There are days when I look at a script or piece of fiction I’ve been working on and know that it stinks. Not obviously, no, that would be too easy. But underneath, in some dark, rotten, completely fundamental way.
In its bones.
Each time I’ve forced myself to sniff deeper to find the cause, I’ve come up with at least one of these five issues.
1) THERE’S A FLAW IN THE IDEA—What I mean by this is that there’s no hook or irony in my concept that creates a strong enough situation (either comic or dramatic) to create unstoppable anticipation and sustain the interest of the audience/reader. Solution: Work on your logline or concept to find the “hook”– the one idea that will pull us in and make us FRANTIC to find out what’s going to happen in your story.
2) MY MAIN CHARACTER HAS NO GOAL—Yep, my hero just sits around or does “stuff.” Funny stuff. Or scary stuff. But because he or she has no immediate specific objective in the story, and no underlying emotional want beneath this goal, there’s no forward momentum in the narrative and he or she just floats around like a dead carp. (apologies to carp everywhere) Solution: Give your character a specific goal (“I will save my wife and her co-workers from terrorists at the Nakatomi Plaza”, “I will pry my arm out from under this rock in the desert so I don’t die”, “I will make a girl named Summer love me.”) Also, make sure there’s an emotional want underneath each of these goals (“I want to reconnect with my bride,” “I want to live,” “I want love.”)
3) OOPS, I FORGOT TO CREATE AN ANTAGONIST—What was I thinking? Did I really believe that “racism” or someone’s “inner conflict” was enough? Did I forget that it’s much better to have an actual character in the story who can embody these things and exert pressure, through action, on my hero? Solution: Come up with a bad guy with a goal that’s in direct opposition to that of your main character. For example, if the hero’s goal is to save his wife from terrorists at the Nakatomi Plaza, then create a bad guy named Hans who wants to kill him.
4) THE PLOT FEELS EPISODIC—This is related to 2 and 3. I remember that if I have a main character with a strong goal, and a bad guy with an equally powerful goal that is direct opposition (and neither of them can back down), I won’t have this issue. My conflict will rise to a climax. Solution: See numbers 2 and 3.
5) WAIT, WHAT’S THIS STORY ABOUT ANYWAY? I feel Macbeth whispering in my ear, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I forget the core thematic nugget that inspired me to write the thing in the first place. This is usually related to my main character’s arc. Solution: Think about how your main character changes in the story. Who are they at the beginning, how are they different at the end? How can you reveal both these things through action? What bit of wisdom do you want this arc to reveal to the audience?
If you’re struggling with a piece of writing, take action! Think about these five craft issues. Does your story have a strong enough “hook?” Do you have a hero with a powerful goal and a meaningful arc? A determined and forceful “bad guy” to create rising conflict?
Not surprisingly, all these problems are related, and sometimes just finding the key to solving one, can help resolve the others.
Have fun making your story stronger!