Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Six Simple Reasons Our Story Sucks & How to Fix It

Why is it so many new novels are—to be blunt—crap? How can we find an author we love with one book, then all the love goes away with the next? What’s going wrong? What’s missing? Where did everything go wrong?

How can we learn and do better?

First and foremost, to be an author it’s imperative to embrace some healthy sadism. We’ll chat briefly on this so the “wrong turns” in story can become far easier to spot.

We MUST Go Against Our Nature

Humans have all kinds of intricate biological wiring that propels us to AVOID CONFLICT/PAIN. Now this is great namely because our desire to avoid pain is what keeps us alive and gainfully employed. It’s also how many of us are able to endure the holidays when forced to see family.

This said, it is human to avoid conflict and to smooth everything over and civilization would implode if we didn’t heed our biology. We feel the rising anxiety and our nature steps in to “fix” everything and return to a nice comfortable homeostasis.

Avoiding conflict and pain can be healthy in life, but it spells death for fiction.

So here are a couple reasons your story might suck. Btw, remember while I have one finger pointing at you? Three are pointing back at me. I use these guideposts in my own work when I sense it’s starting to seriously suck.

#1—We Have Decoration Devoid of Substance

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Novels are not pretty sentences or even pretty words. Sure, it’s nice to have them, but they’re not entirely necessary.

It’s like a cake. Some cakes are so intricate they’re literally works of art, but cake is meant for people to EAT. So I’d much prefer a plain cake that is so yummy angels sing than to bite into a work of “art” and get a revolting mouthful of sugar-laden lard.

Same with stories. Stories, too, are meant to be ingested, to FEED us emotionally.

Fiction is about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS.

PROBLEMS are the “cake” of story.

I don’t emotionally connect to a cerulean sky or a painstakingly accurate description of a forest or an 18th century tea setting. I have zip-nada invested in an outfit, a garden or the layout of a room (that’s “icing”). Most people prefer cake with icing and readers like stories with description, setting, superlative prose etc. (though to the degree varies with reader preference).

All that “stuff” can make a story better, but they are NOT story, just like icing is not cake.

#2—We Have No Plot

Plot is basically a fancy way of saying we have a core problem in need of resolution (cake) and a plan (recipe) to do just that.

I cannot connect emotionally with a detailed description of a designer outfit, but I can connect with the woman who’s wearing this outfit. I don’t care all that much about the outfit, I care about the woman and the why behind the outfit.

What is she hiding? What is she up against? What must she face to become whole?

Is she in this outfit because she desperately needs a job? Because it hides the bruises from her emotionally and physically abusive husband who controls her life? The one she must find the courage (and job) to escape?

This is why I’m a huge believer in writers being able to articulate what their story is about in ONE sentence. If we can’t do that? Odds are we have icing and no cake. Or maybe a cake that’s half-baked or missing key ingredients.

#3—We Have No Clear Plot Goal

All stories have ONE CLEAR FINAL goal. And I don’t want to hear the BS copout of:

“Well, my story is literary and character-driven. Her goal is she wants to find out who she is.”

Aside from the fact that literary and character-driven stories don’t automatically get a pass on a plot, why do we care? What happens if the protagonist doesn’t find out ‘who she is’? Why is it important? What are the stakes? Why should I (the reader) root for her?

Besides that is the wrong question entirely.

Regardless of genre, the protagonist is never finding out who she is, rather what she is made of.

For that to happen? We need a PLOT PROBLEM.

Clear plot problems offer context. If I (reader) have not been clearly shown the story problem, then I’ll be quickly bored because I lack context that makes any setback a setback.

It’s like showing me a guy driving off for a destination and not telling me where he’s going. Yet, if I know he’s driving to Canada from Texas, then accidentally turning down I-35 South because he’s arguing with his ex on the phone MEANS SOMETHING.

I can clearly SEE he’s headed for MEXICO, not Canada. The wrong turn means something and so does every setback which creates bigger and badder problems (which turns pages, btw).

By DEFINITION a setback can only happen when there is an actual goal.

We need a Death Star, a Mount Doom, and a Labyrinth or….meh.

Same in character-driven stories. We root for Evelyn Couch in Fried Green Tomatoes because we know the final goal is her growing a spine. We know she has “won” when she stands up to her bullies and to the husband who’s disrespecting her.

Bad situations are not a plot. It’s soap opera writing. Soap operas get forty years and go into infinity. Novels don’t have that luxury.

#4—Too MUCH SUGAR

We’re being way too nice. I see way too many new manuscripts and the reason they’re boring the paint off the walls is nothing is happening and everything is too easy. Everyone gets along is super sweet and lots of colorful pretty descriptions and empty calories that make us sick.

Humans have fears and faults and failures that will collide, especially under pressure. I see far too many manuscripts where nothing is happening. People talking.

Description not friction. No friction? No traction.

#5—We’re Making it TOO Easy

Yes, your protagonist has ONE core story goal in need of resolution, but there should be a ton of hardship, suffering, setbacks and pain along the way. Our protagonist must work for everything and earn every reward, even the small ones with blood, sweat and sacrifice. NOTHING should be easy. Ever.

Authors deal in solid gold rewards, not plastic participation trophies.

If our protagonist is being spoon fed the answers (dreams, journals, letters, flashbacks, “super helpful” ancillary characters) that’s cheating. If the protagonist is rescued constantly by others and it never pushes any pain points? Where’s the glory in that?

When I was in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, most people don’t last a month. Most females never make it past white belt. It takes a YEAR to earn blue belt. I had to do this grappling men twice my size.

It took me a year and a half of busted lips, blood, bruises, and strains. It also cost me a broken nose and a dislocated knee…but guess what’s framed in my office?

I can tell you that had I been handed a blue belt for attendance, it would be in some junk drawer along with the piles of other worthless awards.

Same in fiction. We revel in the protagonist’s victory only when the title of “HERO” is earned.

#6—We Forgot to Turn on the Heat

The greater the stakes the better the story. No heat and we don’t have cake, we have batter. Same in fiction. Turn on the heat.

A friend of mine had a brilliant idea for a story, but her niceness kept killing it. She emailed me that her story is about an artist who has five years to make it in NYC or he has to return to his family’s house-painting business.

I replied: NOOOOOOOOOOO!

If our artist has five years in the beginning? We aren’t too worried. There’s time. But if we know he’s at the end of five years and has only one final narrow window? Everything changes.

If the stakes are he returns to an occupation close to what he loves (painting) and also limited seasonally (house painting in NY) it isn’t that big of a deal. He can dream away what he longs to create while on a ladder touching up eaves. He also will have seasons he can still create art.

But, what if he’s returning to a job that is not only the opposite of what he loves, but can potentially drain every creative molecule from his soul? A stressful occupation that might just kill him with seventy-hour work weeks (accounting firm)? Or physically endanger his hands/ability to paint (family auto repair business)?

And while we are at it? He’ll have to return to a family that never really was supportive and will be delighted he failed and relish rubbing it in.

NOW we have a story 😉 .

Crank up that heat. Shorten timelines and up the stakes, both physical and emotional.

If your protagonist fails, it isn’t simply a failure, it needs to be an extinction event.

In the end, I have a mantra: Make it worse until you make it weird.

What are your thoughts? Have you been too easy on your characters? Maybe indulging in flashbacks to “explain” why a character is a certain way instead of making the reader work to uncover it? Have you been too nice? Unclear? What ways can you wind that tension tighter? Shorten the timeline or up the stakes? We only will value what COSTS a lot. No one values free and easy 😉 .

I love hearing from you!

For the month of AUGUST, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

July’s winner will be listed next time I post. Sorry, lots to do getting ready for New Zealand and I am behind.

****And MAKE SURE to check out the NEW CLASSES classes below including the final class I will teach before taking off for NEW ZEALAND! I’m keynoting there for the Romance Writers of New Zealand, which while SUPER COOL….I’d be lying if I didn’t say the trip wasn’t making me more than a tad nervous.

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes but it not necessarily limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror, utopian, dystopian, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction.

Basically, all the weird stuff.

Gizmos, gadgets, magic, chainsaws, demons, fantastical worlds and creatures are not enough and never have been. Whether our story is set on Planet X, in the sixth dimension of hell, on a parallel world, or on Earth after Amazon Prime gained sentience and enslaved us all, we still must have a core human story that is compelling and relatable.

In this class we will cover:

  • Discovering the core human story problem.
  • How to plot these unique genres.
  • Ways to create dimensional and compelling characters.
  • How to harness the power of fear and use psychology to add depth and layers to our story.
  • How to use world-building to enhance the story, not distract from it.

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here). $45.00 USD. Wednesday, October 11, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Painting With Words: Using Description and Sensory Details. $40.00 USD. Saturday, Monday, October 9, 2017. 7:00-7:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Social Media for Writers. $35.00 USD. Thursday, October 19, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Harnessing Our Writing POWER---The BLOG! $50.00 USD. Thursday, October  26th, 2017. 7:00 p.m.--9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

37 thoughts on “Six Simple Reasons Our Story Sucks & How to Fix It”

  1. CaiCai

    This is exactly what causes me to stop reading some ‘new to me’ authors – they have great characters but I just don’t care because there’s just no real plot! I follow something heard in a workshop years ago – if your main characters can sit down and discuss whatever is bothering them and resolve it, there’s no conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s no plot. If your characters are “perfect,” no one will give a shit about them. Make them fallible, make their problems something that cannot be ‘talked out’ and then you have A STORY.

  2. Stephen H. King (TOSK)Stephen H. King (TOSK)

    Awesome post today — it does a good job, I think, of distilling story problems into easily-digested chunks.

    Question, though — do you think any story is un-fixable? I’ve got one, a coming-of-age about a farmer’s son, that just keeps haunting me with “I have to fix this” and yet when I dive in I get a “I can’t fix this” sense.

    • Rachel C. ThompsonRachel C. Thompson

      make him a gay son dancer want to be in a far right farming town and his family really, really needs his help.

      Reply
      September 26, 2017
  3. Elizabeth DrakeElizabeth Drake

    Terrific summary, and many of these are mistakes I see in the Romance genre a lot lately.

    There is no real conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart. No reason for them to be together. No reason for them to fall in love.

    Last book I read I thought should’ve been over in about 20 pages. There was literally nothing I could see that was keeping the characters apart except for a series of contrived plot devices. *sigh*

    The other thing I’ve seen a lot lately is lust substituting for love, but that’s a different issue, I think.

  4. Doug AdcockDoug Adcock

    Thanks for the refresher on what’s needed. Although I’ve heard most of these ideas before, your post has made me look closer at my latest novel outline. I need to revise it with more problems for my protagonist. One question–when does piling problem onto problem become overdone (think action movie shoot-out, car chase, fist fight, etc.)?

    • Stephen H. King (TOSK)Stephen H. King (TOSK)

      Excellent point. I remember watching Gravity and thinking that same thing. I mean, there’s only so much you can do with two characters, but the problem-after-problem-after-problem thing got old, to the point where I fully expected a squad of alligators to chomp her up in the final scene.

  5. DeborahDeborah

    Excellent– bookmarked this, and have been tightening my plots and loglines accordingly.

  6. Evelyn M. HillEvelyn M. Hill

    Some authors are so concerned that their characters are too nice that they go to the opposite extreme and end up with a book full of unsympathetic characters. Conflict is necessary, but I want to like the characters, especially if I’m going to be spending a whole book in their head.

  7. Jo-AnnJo-Ann

    I do have a tendency to be too sweet to my characters! Argh…I know it’s not a good thing in a novel but it’s hard to let them get hurt, ya know?

    Great post and great advice, as always 🙂

    Have a great time in New Zealand!

    Jo-Ann

  8. Daphne HigbeeDaphne Higbee

    Oh my goodness, yes. I didn’t want to admit it, but this is exactly what I’ve been doing. My natural instinct is to avoid confrontation, and to defend those who are unfairly judged. So, I let my protagonist get in trouble, but then I immediately save him because I can’t stand to let him suffer for long.

    But recently, I started a new project based largely on my experiences in middle school, and I am finding it easy to make life ten times worse for my character than it ever was for me. It’s already much more interesting and emotional than my first book. Now, I can see exactly how I need to change that first story, and it mostly has to do with these points you listed.

    I, too, dislike decorative cakes.

  9. Angela Macala-GuajardoAngela Macala-Guajardo

    You don’t have to put my name in the hat. I just had to let you know that “everything happens for a reason” quote made me laugh out loud during my lunch break. I laughed loud enough that everyone in the office wanted me to share the joke. I read it aloud and got met with awkward silence. Guess not everyone appreciates your humor haha!

  10. Bonnie McKeeganBonnie McKeegan

    Perfect timing for me. It sounds like you’ve been reading the story I am writing but the chances of that are slim to nada ;-)! I am so appreciative of your wisdom during my huge learning curve here! Keep it coming!

  11. MandyMandy

    Very timely advice! Thank you!

    I need to work on narrowing my timelines. I want to do my characters justice and not sugar coat their lives or turn their trials into something meaningless.

  12. Lisa OrchardLisa Orchard

    We do hold ourselves back sometimes. I catch myself doing that all the time. I’m getting better at that though. I’ve added lots of problems in my latest MS. We’ll see how it goes! 🙂

  13. Gudrun FrerichsGudrun Frerichs

    Great reminder, Kristen. Now I have to go back and check my WIP. Being for months immersed in the story, it can be hard to see one’s shortcomings without a critique partner and a good editor.
    Regarding the New Zealand Romance Writers Conference… no need to be nervous. You have a great fan-base here and we can’t wait to meet you in person.

  14. Deborah MakariosDeborah Makarios

    I had the “everything’s too easy” problem with my first draft – so I made a list of every setback and diversion that could befall my MC that I could think of – and then I put pretty much all of them in.
    Have fun in NZ! A beautiful country, if I do say so myself. Sorry about the eggy smell – it’s only Rotorua, honest!

  15. Layla A. ReavesLayla A. Reaves

    Awesome post. Will definitely incorporate this in my latest WIP. *bookmarks*

  16. Linda CostarellaLinda Costarella

    Thanks for the great post Kristen. I may have learned much of this already, but I still find your blog to be helpful. Also, I like the personal analogies. Congratulations on receiving your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu blue belt! That’s quite an accomplishment.

    I’m working on my second book now — a middle grade novel. I’ll be editing it with your suggestions in mind. My first book is a YA novelette that I self-published in December, 2016.

    Have a wonderful time in New Zealand.

  17. Alice FleuryAlice Fleury

    You just convinced me to kill my Protagonist’s mother. AND while I was reading this, my villain, who kills her, has a rational reason why she did it. Thank you. I have been stuck here for several days.

  18. Susan GourleySusan Gourley

    You inspired me to think of another way to hurt my current heroine and put off the payoff.

  19. DawnDawn

    I think you know my weaknesses… I’m afraid to turn up the heat and my plot is lame.

  20. DianaDiana

    Make it worse until you make it weird. Love that. Bumper sticker material. Great post Kristen. Thanks again.
    Diana

  21. Suzanne LuceroSuzanne Lucero

    Kristen, you helped me with my plot–and I’m only minutes away, narrative-wise, to the first turning point in the story–but I STILL can’t boil the plot down to one log-line. My MC gets rid of one antagonist, only to find out the Big Bad Troublemaker is actually Loki, who is posing as her stepfather. I can get it with two sentences, but not one. Am I doomed?

  22. MaryannMaryann

    I’m saving parts of this post to remind me to stop stepping back just when the heat is getting turned up. For most of my life, I have avoided conflict and just recently noticed how it affects my writing. When characters need to argue and fight, I resolve that much too quickly. I revert back to that kid who hid under the kitchen table while my older sister and mother fought and threw things. I need to let my characters be the ones throwing things. Not the person under the table. Thanks for the great post.

  23. Beth BrubakerBeth Brubaker

    YES!! I love your no-nonsense voice, and completely agree that many books today are just not good stories. I can claim that because I wrote one!
    Thank God I never published it.
    It was during a NaNoWriMo, and I wrote over 100,000 words. My characters were good (first draft, so not awesome), but the plot was SO SLOW I almost fell asleep reading it when there wasn’t much action going on- and even when there was, I played timid and the writing didn’t drag me kicking and screaming into the scene.
    Did I mention the 100,000 words was only getting half-way into the story? Can you say ‘Major Editing’ boys and girls? I knew you could!

    Plot and I just Don’t. Get. Along. Another issue with another story I have is my main character. She is fully fledged in the beginning of the story- and she just isn’t likable. And I have no idea how to fix it, except for writing the entire darn thing over *shudders*. Awesome character, but she’s quite the overconfident bi…er not-considerate person. If she was a bad guy- I mean gal, her personality would fit better- but I want her to be the hero- kinda like Greg House- just not as self-destructive. Sigh.

    That being said, I have another book that’s a collection of short stories (funny life experiences, musings, and poetry) that’s humor based, and THAT is what I’d be sending you if I won. Not sure of you read that kind of thing, but I think it would be worth a read. Besides, the people around me are too darned nice to give a proper critique!

  24. IolaIola

    Looking forward to hearing you next Friday at RWNZ! What else do you have planned while you’re visiting us Down Under?

  25. Emily BiasiniEmily Biasini

    Always enjoy your posts. Love learning with a giant dose of laughter!

    !

  26. Heidi AyarbeHeidi Ayarbe

    Well, I’ve got three of those six down right now! *sigh* … the plot-impaired.

  27. Connie CockrellConnie Cockrell

    Once again, great post. I have two stories, (at least!), that have the problem of being “too nice”. Not knowing at the time what was wrong with them, I shelved them until I could figure it out. With experience, I know now what the issue is. I’ll have to start one over again from the start. The other — I don’t know. Perhaps I began it too early (like your friend’s artist story) or I’m pursueing the wrong overall problem. I still have to work that out. Again, thanks for these posts. I love them.

  28. Thomas EdmundThomas Edmund

    Nice post but more importantly where you going in NZ? Hitting the South Island at all?

  29. David RogersDavid Rogers

    Kristen, I liked this blunt, straight from the shoulder post. Very succinct, direct, and useful. Best

  30. Angela RandakAngela Randak

    Hi Kristen!
    I have a question. You always say that you need to be able to sum up your story in one sentence. Is that true of romance novels, too? It seems like I need two sentences: one that assures us that there is a happily ever after and one for the external plot. Thoughts?

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