Why isn't your story working?

Jody Lebel
Published on: 20th November 2013
Long gone are the days when fiction was meant to instruct us. Today, fiction must entertain. If you bore the reader, you lose a fan. Keep losing fans and you will not have a writing career, you will have a hobby. Take a hard look at your WIP (work in progress). Here are four areas where your story might be lagging.

1. Too much stuffing.
Your story never really gets going. Background detail and fluffy prose take up page after page after page, until the reader falls asleep. Here's an excerpt from page one of a murder mystery.
why isnt your story working,career
"The October sun warmed the porch where John sat with his coffee. Trees branches with their bright orange and red leaves hung over the empty bird feeder. John used to like feeding the birds, but they had all flown south weeks ago. He had been having coffee on that same porch nearly every day since his wife had left him. John was alone now since his father died. John's father had been in the military. He had served in two wars. John had boxes of medals from his father's Army days. Sometimes he went through those boxes and touched all the medals."

How long are you going to keep the reader engaged in this story? This is a murder. Let's get to the good stuff. If the medals and John's father are important to the story, feed that info in slowly through back story and in the dialogue. Keep the writing tight and relevant.

Here's a better start: The day they found the girl's body in his front yard, John had been sitting on the porch having coffee, something he did every morning since the day his wife had packed up and left.

2. Too much fluff.
You write long, lush, lyrical, and lovely sentences. Save them for poetry. A strong plot, tight writing, and fast pace will keep your readers turning pages.

"She was walking daintily down the sidewalk, her hair sparkling in the sunlight, her step dancing with the rhapsody of spring, her heart bursting joyfully with a song of happiness. Strolling merrily beside her was her new charming and good looking husband."

Although you can't cut this down to the very essence (She was walking beside her husband) or else it will be too stark, you have to get ahold of overdoing the adjectives and adverbs.

The sentence is banal and hard to read. It's dripping with -ing verbs, weak verbs that bog down the reader. Slash and burn. Get rid of most of the -ing and -ly words by turning them into blunt active verbs. Use deep POV to give the reader some background.

Her step was as light as her heart as she walked down the sidewalk beside her new husband. He had proved to be charming and attentive, to the envy of her friends and the delight of her mother.

3. Too little story.
Your tale is full of drama, back and forth dialogue, and snarky characters. Often, they're set in a restaurant, dinner party or kitchen table. The reader gets drawn into the snap and crackle for a time but soon grows weary. Where's the story?

You need to 'get on with it'. Slices of life, funny scenes, and a few great pages of dialogue are best doled out in dribs and drabs. A little goes a long way. And all of it, every word, must relate to the story and move it forward. If it doesn't, if it's just fluff for fluff's sake, it must be cut. Snap and crackle is fun if it's driven by a powerful plot but your story must move quickly and the scenes must be relevant or you'll lose the reader.
4. Too boring.
There's no conflict. Your characters move around but never have any problems. They make chatter, they eat, they mull over what they should wear to work. There are long gratuitous tracts of reflection. The world moves around them and they are oblivious to it. These stories typically follow some character around as he or she goes about their day. But nothing really happens.

Here's a good fix. Do something bad to them. Put them in awful situations. Give them two choices; terrible or really terrible. The best remedy for this, of course, is to not write it in the first place. But if you find yourself drifting into monotonous land, shoot somebody, rob a bank, or have their lover leave them. Seriously. Stir up some trouble. Readers love that stuff.
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