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Naomi Hughes @NaomiHughesYA
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Time for another writing craft thread! Since I only have limited time today (and am still recovering from a sinus infection), how about something broad? Say, the top 5 story problems I see as an editor!
Number 1 problem I see most frequently in manuscripts: lack of agency. Agency = character's ability to push the plot forward with their actions/choices. A character with no agency is basically a pinball in an arcade game: reactive, without true power to drive their own story.
Most frequently, I see female MCs who have no agency. Or, equally problematic, who are written to SEEM like they have agency, but actually don't. Ex: the kickbutt MC heroine who beats up bad guys (that's action, but not agency) while her boyfriend actually moves the plot.
If you've ever been told your story seems too plot-driven (things just happen, and your characters must react to it) rather than character-driven (your characters MAKE stuff happen, then face the consequences), it's likely due to a lack of agency.
Disclaimer: for every "rule" or "problem" I mention in this thread there will ALWAYS be an exception. For example, some genre crime novels often rely on a MC who has little agency & who spends most of the plot reacting to the bad guy's actions. Diff genres have diff expectations.
One of my favorite resources on agency, what it means, and how to know whether your protagonist has it: terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/06…
Here's a great resource on agency & how it pertains to female MCs in particular. HINT: "strong female character" doesn't mean your girl MC has to physically kick butt (though she CAN if that's her thing!), it means well-written ladies with agency. terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/02…
Most common problems I see as an editor, number 2: weak opposing force. Aka, the villain is underwhelming, Truly Evil, one-dimensional, or there isn't even a true opposing force at all.
Your protagonist's opposing force can be LITERALLY ANYTHING. A hurricane! A bully! A dictator! Themselves! Any combination thereof (layer those conflicts, baby)! But whatever you choose, remember that an opposing force is arguably as important as the protagonist. Craft with care!
One thing I see really frequently (and did myself as a newer writer) is a Truly Evil villain. These guys and ladies do bad stuff just b/c... well, they're bad. Their goal is typically broad, vague, &/or impersonal. Their motivation is "THE EVILER THE BETTER, OBVS."
If your story's opposing force is a person, make their motivations & goals as personal & specific & measure-able as the protagonist's. Even if WE don't know what they want & why right off the bat, YOU should.
Unfortunately, another type of villain I see sometimes is the "they're evil because they're 'crazy'" kind. Guys. Don't. First, this "motivation" is lazy, illogical, vague & insulting. Second, this furthers incredibly harmful stereotypes about real-life people w/ mental illnesses.
Third most frequent problem I see as an editor: impersonal stakes. This usually happens when something like the fate of the world is at stake. It SEEMS big, but actually, it's too impersonal and broad to really make us *care*.
If your stakes are something big/broad like "the city might explode!" ask: what impact would this have on the protagonist that it wouldn't have on anyone else? How would it affect them uniquely? How is "the fate of the city" meaningful to them personally?
4th most frequent problem I see as an editor: starting the story in the wrong place. The "right place" varies WIDELY and depends on your specific story and audience/genre, but here are a few rules of thumb/pirate code guidelines...
Prologues are sometimes good, but the vast majority of the ones I see tend to be unnecessary, misleading, or cause de-escalation. And "chapter ones" that are actually just prologues in disguise: I see you. 😉
If you have a prologue, ask: is this really necessary? Does it really need to be the VERY FIRST thing my reader sees (you'd be surprised how little backstory we need before we can invest in the MC's right-now story)? Would I get more effect from sprinkling in these details later?
There's the bait-and-switch prologue, where you start out with someone we like who turns out to not be the MC (making readers feel cheated), or with a non-MC person we DON'T like (ie, the villain), which can make readers feel immediately icky & set the wrong tone.
There's the backstory prologue, telling us about the prophecy the night of the character's birth. Sometimes this can be a genre expectation (epic fantasy), but more often, it's not necessary & drags down the pacing. You can tell us later, after we've invested in the right-now.
De-escalation prologues tend to start in the middle of the book, then go back to the start.
Prologue: Everyone is dying! Something terrible is about to happen!!
Chapter 1: Let me tell you how it all started, 3 months back, when I was having a totally normal day at school.
De-escalation prologues can *sometimes* be pulled off masterfully, but IME that's the exception. More frequently they feel gimmicky & result in frustrated readers who are unwilling to wait to get back to the good stuff (or find it hard to engage in the intense opening action).
I also see the problem of a story starting too early (most common) or too late. The sweet spot is usually to give us a glimpse of "normal life" (but have the character working toward a relevant small-scale goal) before the catalyst shakes it up.
The final big story-level problem I see most frequently is in romance plots or subplots, when there's nothing truly keeping the would-be couple apart. Or alternatively, when the force keeping them apart is shallow, coincidental, or easily solvable by an honest conversation.
If you're looking for feedback on your story, I have some editorial openings in the next few months--and a special going on right now!
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