Fatal Flaws: Why Your Story is Falling Apart & How to Fix It

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Recently I blogged about the log-line, how it’s an incredible diagnostic tool for spotting flaws in a story idea. The brilliance of the log-line is the simplicity. As an editor/writing coach, I can zero in on a story’s every strength and spot every flaw with a single glance at the log-line.

How? Because the log-line is a prototype (a scaled-down model) of the final product.

Think about car designers. When they have some fabulous idea for the next car of the future, what do they build first? A prototype. It’s far easier and cheaper to see and fix problems when the car is small enough to fit on a table.

If a company sinks tens of thousands of dollars into a finished snazzy full-sized car, there’s a far greater level of commitment to keep going even when there’s that niggling sensation something isn’t quite right.


Because those involved in the project have already invested a lot of time and money. They also get too attached. Perhaps they fall in love with the color, the hand-stitched leather seats, and the pop-up digital displays.

In short, they become emotionally attached at the wrong point in the process.

There’s a heightened temptation to ignore problems and pray it will sort itself out. It’s much easier to start (and keep) throwing good money after bad. Sink more time into a disaster.

Same when it comes to building a skyscraper, office complex, condo community, etc. The first step beyond the concept and blueprint is to construct a scaled version (even if this is a virtual/digital model in 2018).

When developers and investors can see the final product—albeit miniaturized—everything changes. This abstract idea becomes concrete and flaws stand out waving red flags.

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Is the complex too close to a highway and the walls aren’t thick enough to meet code for sound-proofing? Can the building(s) be accessed easily from the highway?

Or, is the exit nine miles farther down making anyone who lives or works there have to double back and wend their way through a confusing maze of neighborhoods?

Is the art-deco-meets-minimalism idea something that seemed edgy and cool on paper? But, now that one can SEE the buildings, it looks more like a state prison had a baby with an insane asylum? These are things a builder/investor needs to know before they’re millions in the hole and the buildings are half-built.

Same with novels.

Problem With Pantsing

Lack of a clear prototype can create major problems when writing a novel. This is where we can run into trouble pantsing a novel (writing by the seat of our pants).

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, feel free to write any way you see fit. Yet, I will say pure pantsing is almost always a sentence for revision hell if you don’t at least start with a log-line. More often than not, there will be much tearing apart and starting over (refer to image above)…and drinking.

***Authors who are very good at pantsing with no preparation usually either a) began as plotters/outliners and know structure so intuitively they can plot by feel or b) have written and finished so many books they can write a sound structure by feel.

Either way, the pure pantster who doesn’t need a bazillion revisions is usually a highly experienced author…or an alien.

And my vote is alien.

Meet the PLOTser

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Anyway, outlines aren’t for everyone. I don’t like them either and refer to myself as a plotser. I’ve learned to start with a log-line and get that as solid as possible. THEN, I work out the major landmark points and once this is all accomplished, THEN I write.

The guideposts keep me focused on where I’m headed (eventually), but also allow some freedom for my imagination to play as well.

Sometimes on my way to a turning point I’ve pre-planned my subconscious will come up with something even cooler. BUT since I know the overall gist of where I’m heading?

No problemo. 

Log-lines can keep us on track. They can also make sure we actually have a story before we’ve invested tens of thousands of words into something that can’t be fixed without rewriting the entire manuscript.

I can’t count the number of clients I get who believe they have a finished novel, but what they really have is 80,000-100,000 words. Just because we have a lot of words doesn’t mean we have a novel.


A log-line prevents this reaction.

Often when I talk about log-lines I get samples like these (I am making these up, btw):

Despite being emotionally damaged, a highly trained warrior must fight for his people.

Oh-kay. Fight who? What? Why? This ‘log-line’ is actually a warning label: This ‘story’ contains random fight scenes with liberal amounts of tedious, self-indulgent navel-gazing.

That and if he’s a highly trained warrior, then fighting is what he already does well. So…all righty then.


A defiant prince travels to a forbidden moon against interstellar regulations and must explain to the High Council why he defied the rules.

So a defiant prince is being—wait for it—defiant. All right.

He breaks the rules and goes to a moon deemed off-limits. Yet, if we made this log-line into a movie, would we sit on the edge of our seats chomping popcorn breathlessly waiting for the ending?

Must explain to the High Council WHY he defied the rules.

Perhaps it is me, but Alien C-Span doesn’t seem terribly exciting.

Assuming the writers haven’t already committed 100,000 words to each of these stories, we can easily see how a good log-line might help.

Try Again

EXAMPLE 1: Despite being emotionally damaged, a highly trained warrior must fight for his people.

This is a statement, not a story.

Instead, how about…?

EXAMPLE 1A : A once-revered general, betrayed by his emperor, disgraced and sold into slavery must use all his skills to earn fame in the gladiatorial ring for a chance to destroy the ruler who killed his men and butchered his family (Gladiator).

Then there was:

EXAMPLE 2: A defiant prince travels to a forbidden moon against interstellar regulations and must explain to the High Council why he defied the rules.

How about:

EXAMPLE 2A: A sheltered prince left in the desert to die must lead an untrained and disorganized rebellion on a campaign to overthrow an oppressive godlike regime that controls space-time. (Dune)

What Makes the Difference?

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Example 1 flounders because it’s incomplete. Sure, an emotionally damaged warrior fighting is interesting but what’s the rest of the story? Without a core problem, antagonist, goal, stakes and ticking clock we have a statement…not a prototype for a full story.

Anyone who’s watched Gladiator knows Maximus is a highly-trained warrior and ALSO very emotionally damaged. The actual log-line for the movie from the IMDB is: A former Roman General sets out to exact vengeance against the corrupt emperor who murdered his family and sent him into slavery.

In one log-line, we have someone perfectly trained to do the job (Maximus) of taking out the emperor. Ah, problem is that despite all his advanced military training…he’s been betrayed, his reputation smeared, and he’s a slave.


Thus, there are a lot of barriers preventing the perfect warrior from accomplishing the goal using his standard approach. The writer (God) had to strip his reputation, his men, his family, and his freedom so we’d have an interesting story.

If the writers didn’t strip away almost every advantage that made Maximus a target to begin with, the movie would’ve looked like this:

A skilled fighter gathers his loyal legions, tells them the new plan and they all march on Rome and flush the crap emperor.

Sounds like a movie I want to lov—sleep through.

Same with our other log-line, Example 2.

No one wants to invest 12-15 hours reading a novel that ends with the equivalent of an alien congressional hearing. Ah, but change a few things and we have something… spicier 😉 .

Instead of casting an MC who’s immediately all-powerful and perfect for the job, Frank Herbert made his MC more of ‘the least likely to succeed’ type of guy.

Sure, young Paul Atreides has had some hand-to-hand training in the palace via Jean Luc Picard (Gurney Halleck) and mind-power lessons from Mom. Despite this, though, he’s more of a ‘play on my Caladan iPad’ kind of leader than a ‘sand in my shorts and ride the worms’ messiah-type.

Which is why the story is still AMAZING decades later.

Stories Have RULES

(If we break them, be sneaky or readers scream FOUL!)

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

One of the major reasons the log-line is so helpful is we can easily see if our story idea has all the necessary ingredients: an intriguing MC, an active goal (CORE story problem with a CLEAR GOAL), stakes, and a ticking clock.

Intriguing MC

The most common mistakes I see are that writers will a) offer a name only or b) give us only some uninteresting qualitative descriptor.

I shall demonstrate…

Joe must free the ship’s crew who are trapped in cryosleep if he hopes to defeat the alien threat and find the wormhole back to Earth.

All right. Sort of cool, but who the heck is Joe and why should I CARE?

Hint: I don’t.

The captain must free his ship’s crew who are trapped in cryosleep if he hopes to defeat the alien threat and find the wormhole back to Earth.

Better. It’s a neat story idea but weak. Big frigging deal. He frees his crew. Um, he’s the captain. Kind of his JOB.

How about, this instead:

When the captain of an interstellar prison transport’s systems are crippled in an alien attack, locking the crew and the most violent prisoners in the galaxy in cryosleep, he must choose between risking everyone’s life to repair the ship and defeat the alien threat or do nothing, thereby consigning the innocent and the guilty to certain death.

Yes, the log-line is long. I said try to get it into A sentence. Never said it couldn’t be a LONG sentence. But look at the difference. The first one with Joe is a bad situation and we don’t know Joe from Adam.

The second example tells us (Joe) is a ship captain, but he is simply doing his JOB. Not terribly interesting. It is ONLY when we toss in a painful and impossible choice that we have ourselves a fabulous story problem.

Obviously one can glean the alien attack disabled the captain’s ability to selectively wake only the crew. Thus, it becomes the lesser of evils.

A person who is duty-bound to protect the ship and crew has two options and they both seriously suck. One makes a fantastic story with a zillion moral implications…and the other is a French film.

They all DIE.

The End.


Casting is Essential

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Many new writers are uncomfortable with flaws and want characters to be larger than life and perfect. Larger than life is okay but perfect=BORING.

Do any of these stories sound interesting?

A brilliant surgeon finds a way to repair his destroyed hands.

An undefeated hockey team wins the gold medal in the Olympics.

The NYC ballet company’s most disciplined and committed ballerina lands the part of the White Swan and the Black Swan in Swan Lake.

Zzzzzzzzzzz. Let’s try again.

After the world’s most brilliant (and narcissistic) surgeon destroys his life, reputation, and hands, he must beg for help from those he’s openly mocked, but the cure comes with a cost and a crusade (Dr. Strange).

The worst hockey team to ever hit the ice must set aside their ego and all they believe they know about hockey to beat the seemingly invincible Russian squad in the 1980 Olympics (Miracle).

The NYC ballet’s most committed and disciplined ballerina must lose control of everything, including her mind and reality, in order to land the part of both the White Swan and Black Swan in Swan Lake (Black Swan).


flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Look at your story’s log-line and it should have an active goal. The MC can’t simply be flung along like flotsam by bad situations for the entire story. Sure MCs get tossed into the Life Vit-A-Mix, but by Act Two they start pushing back so they can be reborn as full-fledged heroes in Act Three.

Heroes eventually fight back and WIN.

When pondering your log-line, can you picture a film you wouldn’t dare get up for a bathroom break lest you miss how the story ENDS?

If there is a logical place to take that bathroom break anywhere in your story, TRY HARDER.


flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

What is at stake? What is the MC willing to risk, lose, give up for that which is BETTER? Life, reputation, sanity? What happens if your MC fails?

If Dr. Strange is unwilling to let go of what he believes he knows (his certainty) and humble himself, he’s doomed to life as a has-been surgeon with a shattered reputation and twisted hands. His life is a cautionary tale against hubris.

The only way to avoid this fate is to humble himself. Once he humbles himself, he realizes there are far larger battles than whether he’ll make it on a magazine cover. If he fails, the world is doomed.

In Miracle, if the team keeps training the way they always have, then they will again shame their entire country during the Cold War (when morale is crucial). The U.S. Hockey team is at a pivotal point: continue to be synonymous with LOSER or humble themselves and take a chance at being a MIRACLE.

Nina Sayers’ almost superhuman self-control is what makes her one of the best dancers in the world, but unless she lets GO of control she’ll never be THE best. She will never dance her dream role. Yet, everything comes at a price. Failure will cost her career and potential legacy…but success might just cost her sanity and her life.

The only question left to be answered is, “Will it all be worth it?”

Ticking Clock

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

Our characters shouldn’t have forever to do what needs to be done. Paul Atreides must lead the Fremen to victory before the Guild arrives with enough force to possibly put down the rebellion.

In Miracle, the team has until the 1980 Olympic games. Nina only has until the Swan Lake roles are finalized (ballerinas have a very short shelf life).

Notice how ALL these components ratchet tension and keep audiences riveted (turning pages). Can the unlikely, ill-equipped MC do what needs to be done in time? If the MC fails, what is lost?

***Hint: It better be BIG.


Back to our prototype. I hope you can now see how every part of the log-line is critical to the story working as a whole. We can look at each component and see if we can do better.

Conversely, if a story is flagging, this is a great diagnostic to help us work on the parts that are actually BROKEN.

How might we make it harder on the MC? Can we make the problem bigger, messier, seemingly unbeatable? Is it feasible to condense the timeline? How can we up the stakes? What MORE can we place in jeopardy?

Remember stakes ideally should be internal and external. What does it mean personally for the MC to win/fail? How will the outer world reflect winning versus failing? As far as this part of the log-line, go big or go home.

Readers are parting with very limited free time so we need to make our stories a good use of that time. No one wants to invest twelve to fifteen hours in a novel where, if the MC fails, he just tries again next year.

flaws, story flaws, how to spot structure flaws, self-editing for writers, Kristen Lamb, NaNoWriMo, National NovelWriting Month, pantsing and plotting, how to write fiction

I LOVE hearing from you!

Does this break down help? Maybe make the idea of using a log-line more appealing? Can you see how, if one component is faulty, it impacts the entire story?

If you’ve been struggling to write a query or synopsis, try starting with the log-line. It might a) make the job easier or b) reveal what needs to be repaired before you query.

I know this is a detailed blog, but I DO have a class NEXT THURSDAY on how to write query letters and the dreaded SYNOPSIS (and recording of class is free with purchase).

The FIRST TEN sign-ups get ME repairing, polishing their log-lines for FREE.

This class can be a game-changer for an author’s career. Even if we land an agent, trust me, they’ll ask for a synopsis for the next book and next.

Also, if we become skilled at writing synopses, we can write at a much faster pace. So, I hope y’all will join me 😀 .

Otherwise, what are your THOUGHTS? I reward those who share *group hug*

What do you WIN? For the month of SEPTEMBER, 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).

Upcoming Classes for September

Pitch Perfect—How To Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, September 20th 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?


Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn. Synopses are often requested by agents and editors and it is tough not to feel the need to include every last little detail. Synopses are great for not only keeping your writing on track, but also for pitching your next book and your next to that agent of your choice.

This class will help you learn the fundamentals of writing a query letter and a synopsis. What you must include and what doesn’t belong.

So make your writing pitch perfect with these two skills!

Brand Boss: When Your Name Alone Can Sell

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: General Admission $55.00 USD/ GOLD Level $175
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, Thursday September 27th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST





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    • Deborah on September 19, 2018 at 2:24 pm
    • Reply

    Great! Am writing now (in WANATribe) and am even more invigorated to put my MC under pressure. My last attempts crashed and burned because of the literary inertia. And yes, pantsing failed for me, too. Loglines have greatly improved my plotting.

  1. I hope that you do well with all of your classes. I am in the process of recovering from neck surgery and frankly, not being able to write or read for long has been a …well, too much of a cliche to continue.
    I hope that you have seen my message and invitation via messenger.
    Your examples of how to improve tag lines are wonderful.I hope that all heed your advice.

    • Jean Lamb on September 19, 2018 at 4:03 pm
    • Reply

    “Tameron must help a new wizard find the land he just escaped from, and risk recapture for his friend, along with putting his baby dragon in peril, as his family would really love her–and never let her go.” (needless to say, the friend is worth it, but sometimes just barely).

    But I’m glad I did this, because it helps me focus on the main issue more than my first draft does.

    So out with the tongs, the paring knife, and the ballpeen hammer…

  2. Possibly–I do recognize how high this bar is–this is your best, most instructive, most useful post ever.


    At least to me. I read everything you do, but this…man. This WORKED for me. I pants, as a matter of personal identity. But I’ll be french fried in beef tallow if I don’t logline my next novel before I start hacking away.

    I probably read ten-twelve writing articles a week. One in five gives me something I can use. One in fifty gives me something I need. This one gave me a lifeline.

    Bravo, lady.

    1. Awwwww *tucks you in pocket to keep you*. Thanks so much!

  3. That Bathroom Break test sounds very nifty. Thanks.

  4. You kinda just fixed my story. Not that it’s bad (it’s actually not), but I’ve been frittering around for the last few weeks, not really sure how to progress beyond the midpoint – I think the stakes just weren’t crystal clear in my head, like they should have been before I actually started writing. Stopping to write a log-line showed me the way through. I might actually finish this book before Halloween now. So … thanks a million!

    • Kim Frischknecht on September 20, 2018 at 12:57 pm
    • Reply

    This really helps a lot! I’ve been working on my log lines recently to help me pinpoint what actually matters in my story, and reading this post made me realize I’ve been to general (which makes for not very interesting ?). As a plotter who sometimes pants to get past roadblocks, I need a solid logline to keep my head straight (or at least attached – let’s be real, my head will always be oddly misaligned).

    I so wish I could sign up for one of your classes, and I would need your query letter one. But alas, money is a scarce resource as always and time is nonexistent. ??

    As always, looking forward to your next post (I just don’t usually comment!).

  5. I read this post twice. Now I’m going to read it a third time and take notes. You’ve convinced me why a brilliant logline is vital.

  6. You can’t beat a solid framing start such as a long line to hang a story on. I do that for all my sub plots and character’s arcs as well. It is good to know where everyone is going and why and what they will gain or loose. Good job.

    • Sylvia on September 23, 2018 at 7:05 am
    • Reply

    I think this is why I am struggling with the redraft. Thank you, really useful posts.

  7. I very much enjoy your blog. It’s been very helpful in my own writing and I would love to get your input on the beginning of the novel I’m working on.

    • Andrew Marcione on September 24, 2018 at 3:52 pm
    • Reply

    The first time you wrote about this topic inspired me to write a log line. This post motivated me to look at that log line again, edit it, and tighten the text. Thank you, Kristen, for always guiding us in the (w)rite direction!

  8. Wow, what a helpful post. I always used to approach log-lines as an afterthought, but this definitely makes me want to slow down and think them through. Great advice throughout! I’ve always been a pantser, but I find I can’t start anything unless I have the start and end first. I’m not sure I could do the logline before I begin since I’m never quite sure what the middle will be before I’m done, but it definitely seems like a logical first step before revision at the very least. I’ll have to think about it before my next project. Seems like it could save me a ton of time!

  9. Yes, this is a long post but it is an excellent exploration of the nuances in creating a log-line. I know it’s presented here as a way to guide a writing in creating or revising their work, but it’s also absolutely necessary if pitching one’s work to an agent . . . not to mention anyone you meet who asks “what’s your book about” and you either draw a blank or go into a gummy explanation that kills their interest. Thanks.

  10. Great post!

    I’m a plantser — with a single line ‘outline’ for each chapter, a goalpost, and the ability to ignore it all until I get stuck.

    Sometimes it takes writing the whole thing before you realize the heart and soul of the story — the theme or whatever you want to call it.

    Writing (or rewriting) the log-line after the rough draft can also be a super awesome tool for reorienting your story during your first round of revisions.

    • Scott on November 20, 2018 at 6:45 pm
    • Reply

    I had never heard of a log line until your class! When you asked me for mine, I was deer in headlights! I’m sure it showed. But that was such a pivotal lesson. I had about 90k words and a timid, anemic story. I scraped it and started over…with a log line! Learning so much. Love it!

    • robintvale (Jessica) on April 30, 2019 at 1:32 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you! this article is helping. This is what I have of the logline so far ignoring what I messed up.

    An unseasoned spirit adept is dumped into the city of Lionsgate to steal the Book of Pordicion, with the god Unnamed no longer bound in its pages she must find a way to bring it back to her home city Dentree to destroy the god before it destroys her.

    It could use a rewrite that is one long sentence. 😛 Still it’s doing it’s job.

    I think now I’ve got the know what’s going on part down it’s just getting there that’s the problem sometimes.

    I never even heard of log lines until I read it in your last article (and promptly ran away.) this artile going into mor delail helped me see what it is more, so yay.

    I better go save this log line so I ca refer back to it as needed. ^___^

    1. The problem is you are using specifics we don’t know or care about. For instance, LOTR: :”A naive and innocent race who’s never left home must traverse a dangerous land teeming with enemies and destroy a magical ring (in the only volcano capable of destroying it) before the evil necromancer who created the ring ravages their world and kills or enslaves everyone they love.” LONG sentence but I don’t use “Hobbits” or “Mordor” or any specific terms to describe the plot problem. Someone who has never read LOTR can follow this plot concept.

      Basically a team of untrained, unskilled and childlike “:heroes” have to make it through enemy lines to the other end of the world and not die before destroying an evil ring. We know the goal and we also wonder how the hell these guys got picked for the job and are fairly sure they are not up to the task…so we worry. This isn’t THOR carrying a ring. It’s basically Gilligan and the Captain. Thus, when juxtaposed against an evil necromancer, we already have huge stakes.

  1. […] Gold shows how brainstorming your story can proactively avoid issues later, Kristen Lamb reveals fatal flaws in story structure, and Janice Hardy urges us to take heart, because not all first drafts […]

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  3. […] Image source […]

  4. […] My greatest weakness when I was an emerging author was I struggled with structure. Structure isn’t sexy, but it is essential. If you struggle, too, I recommend my post Fatal Flaws: Why Your Story is Falling Apart & How to Fix It. […]

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