I do a lot of beta reading for friends, and sometimes they come to me with a question along the lines of: “I’ve really struggled with x aspect of this story, and I’m wondering if I should just abandon it. Can you take a look and see if this story can be saved?”
Here’s a hint about the answer I give them: I think a story can almost always be fixed. In fact, I’ve yet to see a story that couldn’t be saved with the right amount of work.
Some stories might take a heck of a lot of work to fix—ripping out subplots, reworking the conflicts, rewriting from a different point-of-view, etc. I’m reminded of author Therese Walsh and her tale of rewriting—from scratch—one of her stories three times.
Most of the time, we won’t have to start over with a blank page unless we find that method easier. Regardless, sometimes we might decide that a story isn’t close enough to our heart to be worth the effort. But if we’re willing to put in the work, virtually any story can be saved.
A Story Is a Puzzle
How can we save broken stories? Step one is figuring out what’s broken about it. *smile*
I see stories like a puzzle, made up of hundreds of pieces. When they don’t add up to a pretty picture, it’s because this piece is the wrong size or color and that piece is rotated the wrong way or upside down.
Or in writing terms, a story can be broken when the characters, arcs, pacing, goals, motivations, stakes, conflicts, plot points, tone, genre, themes, etc. don’t mesh well. Fixing a story comes down to being able to recognize how things are (or aren’t) fitting together—and changing them.
Can We Fix Our Own Stories?
Recognizing how elements aren’t fitting together can be hard to do on our own story. We see what we intended, and that doesn’t always match what’s on the page.
We don’t see a character as “too stupid to live” because we know why they’re doing what they’re doing. But to readers who don’t see those motivations on the page, the character can look foolish (or worse).
We don’t see that the ending comes out of left field because our knowledge of the actual ending overrides any thoughts of what else it might be. But to readers simply following along, the y plot events lead to the expectation of a z kind of ending.
Critical Feedback Can Point out the Broken Pieces
A good critique partner, beta reader, or editor can point out when they feel disappointed by the story. That disappointment usually indicates a problem with the story pieces not matching up well. (Assuming they’re not the kind of reader who just doesn’t like our story.)
With that feedback, we then need to identify the disconnect between their expectations and the writing. Some readers/editors will be able to explain their disappointment, and others won’t. For those, we have to read between the lines or ask questions to dig into their reaction. Are they…
Disappointed in a character or their actions? Check for:
- Unclear motivations/goals
- Being reactive and not proactive
- Impersonal stakes (nothing to justify their involvement)
- Missing emotional turning points (showing how they change)
- Subplots that distract rather than add to the story
- Weak character arc
Disappointed in a scene or general boredom? Check for:
- Lack of goals/purpose (no decision point or change occurs)
- Not enough going on
- Low stakes/tension
- Weak or illogical conflicts
- Slow pacing
- Missing consequences from previous scenes (broken cause and effect)
- Plot events not following story beat structure
Disappointed in the story’s ending or the story in general? Check for:
Once we know where the disconnect occurs, we can figure out the cause. Then fixing the story comes down to tweaking the broken pieces. And that’s the key: The story isn’t broken, just some pieces are.
The Pieces Create the Whole
Ever had the experience of changing one element in revisions, and suddenly needing to change a bunch of other things as a result? That domino effect is probably a good sign for the story. The puzzle pieces fit so closely that adjusting one requires tweaks to the connecting pieces.
The same issue in reverse creates broken stories. The pieces don’t fit together well, leaving plot holes a semi-truck could drive through and building inconsistent characters that ruin any sense of a character arc or theme.
Sometimes a bad impression of a character or plot event can be triggered by one line. But that means changing that one line can fix a whole bigger issue.
That’s why I say that virtually every story is fixable. If we know the pieces to change, we probably won’t have to toss the whole story and start over with a blank page. We can focus on the broken pieces and go from there.
My Personal Dilemma: To Edit or Not to Edit?
Long ago, Kristen Lamb accurately labeled me a “maven,” someone who collects vasts stores of information and has the ability to put that information into a useful context. Mavens look for patterns and can spot issues others can’t. My regular blog readers would probably agree with that definition for many of my posts.
Between those maven traits and my love of story structure, I enjoy analyzing stories and figuring out what’s not working. In other words, I find those broken puzzle pieces. Those skills are similar to a developmental editor or a book doctor in that I analyze the big picture of the story, plot, and characters.
I’d love to be able to help more people with those skills. (Mavens are pathologically helpful. *grin*) But I’ve limited those I beta read for because that kind of story analysis takes me more hours than I want to admit (way into the double digits per story).
So I’m considering whether I should hang my shingle and help people identify the broken pieces of their story for a fee. It wouldn’t be cheap. Developmental edits typically run $800-$2000 for a full novel, and while I won’t claim I’d catch everything a top-notch developmental editor would, I typically make at least 200 comments in the manuscripts I beta read. In addition to pointing out specific issues in the manuscript, I describe the overall issues with another 2000-4000 words in the email cover letter (comparable to an editorial letter).
Maybe people beyond my beta reading scope would want to pay me to help them figure out what’s not working. Or maybe they wouldn’t. *shrug* I already have a day job, so this isn’t about trying to make money off people. This would just be a way for me to help more people while making it worth my time. I’m open to thoughts or suggestions. *smile*
Have you ever given up on a story for being too broken? What made you decide not to fix it? Not enough time? Interest? Knowledge? Have you used a reader’s sense of disappointment to focus on which elements are broken? Do you have other tips on things to check when readers are disappointed in elements of our story? Any advice on whether I should offer my book doctor services?Pin It