers the sort who say they have no idea where the story is going, can produce tightly plotted works, that they then produce an outline for, if wherever they’re submitting (if they are, these days it’s a question) requires an outline. Some people (PC Wrede is one) do rolling outlines along the lines of: I think the story is going here, through chapter 5, … gets to chapter 4 and the characters obviously wouldn’t do whatever she expected, and she writes what the story requires, and revises the outline. repeat through end of book. You might want to poke around her blog, I find her advice particularly clear and analytical without being prescriptive. https://pcwrede.com/pcw-wp/how-i-plot/

    I loathe clumsily handled miscommunication. I’ve also seen it done well, when the characters have genuine reason for not talking – yes, it’s possible. A judicious use by the writer of handy interruptions and distractions helps, too. Too many such in one story are irritating. (read one recently.)

    Nice catch about the Tuyo books, and the importance in them of ethical choices. In Rihasi I’ve realized that the titular character has many of the same traits as a rather good villain in a different work. The difference? She makes a choice to stop cooperating with evil, unlike the other fellow. And, do you know Code Geass? It’s an anime, where we’ve got a lawful good and a … I don’t know what as the other protaganist, and the lawful good is actually supporting the evil side because it’s running the system, the laws. My kid and I have had a lot of good discussions about the morals and ethics that are shown in that show, and what do you do when you trust the system and the laws, and the whole structure is corrupt? It can be done. It’s hard to do well, which is why it’s not common.

    I hope this helps a bit.

  6. Thank you, Reena, and good comments, Elaine! I actually think the biggest cause of character stupidity is failure to listen to early readers / failure to ask the right person to read the draft. An early reader ought to point to character stupidity and say, in no uncertain terms, “This character is acting like a complete idiot. All the way through, I was going, What the hell is this? How can he not see this incredibly obvious thing?”

    It’s fine if the first reader is able to word that more gently, but it’s absolutely invaluable feedback no matter what, because if an early reader does not provide this feedback, then you’re going to see it in reviews. I firmly believe — there could be exceptions, but I believe — that it’s always possible to get plot elements to work in an intelligent way, but the author may need to be told flatly that right now the plot depends on unbelievable or intolerable character stupidity, that the reader isn’t going to miss this fact, and that the author had better go back to the drawing board and fix the problem.

    I haven’t had a big problem with this for a while, I mean with avoiding character stupidity myself, but I’ve seen fine authors crash and burn in their careers because they let problems like this get into their books after they became successful. That’s never going to happen to me because I will darn well always take first reader feedback seriously, and several early readers would nail character stupidity if I missed it.

  7. Those are great examples for illustrating that contrast, Elaine!

    I mostly agree with you, Rachel, about character stupidity problems, but also I think some writers get fixated on plot points. Eg, they want something specific to happen (plot) but don’t think through the character side to make it believable, and *then* no early reader points it out. It’s also just difficult to notice this happening in your own work, especially a) as a beginner or b) without giving yourself enough time.

  8. Mona, I’ve definitely seen that stupidity happen in ongoing series that I’ve given up on. It usually strikes me as the author had a fixed idea of what was to happen, but didn’t write the characters in such a way as to make whatever it is plausible for what is actually being conveyed about the characters. And the publisher wants the next installment and no one cares. Except some readers.

  9. So true, Elaine! It’s the worst in an ongoing series. Loving the first book or the first three, and then suddenly nothing makes sense! (╥﹏╥)ノシ

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