September 20, 2018

Brainstorming Your Story? Proactively Avoid Issues

Foam head embedded with screws with text: Prevent Issues with a Brainstorming Check

When we first start coming up with story ideas, we often want to remain as open-minded as possible. The craziest brainstorming can result in the most unique stories. *grin*

But at some point, we have to take those various thoughts for our story and assemble them into ideas that we can actually make work. Depending on where we fall on the pantser (those who write by the seat of their pants) to plotter spectrum, that assembly and planning step might be as detailed as a scene-by-scene outline or as vague as a notion of the type of story we want to tell.

Can we avoid major story issues by doing a Premise Check before we write? Click To TweetEither way, this point in our writing process is the perfect time to avoid major storytelling issues down the line. No one wants to finish drafting a story and discover that a character aspect or plot point that the whole story hinges on needs a major rewrite to fix.

It’s far better to proactively be aware of potential major story issues before we get too invested in words that will need to be cut. And that means we might want to include a step in our writing process to question what story issues we might run into before we write too many words.

The Usual Suspects with Major Story Issues

In both the plot and character aspects of our stories, we can stumble into major problems. Below are just a few of the things to watch out for…

Plot Issues to Avoid

A plot point that…

  • lacks a cause or trigger
  • fails to create a reaction or result in change
  • leads to reactions that don’t flow or fit the cause
  • lacks logic or doesn’t make sense
  • doesn’t fit the world we’ve created
  • contradicts the story on the time, place, or characters involved
  • distracts from the story we’re trying to tell
  • doesn’t match what would actually happen (unless we have an in-story explanation that doesn’t feel too convenient)
  • contradicts what we’ve been told previously (again, unless we have an in-story explanation that doesn’t feel too convenient)

I’ve written before about how to find and fix plot holes, and the same steps can help us here. We especially have to watch out for creating more problems with our fixes.

During the brainstorming and story-planning stages, we might be tempted to go for the “easy” or contrived explanations for why things happen they way they do. We might hand-wave away problems, figuring no one will notice, or we might try to shoehorn in an explanation that doesn’t quite fit right.

But now is the time to make those fixes for real, before we commit to a story path with our time and energy in word count. *smile*

Character Issues to Avoid

A character aspect that…

  • lacks a motivation (or ignores their stated motivation when convenient for the plot)
  • isn’t consistent with their character development
  • undermines other aspects of their characterization (without an in-story, not-too-convenient explanation)
  • contradicts what we know or have been told about the character (without an in-story explanation what or how things changed)
  • makes the character feel too much of a puppet to the plot
  • distracts from the story we want to tell
  • undercuts the story’s stakes or consequences of failure
  • doesn’t allow for conflict or story tension
  • requires a character to act in ways that breaks reader trust or connection (unless that’s the point of the story)

We’ve discussed the many approaches we might take in developing our character’s arc. But it can sometimes be difficult to understand where or how unsustainable issues creep in.

Let’s take an example to explain… In a romance, the plot might require the heroine to feel alone at the Black Moment. Obviously, there are many options for creating that situation. It’s not unusual to have a “break up scene” at this point, fulfilling the “boy loses girl” scenario.

However, if our hero does something so awful, so unforgivable, so unfixable, readers will no longer root for our couple to get together. That will break the story.

Instead, we need an option that allows readers to understand, forgive, and maintain the connection they feel to the characters. During our brainstorming and planning phase, we can ensure that our characters are being true to themselves and the story, before we ever write a word. *smile*

Another Source of Story Problems: Biases

There’s another source of story problems that we often can’t fix on our own: story, worldbuilding, plot, and character aspects built on our biases.

We all have biases—that’s not the issue. The problem comes when our biases are unquestioned and can lead to harm for others.

For example, if we’re biased against people of a marginalized population, such as those of certain races, genders, sexual orientations, disabilities, body weights, economic situations, etc., we might cause harm if we write about characters of that population. We’re likely to mislead unaware readers into thinking our perspective is factually and uncontroversially accurate, and/or we’ll make readers of that population feel less than or attacked.

Preventing Issues: Part One

Yet at the same time, writing about a realistic world usually means that we need to include some aspects of diversity in our story. So what should we do?

But That Might Not Be Enough…

But none of that is a cure-all, as our biases can make us blind to the stereotypes and poor sources we might rely on. We usually don’t know nearly as much as we think we do, and if we rely on just our instincts, we’re bound to make harmful mistakes.

Even if we later bring in Sensitivity Readers, we’ll still run into several major problems:

  • If our sensitivity reader finds issues, they’ve potentially been harmed by our bumbling.
  • They might not feel comfortable telling us about the problems they find, especially if the issue resides all the way down to our premise, as they might worry about a “shoot the messenger” reaction.
  • Depending on the depth of the issue, we might need to rewrite significant portions of the story, or potentially even scrap the whole thing (such as if the premise itself is problematic, like a Nazi romance).

Preventing Issues: Part Two

All that is why I loved an idea Heidi Heilig proposed on Twitter the other week:

(Check out the whole Twitter thread (including replies) for this great idea.)

In other words, just as we might check for plot or character holes before starting our drafting process, we might spend an hour or so in a consultation to check for issues in how we plan to incorporate or portray a marginalized character before starting to write. Checks at this stage would cost less, prevent harm to our readers (including our sensitivity reader), and most beneficially to us, avoid major rewrites or even losing a whole project that’s unfixable.

So the next time we’re working on fleshing out a story idea, we might want to add a step to our brainstorming/planning process. A Premise Check can focus on plot holes, character development issues, and problems with our plans for depicting marginalized characters—and everyone will benefit from better stories. *smile*

Before you start to draft, how much do you think through potential high-level issues with your story’s premise? Have you discovered plot holes or character issues at this stage? Or were you able to fix major problems in your story before writing them out? Do you think a Premise Check that includes a consultation for potential problems with marginalized characters would be beneficial? Do you have any suggestions to improve this idea?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Deborah Makarios

Looking back over my work so far, I think the group I most frequently portray negatively are INTJs – because when I write an antagonist, I’m looking for someone efficient, strategic, effective… someone who makes for an intimidating adversary, in fact. (Though I’ve never had an INTJ beta reader complain about this!)

All joking aside, I can see the value of having sensible sounding boards at both ends of the process. At the beginning, to make sure you don’t choose something damn stupid (Nazi romance???) for your premise; and at the end, because unconscious biases don’t always come out of the woodwork at the rough outline stage.

On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who thinks an unrepentant white supremacist would make a great romantic hero, maybe rewriting your book before publication isn’t your biggest challenge. It’s rewriting your heart. (Because if you don’t, you’re either going to be widely reviled, or pretending to be someone you’re not for the sake of your career.) Change your heart – don’t just change your book to disguise it.

Of course, most problems, I think, are caused not by lack of heart but by lack of knowledge, and we all know what the solution to that problem is!

Glynis Jolly

Reading the section on biases, a question came to mind. What if your story has to do with a situation that does have a bias in it [in the real world] that does play a part in the story but is not part of the plot? I would think the writer has to address the bias as it is in real life to make the story authentic. What is your opinion on this?

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Good points to get issues resolved early. You can still change at edit time but then you have to catch every instance. Suppose you decide that early baldness was a good tweak for your hero and he would feel unhappy and insecure, you would then need to check for any point where his hair was described, or he looked in a mirror. By the end with luck you could pretty much ignore the emotional issue as he realises there are more important things to worry him.

As for negatively stereotyping a person of diverse type or group, every time I have a character of some diverse type do something bad or be suspected of it because of their type, I will balance that by an example of a character of that type who is a benefit to society. You can leave a gap between them but not too big; and try to balance the actions or negativity well or demonstrate that stereotyping is not ideal for your characters to do.

Morgan H.

You’ve convinced me to have a sensitivity consult before I try to clean up a super rough draft I have.

Which is better: a – to show the rough draft in all it’s “dear gods, this needs edits” or b- to create a chapter by chapter synopsis to discuss the factors that need sensitivity?


About writing diverse characters, I thought of a potential issue. What if you are a part of this minority group, but you do not mention it in your author bio? (For whatever reason.). Some readers might say they are not comfortable with someone outside of the community writing this diverse character— which would be sad, because the author is in fact a part of that community; they just did not reveal their identity in their author bio. For safety reasons, I would not mention in my bio that I’m on the autism spectrum. But what if I write about a character who is explicitly identified as autistic, inspired by my personal experiences as an autistic, and someone believes that I am portraying them incorrectly? (Sometimes, a person in a community can have stereotypes and preconceived notions about how people in this group must be like too. For instance, the trans folks who invalidate the trans people who don’t want to do medical transitioning, sigh.) I also don’t mention in my bio that I am on the aromantic and asexual spectra, because I think that is too personal. Again, yikes if any readers believe that I’m portraying any aces or aros inaccurately, when I’m actually just writing according to my own experiences as an aro ace… There are also tons of preconceptions about asexuals and aromantics that are not true for everyone in the community. I can imagine criticism against an aromantic character who later marries someone. Not all aromantics are…  — Read More »

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