How to write a book · Rewriting

3 ways writers fail to get maximum impact from a story – and what to do instead

13155461724_8107915efc_bNovels in progress will always have rough patches and individual quirks, but there are certain common issues I routinely see that have quite simple fixes. Here are a few – and they can make a big difference.

Crucial event is underplayed or buried

Does an event change a character’s emotional state or world view? Does it make them change what they want, or strengthen their resolve? Make sure you haven’t buried it in a hasty paragraph of background or other explanation. These shifts in priorities are milestones in the story. Try showing them in real time so the reader experiences them. If a key event happens before the story timeline, consider making it a flashback.

Big reveal… falls flat

Is your big reveal a damp squib? I’ve read many climax scenes that fail to ignite, but I can tell the author was hoping they would be a thunderbolt. On some level, they know what they want … but they haven’t clarified it. Often it helps to dig into your ideas about why this moment will be so important. Write a mission statement – what do you want the reader to feel when they read this scene or revelation? Freewrite and brainstorm – you might not have given it much thought before now. Once you know what effect you’re looking for, consider what you should add in the earlier parts of the story to make it happen. Does it give the main character some important answers? What answers? And have you asked the questions earlier on? Is the moment a bigger, thematic connection, a sense of order being restored? Look back in the text – have you established a sense of instability, the world gone wrong?

Plot events make no sense

Are your plot events believable? If not, it may be because you haven’t established a plausible motivation, or given context. If we don’t know why a character does something, their actions  might seem random or even dumb. What happens is important, but why is more important. Sort out the why – and you can make us believe pretty much anything (usually).

Thanks for the aurora borealis pic Patrick Shyu

Have you had to tackle any of these issues in your work? Have you spotted them in someone else’s – or even in published books? Let’s discuss!


These tips have come from my mentoring work with writers. If you found them useful there are plenty more in my books on character and plot … and let me discreetly mention that a set of Nail Your Novel paperbacks makes a terrific present for other scribblers you know, or even for yourself…

15 thoughts on “3 ways writers fail to get maximum impact from a story – and what to do instead

  1. Roz wrote: “*What* happens is important, but *why* is more important.”

    Spoken like a true character-based writer. This is also my favorite line of the article.

    I think it’s all about passions and motivations. P&M justify action–even irrational action. One of my favorite writer sayings is “every character is the hero of his/her own story, including the villain.” When you come at the story from that perspective, you don’t let your characters do things that are “out of character.” It’s actually hard to write scenes that aren’t believable unless you have characters do something that isn’t informed by their P&M.

  2. ‘What happens is important, but why is more important.’ YES! So many writers seem to think that ‘show don’t tell’ only refers to events, but laying a trail of motives is even more important, imho. You don’t have to write the great psychological novel, but you do have to make your characters feel real.

  3. I thought the manuscript I was working was ready to be submitted until I got it back from my last first reader.
    Why would that nice guy do that horrible thing? She asked in her notes.
    Nice? Nice?
    Time for a re-write.

  4. Thanks, Roz.

    I find that problems like this become obvious if I put my work away for a few weeks and work on something else. Then when I open the file and edit with a fresh perspective, the weaknesses reveal themselves.

  5. My sci-fi-in-progress definitely has the first two issues. I kinda know what to do about it. Recognition is the first step so I’m at least halfway to fixing it. 🙂

Your turn!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.