5 Reasons Your Story Stinks (and How to Air It Out)

Bad Smell highres

A guest post by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

There’s no denying it.

Your latest story stinks.  It’s rotten.  A monkey could have written something more coherent.
Maybe you thought it was great while you were writing it, but after some cooling-off time you recognized its sub-mediocrity.

Worse: perhaps someone else read your story and told you it was fit for compost.
Where did you go wrong?  Why is your writing odoriferous, and how can you fix it?

Poo-poo Plot

Imagine you’re trying to describe a book to someone, but all you can think of is, “It’s one of those books where nothing happens.”

There’s a trend these days–in both short stories and novels–to write down a rambling road without a plot in mind.

That isn’t to say works can’t be more introspective than plot-based.  Sometimes the ‘happenings’ occur within a character, rather than externally. However, if you didn’t have a clear course of action mapped out before you began writing, your story might stink because its plot is poopy.

Think diapers.

There’s also a possibility that your plot is no good because:

  • It’s just plain boring
  • The stakes aren’t high enough
  • It’s totally unbelievable
  • It only appeals to a very small audience

In all likelihood, if your plot lacks power, the reason lies in poor planning.

Clammy Characters

There’s something fishy about your story.  The characters… well, they don’t seem to think, behave or talk like real human beings.

Stop and take a close look at the stars of your story:

  • Are they well developed?
  • Do they have believable motivations?
  • Do your characters speak using credible dialogue?
  • Are there so many characters your reader can’t distinguish between them?
  • Will people easily identify with them and their problems?

It’s irrelevant how gripping your plot is, if the characters who carry that plot aren’t real enough to speak to the reader.

Putrid Pacing

Pacing a story is a real art. You need a beginning, middle and end, but making sure you don’t linger too long at any given point is tricky.

When you read your manuscript, do you notice it takes forever to get to the important stuff?  Or, perhaps, there’s a bomb on every page and you quickly tire of too many major events close together.

Ask yourself:

  • Have I given enough background information on my characters or crucial information about their situations?  Have I given too much?
  • Did I foreshadow all major events?
  • Does my conclusion come too quickly after the story’s climax, or does it drag on too long afterward?
  • Have I created a great enough number of significant events to carry the story from the inciting incident to the climax?

Like plotting, pacing benefits from being organized and having a plan ahead of time.

Loathsome Language

Have you ever opened a book, read the first paragraph, and then scoffed at the lack of thought put into the language?

Remind you of your own story?  Consider the following:

  • Do you use the same words too often?
  • Are you going ‘thesaurus-happy’ trying to find new vocabulary?
  • Do you spend too much time describing things or people?
  • Have you overused adjectives and adverbs?
  • Is your language too frilly for your story?  Too sparse?
  • Have you resorted to using cliches?
  • Does it all just sound lazy?

Remember, a story is only as good as the words with which it’s told.

Sweaty Similes & Malodorous Metaphors

Try teaching a high school writing class and, inevitably, you’ll come across some rather interesting ideas of what makes a great simile or metaphor.

It isn’t uncommon to read vain attempts such as, ‘”Her eyes sparkled like a silver spoon,” or, “The clouds were cotton balls dancing through the sky.”

When you use literary techniques in your writing, do they make sense?  Do they add to the richness or meaning of the text?  After all, cotton balls don’t usually dance, and having one’s eyes compared to a spoon is hardly a compliment.

Better to use plain, direct language to get one’s point across than trying to force creativity down its throat.

How to Come Up Smelling Like Roses

Now that your nose has been offended by all that sniffing through your manuscript, you should have a fair idea of why your story stinks.

To avoid similar problems in the future, remember the following 5 key ways to improve your writing:

  1. Careful Organization: Great plots don’t just happen along the way–they should be planned before you ever start writing.  The initial time taken to plan major story events and essential elements will save you time spent revising.
  2. Memorable Characters: Create well-developed characters with strong motivations so your reader will identify with them.  Pay special attention to dialogue, ensuring it’s clearer and more direct than the way we speak normally, but still flows in a believable manner.
  3. Appropriate Pacing: Pace your story so points are neither belaboured or rushed.  Get to the inciting incident as soon as possible and make sure there’s a pleasing combination of action and repose throughout the text.
  4. Logical Word Choice: Choose your words carefully and economically.  Be strict about extra frills, using them only when highly appropriate.  Employ more efficient and effective language.
  5. Sensible Creativity: Avoid cliches–they’re the lazy way out of having to think.  If you use similes and metaphors, they must be original, make sense, and add to the story (rather than detract from it).

Stick to these guidelines, and you’ll never have to catch another whiff of your own writing-stench again.

You can read more by Suzannah on her blog Write It Sideways

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Suzannah Windsor Freeman

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