How to Save a Broken Story
A truly broken story is one where the pieces of the story don’t come together in a coherent whole. Maybe the plot wanders and feels random, or maybe the characters seem more like puppets than real people. Or maybe one of a bajillion other reasons.
When that happens, we might wonder if the story is irrevocably broken or if it could be saved. And if saving it is possible, how would we do it?
As a long-time developmental editor (and before that, beta reader), 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.
But if we’re willing to put in the work, virtually any story can be saved. The question then is: What steps should we take to fix a broken story?
A Story Is a Puzzle
Let’s talk first about how stories end up broken. 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.
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.
9 Steps to Fix a Broken Story
How can we save broken stories? We need to take those pieces and parts that don’t fit and find a way to rebuild them into a coherent whole. *smile*
If we’re not sure where to start, these steps might help…
Step 1: Identify What We’re Trying to Say with Our Story
As a pantser (one who writes by the seat of their pants), I know that we might not know where we’re going with our story until we get there. What’s the character’s arc? What’s the theme? The answers to these questions and others along those lines often surprise me when I discover them in my first draft, and even for plotters, these specifics might shift during drafting.
So the first thing we want to think about in our attempt to fix our story is figuring out what we’re trying to say. What message do we want readers to come away with?
Step 2: Identify What Pieces Fit and What Don’t
For example, let’s say we’re trying to write a story about the power of friendship. In that case, we’d want to examine all the plot events, character insights, and story elements and ask: Do they tie into that theme or not?
- How does our plot reflect the idea of powerful friendships?
- What plot events are about something else instead?
- What about subplots—do they tie into friendships somehow or not?
- Are the plot or subplot events about other stuff a major part of the story, or are some of them minor?
- How do our characters—and how they learn, grow, or change (including their fears, wounds, false beliefs, epiphanies, actions, etc.)—reflect the idea of powerful friendships?
- Do any aspects of our characters undermine or distract from that idea?
- Do the main conflicts and goals tie into friendships?
- Are there any cause-and-effects, actions, or missing consequences that might create subtext opposite to our theme?
Not everything in our story will fit into our message—and that’s okay! Our stories can have more than one theme, and we want more layers in our story anyway.
But this process of looking at our story elements and seeing which ones tie into our message can help us see the “trees” we’re building our story with among the “forest” of a bunch of random plot and character pieces. *smile*
Step 3: Decide If We Have Enough Pieces That Fit
Now go back to those answers from above. Do we have enough pieces that do fit our message to make a complete story?
Like with our example, do we have something related to friendship that:
- forces our character to get involved with the plot?
- makes our character confront their fears?
- provides strength to our character that helps them overcome the main conflict, or exposes their failure?
- reveals important things about our character, such as their beliefs, priorities, goals, motivations, etc.?
- ties into the truth they learn or reinforce to the world?
If we have pieces that fit all of those functions, we probably have enough to make a story. But if we don’t, or if we want more pieces to play with, go to Step 4. Otherwise, skip to Step 5.
Step 4: Gather Other Pieces That Fit
Again, we don’t need—or want—every aspect of our story to tie into our main theme. Subplots, especially, are places where we often want to bring in other layers to our story and character.
But if we’re missing some of the functions needed to create a story in Step 3, or if we want more pieces to tie into our message, now is the time to brainstorm:
- Can any of the pieces from Step 2 that don’t tie into our message be tweaked to fit? For example, could a subplot about a family member be changed to refer to a friend instead?
- Or can we think of new pieces to write that would fulfill those functions from Step 3? Do we now have pieces for each of those functions?
Step 5: Assemble a Framework
Now that we have the pieces that will create a story, we can start putting them together into the basic beats. Beats are simply plot events (including character moments like choices, dilemmas, and questions) that drive a story forward.
Have a broken story? Here are 9 steps we can take to fix it... Click To TweetSome plot events change a story’s direction more than others. We even call them “Turning Points”—because the story turns to focus on a new conflict, obstacle, stake, or goal.
Usually, the main turning points of our story will tie into the message we want to share. So we can see if we have pieces that will fit the major turning points.
For example, a single story event—the protagonist loses their job—could be any beat in a story:
- In a story about a character looking for a new job, losing their job would be the Inciting Incident (because it starts them on the path of the story).
- In a story about a character deciding to pursue their dream career, losing their current job would be the End of the Beginning (because it forces them to commit to the story goal of following their dream).
- In a story about a character risking their job to pursue the story goal, losing their job would be the Midpoint (because it makes them reevaluate the costs vs. the stakes).
- In a story about a character desperately trying to get by, losing their job would be the Black Moment (because they’ve just lost everything they’d been fighting for).
- In a story about a character trying to find the courage to follow their dream, losing their job would be the Climax (because it triggers their ability to do something they couldn’t do before).
In other words, it’s not the event itself that determines which beat it is. It’s the effect of the event that lets us know where we are in our story. The context makes all the difference.
Once we know that effect, we can go back to that list of the functions of the beats:
- Are they committing to the story goal for the first time? End of the Beginning
- Are they reflecting on what it will take to win now that they have a fuller picture of what they’re up against? Midpoint
- Have they lost all hope and completely given up? Crisis/Black Moment
- Is this part of the big final showdown? Climax/Finale
Step 6: Fill in the Blanks of Plot and Character Arcs
With our basic framework, we now go and fill in the blanks with other elements of our story or brainstorm new ways to get from point A to point B.
Stories are about change, about our characters solving problems and learning/growing. Our knowledge of how the story ends can help us build a plot and character arc to lead to that point:
- How to brainstorm plot events to reach the ending.
- How to build a character arc by establishing contrast.
At this step, we might also decide to further tweak our ideas from the previous step to strengthen how well it fits in with the function we need. For example, with a plot event we’re using for a Black Moment, we might deepen or emphasize the emotions or add more layers of doubt to our character’s reaction, etc.
If we have left over scenes that don’t fit into our message, we have to make a choice:
- Do they illustrate another compelling aspect of our plot or characters? If so, we might want to keep them if we can find a way to link them in the cause-and-effect chain of our story in the next step.
- Do they distract or undermine the message of our story? If so, we probably want to cut them from our story.
Step 7: Smooth Out the Cause-and-Effect Flow
When stitching so many aspects of our story together, we might end up with plot holes and false starts and dropped threads. One of the best ways to find and prevent those issues is to ensure we have a smooth story flow.
A causes B, which causes C, etc. Each event builds on the events that happened previously, and later events will be affected by what’s happening now.
To test for this flow, we can take our story pieces and make sure events and scenes are connected by a “Therefore” or “But”:
- If one plot event or character reaction causes another (or causes a decision or response in another scene), we could tie them together with a “Therefore” or a “So.”
She fell asleep, therefore she wasn’t manning the controls and the blimp blew up.
- If one plot event or character reaction causes a setback from previous events, we could tie them together with a “But.”
She fell asleep, but the blimp blew up over her house and woke her.
- (Note: “But” isn’t just about something unexpected happening. The “But” should impede the goals or action of the previous events in some way and cause conflict. See Janice Hardy’s post for more about this point, with examples.)
Scenes that are connected by “And Then” (She fell asleep, and then the blimp blew up) can be red flags for random or episodic writing. Most of our scenes should be connected by a cause-and-effect chain.
Step 8: Ensure Stakes Are Rising
We then want to make sure our story builds to a satisfying conclusion, and one way to do that is by strengthening the stakes as our story moves forward. Simply put, stakes are the consequences for failure. If our characters don’t reach their goal, what will happen?
Failure should result in negative consequences. Something bad should happen. If there are no consequences for failure, the reader has no reason to care about or root for a certain outcome.
But stakes usually don’t (and probably shouldn’t) start with the threat of death. After all, there’s a limit to how things can get worse from there. That’s why we need to think about how we’re going to raise the stakes during our story.
- making them “bigger,” such as the difference between not getting a top job vs. not being able to get any job
- making them more personal to the character, such as requiring more difficult decisions or sacrifices
That said, stakes don’t have to increase every scene. Some scenes can reinforce stakes, reminding readers of the risks. Or scenes can deepen stakes, with the character becoming more involved with the same risks.
Subplots have their own consequences, which might be lower than the stakes of the main plot. That means stakes might decrease from one scene to the next if the story changes focus to a subplot. However, within each subplot, the stakes will increase.
Subplots are often a good place to let our characters fail completely with no opportunity to “fix” the situation. Dealing with the consequences of a subplot failure can maintain the story’s tension in the middle act, and our protagonist’s failure in one situation can make the other stakes seem more possible too.
Step 9: Fill in the Blanks of Storytelling
Once we have all the previous pieces in a good spot, we can fill in our storytelling with other elements that will make our story more compelling or engaging.
For example, now that we know how the story ends, we might add in foreshadowing or hints that build tension, dread, or anticipation. Or we might focus on increasing the sexual tension between a romantic couple, showing their internal debates and longings, etc.
We can check for:
- Clear motivations/goals
- Strong emotional turning points and reactions
- Strong pacing
- Multiple reasons for every scene
- Strong/logical conflicts
- Etc., etc.
In other words, our last step is to fill in layers that act as glue—both between the other elements and between the reader and our story. *smile*
Have you ever struggled with a broken story? Were you able to fix it, or did you abandon the story? If you fixed it, how did you approach the revision? Do you have a different process or advice to share? Does this post help give you insight into how to approach fixing a story?Pin It
Ouch! I have not had one of them yet. If in doubt I let the characters decide where to go; they seem to find their way.
This is a great list, Jami–saving for reference!
Yes, identifying the theme and making sure that was consistent. Also, making sure the main character solved the problem.
I realized that though I pants all the time, and my plots tend to be complex, I never (or rarely) write “and then” scenes. Something happens always because something caused it to happen. If there is an “and then” scene, it would be good to connect it to a previous scene somehow, or to have a previous scene foreshadow an event in this scene. Continuity feels good in fiction.
Yes, there’s a reason I write my scenes in order. 🙂 It really helps me keep the story’s logical flow.