Diagnosing Boring Stories


There are two ways to diagnose boring stories. Neither is easy. It’s hard to admit you’ve written a boring manuscript.

How do you fix boring stories?

Give your story to a reader. Several readers are even better.

In one sentence, describe your story.

(Character A) wants (B) BUT (Conflict C) prevents (Character A) from gaining (B) until (Character A) does (X, Y, or Z) to bring about (character arc/external change).

If you’re honest with yourself, when you look at your story regarding that one little old sentence, does your story sound that important to the grand scheme of things?

For example:

A little boy wants to play video games, BUT older kid prevents little boy from playing his video games until little boy practices hard to win his favorite game.

Does that sound fascinating?

No. It doesn’t.

It’s pretty much what goes on in most households across the world evert afternoon when school lets out. It’s mundane. While important to the little boy thwarted in his video game attempts, it’s not enough to have every parent worldwide sitting on their video game consoles to ensure freedom of joysticks everywhere.

Will this story sell?

Probably not.

Does it mean you can’t write this story if you’re passionate about video games and believe in the core idea?

Not at all. You should always write the story you believe in.

Try this on for size:

A little boy learns to play video games while older boy attempts to kill him because the older boy is jealous that little boy is a prodigy at video games and is quickly climbing the ranks in the school. Little boy applies the skills he uses to win at video games to real life situations and defeats older boy in life-threatening physical altercation then goes on to not only be the best strategist in the school but to save the entire human race from aliens using the video game that not’s really a game but actually controlling real space ships battling aliens.

Welcome to Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – one of the best selling and most popular science fiction novels of all time.

Do you think a reader will care about a little boy playing video games when an older boy tries to kill him over them?

Yes, a reader will.

What’s the difference between the two scenarios?

Murdering a child over a video game doesn’t fall within the range of everyday occurrences. The stakes are HIGH. Blisteringly high.

And how does our main character react? Not by getting better at his game, but by using his wits and courage to apply his skill to the presented conflict.

But is that even the end of the story?

NOOOOOO.

That’s only the setup for the rest of the story.

Now we’ve established this little boy is willing to do whatever it takes to defend himself, up to and including (assumed) murder.

The ending is set up, so the reader believes this child will do whatever it takes to defend the human race. We believe he has nerves of steel. We also believe he’s practical and a brilliant tactician.

And do we care?

Oh, we care.

Our main character’s already escaped death by a narrow margin. We’ve already been on the edge of our seat, and now, when the final battle commences, we’re so invested in his outcome that we can’t look away.

Do you see the difference?

But sometimes, you’re too close to your story.

Your history makes a story personal, and it matters to you, no matter how much or little it means to the outside world.

The other problem is that the story makes perfect sense inside your head.

You see the action unfolding in Technicolor detail.

But your reader isn’t inside your head. Any details you miss or deliver with sloppy exposition is missing in the reader’s experience. Essential parts of the story just might not be there for anyone except you.

Ask for critiques from trained alpha readers, or “wise readers” as Orson Scott Card calls them.

When asking an alpha reader to content edit your manuscript, ask if they care about your characters’ struggles.

Request that your reader jots down notes as they read. You need to know the exact places in the manuscript where your reader felt their attention wandering.

Where did they begin to skim? Where did their eyes glaze over and they have to fight the urge to get a cup of coffee?

Ask your reader if they felt invested in your main character.

Listen to their answer.

Take your reader’s feedback with a grain of salt.

Every reader has their personal biases. We all come to the table with preconceived notions, and even when we try our best to be fair and objective, we can’t help it. We’re human.

But also remember that most readers are going to cushion their feedback. They probably won’t tell you just how bad a story is. So if they hint that something is off, listen.

If you find a critiquer who can be both honest and constructive at the same time, hold onto that person for dear life. Be gracious and respectful of their time. This reader is worth their weight in gold. When they give you advice, take it to heart and make the necessary changes.

If you’re still looking for a wise reader or a manuscript critique partner, I suggest you head over to the forums and start looking. Little word of advice, always offer to reciprocate!

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