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How to Perk Up a Saggy Story

I wanted to show you a great way to brainstorm a full 50,000 word novel before you ever even put words onto the story's page, or if it's already in the middle somewhere and starting to sag. A lot of people start out with a great idea and know it's awesome and they want to write it, and then come close to the end of the thing around 20-25k and think, "damn, this story is no good, there's no way I could get that many more words, I have failed", etc. Many times this is because the writer did not take time to build the character or the world in which they live. Below is a great exercise to turn your story into a success, either right from the start or, if you're lagging on one, as a means to rescue it from self-destruction.

FLESH OUT THE DETAILS

A. Write down the full idea for your story as a synopsis so you don't lose track of where you want it to go.

B. Flesh out the characters by getting inside their heads and knowing how they tick. I mean literally determine favorite color, food, song, place to live, etc. Go to some dating site that does those personality tests and borrow their questions to ask this character. Design other space related questions if this is outer space sci-fi, ask elvish type questions of your fantasy character, whatever.

What does he do, how does he feel about doing it, how often is this work expected of him, what does he wear to work, does he wear different clothes away from work? Does he feel like he's accomplishing something or like he is wasting his life, does he feel fulfilled?

Don't fall into the idea that only unfulfilled people work for creating a conflicted story. You can easily take a single person who believes they are fulfilled into a situation where they begin to realize they weren't as fulfilled as they'd thought, and do they want to add this other person into their lives? The other person may shatter the perfect world they were in rather than improve it, and in the end they still come together. Or alternatively the story could just as easily be about a couple who realize it's time to part, and your job is then to show why they think it is working, and then how they realize it isn't.

C. Research or world-build all the places these people are likely to interact. Just knowing they're going to go to some restaurant isn't enough to build a great scene. Even if you don't use the info, figure out what the restaurant looks like, where it is physically located, what decor it's likely to have, what kinds of clients may be sitting around your table, if they have just table or also have booths, what types of foods will be served, and if the wait staff is good, bad, rude, happy, irritating, inept or whatever.

Likewise if they are going to go climb a mountain, fictional or otherwise, determine the height, plantlife, animals, weather patterns, and reputation for how easily it can be climbed. The better you can see settings yourself, the better you are able to show those settings to the reader.

STRUCTURE THE STORY

Armed with fleshed out characters and locations, now your best bet is to structure the story before you begin. Here are a few tips to prepare your novel before you begin to write it.

A. Before you can write a really long novel you are better off to decide why the story needs to be told. What do you think the reader wants from this fiction? If it's action you need to make the writing fast paced to get their heart pumping. If it's a romance the reader will want to know how at least one of the characters is feeling in depth, how they are confused or comforted by the presence of their counterpart, how they decide if they want to be with the other person so they can feel satisfied when the protagonist gets what they want or what they need in the end.

Sometimes you can have a character not want any part of the other person because they believe they are all wrong, they threaten the way of life the person is used to, or the way of life led by the other person isn't what your main character wants for his or herself. I don't want you to say "protagonist doesn't like counterpart's lifestyle and decides not to pursue him" I want you to say, "protagonist is a doctor and counterpart is a race car driver. P is constantly worried about C getting maimed or killed because as a doctor P knows the kinds of injuries C could suffer. P is totally conflicted when C goes to hospital with broken leg. Wonders if they should break up but is totally depressed at the thought." Then I want you to imagine that C is the woman and P is actually a man. Then imagine if the race car woman is telling that story instead of the doctor. Play with all the possibilities until you get it the way you want it.

B. Make an outline of some sort containing the events you want to have happen in this book and the order in which you think they should occur. If you were to examine most books, you'll find there are certain parts that you absolutely must have, no matter what order you put them in. Protagonist's viewpoint on life, love, and everything. Protagonists opinion of Counterpart. How P met C, whether through action or flashback, followed by action or flashback depicting how or why they come together and stay that way or don't. A conflict that P has to deal with that may or may not involve C but which changes their thoughts and feelings in some way. A resolution to the first conflict even if by resolving the first you create another. A final resolution to all conflicts within the story unless you intend to write a sequel.

C. With the outline in hand, write each individual scene you just insisted had to be in there into a story. If in your first item you said, "P doesn't like their job" don't in your copy say, "P just quit their job to pursue an acting career". As the reader I will want to know:

1. can P act well enough to pursue an acting career?

2. what job did they dislike and why?

3. are there others in P's life who will be affected by the decision, like friends or family or even fellow workers?

4. Is P thinking clearly about the decision by things like already having taken a few acting jobs that paid so they know they can do the job or are they cutting off their income cold turkey?

5. If they are going cold turkey, are they also moving to another state, and do they have money to take care of themselves while trying to get work or have they got a place to stay or do they have money for a motel for a month and they'd better make more before the month is up etc.

6. If they've done other jobs, have they already got a job offer for something and that's why they are quitting. you get the idea.

D. Build up the back story of Counterpart just as much as you did P even if the story won't be told from his or her point of view at any time. P is still going to have to learn about this person's life and interests in the same way regardless of how the reader learns about them. Sure you can tell the story by going into P's head one scene and C's in another, but it's considered by the current industry as annoying when you switch the point of view inside the same scene--they call it "head hopping" and discourage its use.

So P wants to act. What about C? Fellow actor? Circus clown? Wallstreet entrepreneur? CIA agent? Sheik who has come looking for a wife and steals the actress away to his desert retreat? Alien from Mars who has no idea how to fit in and actress helps him learn to act more human so he can evade detection? Presidential candidate who recently divorced and many of the voters wonder if he's good presidential material if he couldn't even manage his own life? British pop singer cast in P's upcoming film as her steamy love interest?

Let's make this guy worth the time of the actress, shall we? Even if he's a street bum who shows her how to survive in L.A. when you haven't got a place to stay thanks to not getting a job? Even that could work if after establishing that you move forward with it by one or both getting jobs, a place, deciding to become a couple or not to, whatever you're going for. The reader wants to be invested in the feelings of at least P, hopefully C as well. They want to see P come out having learned something or accomplished something, even if she simply learns acting is not for her and the bum is no good for her and it's time to go home. Even if the story is that she gets caught up in criminal activity with bum and lands in jail for five years. You can't just establish that P goes to L.A. and meets a bum and call that the end of the story unless the story is all about her adventures on the way to L.A. and the bum is at the end of it all and put there to help her finally get on the right path again.

E. Now that you've got all that written down and your story has a clear purpose and direction, with well-built characters you know people will like to read about, including a protagonist, a friend or love interest to interact with, some sort of antagonistic character or situation they need to overcome, and a clear idea of how you want the story to progress, you're well on your way to your 50,000 words because your next job is to write miniature stories of at least 2,000 words for each scene you came up with.

You could do this by following the outline religiously. You could do this by starting in the middle and working your way backwards. You could even start at the end of the story and then write backwards. You could start with the end of the story and write the rest in order as a flashback. The point being, at least now you know what you're going to write. Sometimes as you go along new scenes spark from the ones you created or you decide the story could flow better in a different direction. Go ahead and experiment, but be sure to note the idea changes immediately so you don't get lost. Your work will be much easier if you do.

OUTLINES ARE ONLY GUIDELINES

As a final word, in case you glossed over any of this missive, please remember that outlines don't set your story into stone. Just because in your outline you wrote: A. Protagonist breaks leg and goes to hospital. B. Counterpart treats protagonist and wants to break up. That doesn't mean anything. You can easily decide there's obviously more to this and it needs a chapter or two explaining why the protagonist races and/or why the doctor worries, or maybe even one for each of them and a third in which they interact to express those feelings. Great, so write those into the outline above the part you have already and carry on.

Your outline is supposed to be your friendly reminder, not your evil task master. Keep this in mind and it'll be a lot easier to get those words onto the page. Good luck on your novel, and feel free to tell me how well you do.