Novel Writing Tips: Common Story Problems

Looking for novel writing tips? Here are some questions to ask yourself about your story concept. These questions will help you to identify common problems that might prevent your novel from working.

Does your main character have a central goal?

Does your main character have a central goal that is the focus of his or her actions? Does this goal motivate your character throughout the story?

Examples of central goals:

  • To achieve love

  • To save the world from the evil wizard, Voldemort

If the character's goal isn't clear, the story tends to lack direction. Without a sense of where the story is headed, the reader may not feel motivated to keep reading.

Giving the main character a clear central goal gives the reader a goal as well and keeps the story moving forward.

Is there a central conflict?

Giving your character a goal isn't enough. There needs to be a major conflict, or problem in the way of reaching that goal.

Otherwise, your story will move in a predictable straight line toward the character's objective. There's no suspense, no surprise.

Examples of central conflicts:

  • The man your heroine loves is already married.

  • The evil wizard, Voldemort, is determined to kill Harry Potter before Harry can kill him.

Are things generally easy for your character? If so, look at strengthening your central conflict.

Maybe instead of one central conflict, right now your character faces a series of unrelated problems. This can cause an effect of randomness, an episodic "one-thing-after-another" feel. Think about creating a single overarching conflict that lasts through the whole story and gives it a shape.

If you want to keep some of the other problems too, they can be plot complications in a longer manuscript (we'll talk about plot complications later). But even if you include "extra" problems, don't lose sight of what your central conflict is.

Does your story already have a central conflict? Think about whether you'd make it more exciting by making the character's problem worse.

Does the main character have enough at stake?

Your story conflict will only seem significant if its outcome will make a real difference in your character's life.

For example, let's say your character's goal is to win a bowling tournament. If she thinks it would be fun to get a trophy but knows it's not a big deal either way, then there doesn't seem much point in telling the story of the game.

But, let's say this character's just lost her job, and she's in danger of losing her husband to one of her bowling rivals. She's desperate to win something for a change. The bowling championship begins to take on a huge symbolic importance for this character. She has the feeling that if she can just win this one victory, it will be a sign that her luck is changing and she can turn her life around.

By increasing the character's stakes, we can give the same conflict enough importance to carry a story.

Does the character have a reason to act right now?

Imagine your character dreams of moving to Hollywood and pursuing an acting career. Instead, he has spent the last fifteen years trapped in a corporate job he hates but is afraid to leave.

You have a central goal and a conflict. On the other hand, your character has been tolerating the situation for the last fifteen years, so it's not clear why anything should change now.

And what if he did wake up one morning and, for no apparent reason, decide to change his whole life? As soon as this guy came up against a big obstacle, wouldn't he be likely to back down pretty fast? If the character gives up at the first increase in conflict, there's not going to be much of a story.

Your character needs to have a compelling reason to go after his goal at this particular moment.

If this reason isn't clear enough, your story might seem contrived, as if your character's acting out of the blue. And if the reason isn't powerful enough, it may be difficult to keep the plot going. Create enough urgency for your character that he'll keep fighting his way toward that goal no matter what obstacles you throw in his path.

Does something change between the beginning and end of the story?

How has your character's situation changed between the beginning and end of your story? If the answer's "Not much," then you may not have enough of a story yet.

In that case, you may need to strengthen the story conflict and increase your character's stake in it. A powerful conflict will help to shake things up.

Case Study

I recently critiqued a manuscript about a character who returns after many years to his hometown. This visit brought up a lot of memories for the character, who also noticed different ways that the city had changed over time. Both the memories and the description of the city were very interesting and vividly described.

However, nothing significant happened between the first sentence and the last. The character drove into the city, looked around, and thought about what he saw. This wasn't a story yet.

How could the author have fixed this manuscript? Here are just a few possibilities:

1) The memories brought back by the visit could affect the character's life in the present. For example, the nostalgia he feels for his high school girlfriend could create problems with his current girlfriend. Or, maybe his discovery of how much both he and the town have changed could finally free him from his nostalgia, allowing him to move on with his life after years of living in the past.

2) Something could happen to the character during this visit, causing a change. For example, he could run into his high school girlfriend, and they could have an affair, resulting in the breakup of his current relationship. 3) The author could remove the frame of the adult character returning home and remembering past events. Instead, he could set the story back when the character was in high school, turning one of the events from that time into the main story.

Do your main character's actions shape the change?

Let's say you write a story about a character who is waiting for the result of a medical test. He sits anxiously by the phone, trying to pass the time by doing a crossword. The phone rings, but it's just his sister. Then the character decides to call the hospital himself and gets a busy signal. He tries again, and the receptionist tells him the doctor's not in.

At the end of the story, the doctor finally calls and tells your character the test result. The test is positive. Or maybe the test is negative. Either way, this isn't a story yet.

There is certainly an important change in the character's life between the beginning and end of the story. But the character has no control over the outcome. Between the time he takes the test and the time he gets the results, no action he takes will make a difference.

Maybe the real story is about the actions the character will take after he gets the results. Maybe in response to the results, the character will decide to do something dramatic.

In general, it's much more interesting watching characters take action than watching them wait passively for things to happen.

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